The negative impact of Covid-19 on education has been stronger in the Arab region than in other parts of the world, highlighting the need for governments to take action, according to a Unesco education official.
In an email conversation, Hana Yoshimoto, chief of education at Unesco’s office in Beirut, responded to questions posed by Al-Fanar Media about how the sudden shift to remote learning and reliance on education technology affected Arab countries and the challenges that policy makers now face. Following is a summary of that conversation.
“Aside from Gulf Cooperation Council countries, only 51.6% of households in Arab countries have Internet access,” Yoshimoto wrote. “Connectivity remains a challenging issue in the region, making online learning difficult.”
“Furthermore,” she added, “the majority of teachers were unprepared to shift from the traditional way of teaching and learning. Teaching through the use of digital devices requires some level of preparedness along with digital pedagogy and digital skills.” (See a related article, “Floods, Locusts, and Covid-19: Somali Students and Universities Struggle.”)
The pandemic disrupted education most in countries affected by conflict and poverty; it also exacerbated disparities between poor and rich countries and among classes within the same country. (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
“The negative impact of the pandemic will be felt disproportionately by vulnerable groups,” Yoshimoto said. “These include students from poor and rural areas, refugees, children with disabilities, especially girls who have higher dropout rates in the Arab region.”
Students at Risk of Falling Behind
The World Bank estimates that schoolchildren in the Middle East and North Africa region have on average already lost the equivalent of 0.6 years of education due to Covid-19 and that 10 percent of students have fallen below the minimum proficiency thresholds.
Prior to the crisis, Unesco estimated that 15 million children in the Arab region between the ages of 5 and 14 were out of school in 2018, from a total of 87 million. Another 10 million were at risk of dropping out due to poverty, social marginalization, migration, displacement, or disruption of infrastructure caused by conflict.
The worst-hit countries were Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
As a consequence of the crisis, the organization expects the number to increase by 1.31 million, with children failing to return to school in Arab states unless rapid action is taken.
“The inequities in education are paramount in all the Arab region, both in high and low-income countries.”
“The inequities in education are paramount in all the Arab region, both in high and low-income countries,” Yoshimoto said. She added that “teachers, pedagogy, assessments, teaching and learning tools catered for the vulnerable population are still significantly lagging behind.”
After more than a year of students continuing their education outside school, the evidence suggests that remote learning is here to stay. (See a related article, “Where Does Higher Education Go from Here?”)
Yoshimoto expects the future to involve open-source e-learning. This includes hybrid learning methodologies combining virtual and in-class attendance, personalized learning powered by artificial intelligence, and a re-focus on skills-based teaching and learning that adapts to trends in both the education sector and the labor market.
Impetus for Innovation and Creativity
“While the pandemic exposed the weaknesses of the education system globally, it also invigorated innovation and creativity in teaching and learning,” she said. “Redefining education and the role of educators is vital for policy makers in the Arab region, where passive learning is still heavily engraved at all levels of education.”
The shift toward digital teaching in many cases accelerated an existing transition. It underscored the important role that technology can play in all levels of education, as well as the need for further investment and policy initiatives to improve digital literacy training for both students and educators, and establish national guidelines and standards. (See a related article, “Literacies Teachers Need During Covid-19.”)
Yoshimoto noted that increased spending on health and economic stimulus and social safety nets during the pandemic came at the cost of reduced funding for education.
“It is imperative that governments in this region protect domestic financing and international aid to education now.”
“It is imperative that governments in this region protect domestic financing and international aid to education now,” she said. “Investment on the content of teaching and learning—not only on hardware—is expected to pay off and carry positive impact across the (United Nations’) Sustainable Development Goals in education.”
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A Unesco analysis found that investing now in remedial and re-enrollment programs could reduce the additional cost of education by as much as 75 percent.
“Measures being put in place must consider the immediate or short-term impact as well as potential prolonged impact on learning caused by the pandemic,” Yoshimoto said. “This would require simultaneous development, review, and updating of policies and operational arrangements of various issues within the education system,” she added.