Coronavirus drives remote learning’s acceptance in the Middle East and beyond

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School buses parked outside a closed school in Dubai. The new coronavirus has turned life upside down in Gulf societies. (AFP)
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Across the region, schools are shut, there are no shisha pipe sessions, streets, mosques and shopping malls are deserted, with drones patrolling the skies broadcasting public health warnings. (AFP)
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Across the region, schools are shut, there are no shisha pipe sessions, streets, mosques and shopping malls are deserted, with drones patrolling the skies broadcasting public health warnings. (AFP)
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Updated 24 March 2020

Coronavirus drives remote learning’s acceptance in the Middle East and beyond

  • Data shows pandemic is changing how education is imparted in schools and universities worldwide
  • With attendance suspended at education institutions, students are obliged to study from home

DUBAI: It has been 11 weeks since the World Health Organization’s (WHO) China office heard the first reports of a virus that officials suspected was behind an outbreak of pneumonia infections in Wuhan, an eastern city with a population of over 11 million.

Since then, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has gone from being an epidemic mainly limited to China to a global pandemic. The highly infectious nature of the virus has meant that increased numbers of students are now obliged to study from home.

According to UNESCO monitoring, over 120 countries have implemented nationwide school and university closures. The impact is being felt by over 70 percent of total enrolled learners globally.

In the US, one of the few countries yet to enforce a country-wide closure, at least 43 states have closed schools.


  • There is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus (COVID-19) infection.
  • The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus.
  • COVID-19 causes respiratory illness with symptoms such as cough, fever and, in more severe cases, difficulty breathing.

In the Middle East, governments have been quick to react, ordering mandatory suspension of attendance.

Even before the full closure of schools, data collected by global research company YouGov showed that 45 percent of parents in Saudi Arabia were taking voluntary measures to stop sending their children to school.

The reasons for taking precautions are compelling. COVID-19 spreads primarily through contact with an infected person who disseminates the virus by coughing or sneezing. It also spreads when a person touches a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.

While COVID-19 is especially dangerous for older people and those with underlying illnesses, studies have shown that people of all ages can become infected by the new virus.

The WHO has urged young people to avoid socializing in order to not risk communicating the virus to older, more vulnerable people. The organization now recommends “physical distance” to help prevent transmission of the virus.

“I have a message for young people: You are not invincible, this virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, said in a recent online message.


“Even if you don't get sick, the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.”

While businesses around the world are postponing and cancelling face-to-face meetings in order to slow the spread of infections, workplace learning is emerging as one of the earliest and hardest-hit business activities.

Based on McKinsey & Company observations, as of early March, roughly half of face-to-face learning programs through June 30, 2020 have been postponed or canceled in North America. In parts of Asia and Europe, the figure is closer to 100 percent.

In Saudi Arabia, YouGov’s COVID-19 tracker reports that 25 percent of employees are working from home, while in the UAE the corresponding figure is 29 percent. Both of these figures are expected to rise in the coming weeks.

Students, however, cannot afford to postpone their programs, and institutions are quickly learning to adapt.

Until the pandemic began, academic institutions had a history of pushing back against online learning.

Hong Kong students will learn from home as COVID-19 causes school closures. (AFP)

When Times Higher Education surveyed the leaders of prominent global universities in 2018 — 200 participants from 45 countries across six continents — the response was clear. Academics were skeptical about the potential for online learning.

Research comparing physical learning in a classroom over an online experience draws mixed conclusions.

Educational researchers Robert Bernard, Eugene Borokhovski and Richard Schmid, from the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance at Concordia University, Canada, told the Times Higher Education in 2018 that they knew of “no empirical evidence that says that classroom instruction benefits students (compared to alternatives) from a learning achievement perspective.”

More important than the medium was whether teachers could “capture and challenge the imagination, based on the learners’ pre-existing knowledge,” according to the researchers.

Given the lack of options for face-to-face learning under the circumstances, the world’s education system has been thrust into an e-learning experiment of unprecedented scale and scope.

While the process may be uncomfortable for parents, teachers and students alike, the opportunities for innovation are apparent.

“I think we’re seeing the way people live, the way people work, and the way people learn change,” said Amanda Line, partner at PwC Academy, a firm that specializes in finance and business education.

“At PwC Academy Middle East, we have changed our approach to training, to focus 100 percent on online live classrooms,” Line said.

“We all know that it’s very hard sitting on the other side of a screen.

“Our focus is on engagement and so we are investing in gamification, video, animation and live online interaction to ensure participation. You have to be engaged in order to learn.”

COVID-19 is indisputably one of the most urgent cross-border and cross-demographic problems in recent history. As such it has reminded people that the best organizations are those that collaborate generously with others.

UNESCO, for example, has developed a page with educational applications and platforms to help parents, teachers, schools and school systems facilitate student learning, as well as provide social care and interaction during periods of school closure.

Other platforms such as Coursera have also offered to be available globally to any university affected by COVID-19 for free.

On March 20 the audiobook platform from Amazon announced: “For as long as schools are closed, we’re open.”

In Saudi Arabia, where educational institutions have been closed since March 8 to contain the spread of the virus, the majority of schools and universities have implemented e-learning programs to enable students to continue their education.

To support university students and members, raise the quality of virtual classrooms and learning platforms, and improve access to national digital services, the Saudi Research and Innovation Network (Maeen) has teamed up with the Integrated Telecom Company. 

Laptops for students remotely learning in New York City. (AFP)

Their mission is to “increase the data quota between some of the Kingdom’s universities and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology free of charge,” according to the Saudi Press Agency.

In Dubai, where schools, colleges and nurseries have also been closed, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) has launched a new online platform for learning.

Parents, students and teachers in Dubai can take advantage of the platform, which features education products and services.

The portal has been launched to connect technology and well-being-based organizations with teachers, parents and students who are teaching and learning from home.

It will feature apps, websites and support that will be offered free of charge during the distance-learning period.

While the platform is available to use, KHDA is looking for support from the education and learning community to provide content and free access to resources.

“Many people in our community have been coming to us to offer or ask for help during this time,” Dr Abdulla Al-Karam, director-general of KHDA, said.

“This portal is one way of connecting those who have useful products and services with those who need them," Al-Karam said.

“In the last few days and weeks, it has become clear that for our community, the term distance learning applies to physical distance only.

“Socially and emotionally, we are more connected to each other than ever before. We’re all in this together. Distance brings us closer.”

In a matter of weeks, measures to halt the spread of a previously unknown virus that originated from a seafood market in China’s Wuhan city have changed how millions around the world are educated.

Pompeo begins Greece talks to calm eastern Mediterranean tensions

Updated 9 min 57 sec ago

Pompeo begins Greece talks to calm eastern Mediterranean tensions

  • Pompeo began his two-day visit by meeting Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in Thessaloniki

ATHENS: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began talks on Monday in Greece to de-escalate tension in the eastern Mediterranean and boost tentative steps at dialogue between Athens and Ankara.
Pompeo began his two-day visit by meeting Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in Thessaloniki. Neither side has released a statement.
“Thrilled to be back in Greece, a vital US partner with whom we share a common strategic vision,” the secretary of state tweeted on Monday.
“The strength of our bilateral relationship is at an all-time high, and I’m looking forward to a productive visit.”
Ahead of the trip, a senior US official said Washington was keen to tamp down the tension, reduce the likelihood of “accidents or incidents” and for Greece and Turkey to complete an agreement.
The two NATO members are at loggerheads over energy exploration in disputed waters after Ankara stepped up hydrocarbon research in the sea.
The row has roped in other European powers, raising concern about a wider escalation.
But last week Athens and Ankara said they were ready to start talks.
“Let’s meet, let’s talk and let’s seek a mutually acceptable solution. Let’s give diplomacy a chance,” Mitsotakis said on Friday to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an address to the virtual UN General Assembly.
Pompeo will fly to the Greek island of Crete on Tuesday and tour the NATO naval base of Souda Bay.
Mitsotakis – who is hosting Pompeo at his family home on Crete – wants closer military ties with the US.
The secretary of state signed defense agreement last October allowing US forces a broader use of Greek military facilities.
A key element of the October deal was the northern Greek port of Alexandroupolis, a Balkans and Black Sea gateway of strategic value to the US navy and NATO.
The US has been granted priority status to the port after paying roughly $2.3 million to remove a sunken dredging barge that had blocked part of the harbor since 2010.
At the time, Greek officials said the Pentagon was expected to invest over $14 million on the Greek air base of Larissa and around six million euros at Marathi, part of the Souda base.
The visit to Thessaloniki is also intended as a sign to the Balkans on American willingness to invest in the region, the State Department said.
Pompeo will sign a bilateral science and technology agreement, and host an energy sector gathering of business leaders.
Pompeo’s tour later in the week also includes stops in Italy, the Vatican and Croatia.
In Rome, the secretary of state will discuss efforts by the Trump administration to deter its European allies from using equipment by Chinese manufacturer Huawei in developing their 5G networks.
The US accuses Huawei of being a tool for Chinese espionage.
Pompeo is also scheduled to attend a meeting at the Vatican on religious freedom, his human rights priority. There, too, he will warn of China’s actions against minorities, including Muslims.