On 5th March, the day the first cases of Coronavirus were confirmed in Bethlehem, the Palestinian authority declared a state of emergency. They quickly closed all schools, universities and public institutions, and imposed a lockdown on movement within towns and cities. Decades of occupation had crippled the economy and starved public institutions to the point where it was all too clear that the health system would not be able to cope with a mass outbreak of Covid-19.
Not being able to access university, see colleagues and gather for lessons on campus is not a new experience for most Palestinian students and lecturers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Military orders closing campuses, roadblocks and checkpoints blocking travel, and even direct military attack on university facilities, have all been familiar features of Israel’s military occupation, now in its sixth decade.
Moving universities online
Following lockdown, Palestinian universities rapidly moved courses online, in some cases using systems that had been developed during earlier periods of closure. Birzeit University implemented its online teaching portal Ritaj, which they had first established in 2002 during the second Intifada when the proliferation of military roadblocks and incursions had made it increasingly difficult for students to access the campus.
Birzeit University has further responded to the current crisis by announcing major investment in improving its technical capacities and forming staff committees dedicated to adapting the learning experience online. When asked about Birzeit’s experience of the shift to e-learning, assistant to the President at Birzeit responsible for overseeing the move online, Dr Aziz Shawabkeh, was buoyant, “some people have even found some aspects of e-learning more convenient.” Indeed, Dr Shawabkeh was keen for the university to turn this latest challenge into an opportunity. Discussions had already begun among colleagues about how the university could use its experience of online learning to expand access to courses at Birzeit to Palestinian students unable to reach the university.
Overcoming obstacles to e-learning
But the success of online learning also depends on students having access to a laptop or tablet at home, and on having reliable internet, neither of which is very common in the West Bank or Gaza. All but one of the 19 Fobzu-UNRWA scholars at Birzeit and universities in Gaza currently own their own laptop or tablet, and most rely on slow 3G or 2G (in the case of Gaza where 3G is blocked by Israel) internet via phones. Students have responded creatively, forming WhatsApp study groups and sharing notes over the phone. But typing up essays and grappling with course material on a mobile is extremely difficult.
Earlier this month, Fobzu launched its Coronavirus Solidarity Appeal to raise funds to help us step up our support for students and academics in Palestine. With your help we will continue to provide scholarships for Palestinian students in financial need, strengthen links between UK and Palestinian universities and build awareness about the critical needs of Palestinian higher education. We are also working with UNRWA to provide laptops, tablets and internet access to Fobzu-UNRWA students at Birzeit and in Gaza currently struggling to access remote learning.
Click here to donate now.