Better deal? A woman inside a store in the northern West Bank city of Nablus compares online prices on March 5. (Xinhua/Xiong Sihao via Getty Images)

In Health Crisis, Virtual World Saves Palestinian Education, Business

With coronavirus lockdown, public, private sectors turn to remote communication

As novel coronavirus continues to spread in the West Bank, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Sunday ordered a two-week lockdown in Palestinian cities and villages, imposing a new reality of virtual communication.

Schools and universities in the Palestinian Authority have been shuttered since March 5, when the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in the West Bank. To limit the spread, private and public establishments moved office work and communications to remote methods requiring no physical contact.

The Education Ministry has been providing virtual classes for high school students on national TV, as well as via Palestine Live and the Al-Quds Educational Channel, which is affiliated with Al-Quds Open University.

The president of Al-Quds, Prof. Younes Amro, told The Media Line that two weeks ago, the ministry asked the university, which has had an e-learning system in place since 2008, to produce the virtual classes. The ministry is providing the teachers and educational materials, and the university is responsible for some of the production and broadcasting.

“For several years, Al-Quds University has aimed to have students rely on themselves for 70% of their studies by choosing books that support such learning methods, while our instructors still supervise and monitor the students through lectures and office hours,” Amro elaborated. “Additionally, in 2015 the university adopted a merged education system that includes the provision of virtual classes and educational materials online.”

He explained that since the government decided to close schools and universities, Al-Quds has been able to transfer 100% of its academic operations and communications online, up from the previous 40%, by using the university e-learning system.

“Our students resumed academic studies last week,” he said, “and it took us one week to prepare the studio and launch the High School Online Program. Currently, we are working to make the online classes interactive to enable students to interact with their teachers.”

Amro says that beyond sudden electricity and internet cuts routinely experienced in the West Bank, people’s understanding and acceptance of the e-learning culture remains the main obstacle to the initiative.

“The students, as well as their parents, need a good understanding of virtual learning and its tools and forms,” he stated.

Faten, a mother of junior and senior high school students who asked that he last name not be used, told The Media Line that some private schools already had communication platforms connecting the administration and teachers with students and parents.

“Now, with the coronavirus, we use that platform more than ever,” she said.

Faten noted that e-learning requires more work from students “in addition to constant monitoring by us [parents] to make sure they are on the computer and focused, including during exams.”

She added that families also needed to be prepared in terms of equipment, securing a stable internet service provider and a generator in case of electrical cuts.

Maria, a junior at a private high school who also asked that her last name, as well as the name of her school, be withheld, explained that e-class learning was now the only way for schools to operate.

“It’s weird,” she told The Media Line, “especially that we listen to teachers all the time without being able to see them or interact with them.”

For specific topics, there are discussions for which students can unmute their microphones and ask questions, although Maria still finds this far from satisfactory.

“In some classes, for instance chemistry, it’s better to watch the teacher use the board rather than only hearing and noting his explanation,” she said.

Dina Azouni, a leading Palestinian influencer and product manager at Yamsafer, an online hotel booking website, told The Media Line that the company’s communications were already 95% virtual before the coronavirus crisis, as its employees are located in different parts of the world.

“Even before the coronavirus, I used to get my work done most of the time without leaving my PC, using Slack, the communication app adopted by Yamsafer, as it connects me with my team members at all times and provides channels for discussions,” Azouni said.

She said that when the virus first began to spread, working in the office remained an option.

“The company didn’t pressure us to be in the office at all,” she said. “Now, we work remotely as a team, where we update each other….”

Hani Alami, chief executive officer of CoolNet, a service provider in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, told The Media Line that Palestinian internet services were better than those in many countries in the region, as well as the cheapest in the Middle East and Africa, as it used Israeli infrastructure, with very strong fiber optics.

“Internet service is available in every Palestinian city and village,” he said. “The whole country is covered thanks to the nature of Palestine’s geography, which has enabled most Palestinian families to have internet. In the US and other advanced countries, such comprehensive coverage doesn’t exist.”

Alami notes, however, that “Israel controls the electricity and internet sources… in addition to the occupation’s complicated measures and constant approvals needed to provide Gaza with internet.”

“For those who are able to subscribe to an internet service,” he said, “at least it works.”

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