NREN COVID-19 response in the Middle East
1) COVID-19 response of EUMEDCONNECT3 partners
- As regional networking organisation for the Arab region, ASREN pro-actively initiated biweekly video calls with all associated NREN partners (i.e. EUMEDCONNECT3, North African AfricaConnect3 and Gulf NRENs) for exchange of best practise, knowledge transfer and an opportunity to learn from each other how to best contribute to the continuation of education provision and research activities during the pandemic.
- NRENs are not only providers of connectivity to their member institutions but are also regarded as trusted brokers to secure deals in the commercial world, such as reduced 4G charges for students and innovative service providers, such as videoconferencing and LMS platforms developed specifically for the R&E communities. They are also involved in the discussions of optimising remote student assessment.
Following is an overview of support activities by each partner:
- Universities associated with Lebanon’s NREN, TechCARE, have swiftly transitioned to distance learning and working from home with voice over PowerPoint and recorded videos for asynchronous lessons, and webconferencing tools (Zoom, Webex and MS Teams) for real-time communications sessions.
- TechCARE-associated universities are using Respondus as an online proctoring tool for online student assessment [Respondus].
- TechCARE secured reduced 4G charges for students via concerted lobbying towards the Ministry of Higher Education and Ministry of Telecoms.
- The American University of Beirut (AUB) shared its own experiences (online virtual labs, teaching in times of crisis, working from home) with other universities, and has received recognition from EDUCAUSE, a non-profit association of IT leaders and professionals that helps higher education elevate the impact of IT [EDUCAUSE].
- No NREN has been established yet and the major obstacles remain adequate connectivity and access to affordable tablets, PCs, etc.
- The Ministry of Higher Education has developed a portal for teaching content to be uploaded for grades 1-12 [Palestine_eLPortal]. Recorded lessons are being broadcast by local TV stations and a dedicated YouTube channel. Students and teachers communicate also via social media groups.
- Universities have their own open educational resources (OER), with Al-Quds Open University leading.
- 3 TV channels have been allocated for delivering primary and secondary education.
- Platforms such as NoorSpace [NoorSpace] and Darsak [Darsak] have been created to enable the provision of educational material and videos in addition to exams and evaluation for public education.
- ISPs have provided extra bandwidth to students and also in the rural areas.
- Big private schools use their own systems and tools for education and evaluation and follow-up.
- JUNET (the Jordanian NREN) has continued to provide internet services only to public universities. ASREN might intervene with the Ministry of Higher Education to extend provision also to the private ones.
- A key EUMEDCONNECT3 user, the SESAME Synchrotron facility in Jordan re-opened in May. During lockdown scientists advanced specifications for the beamlines and continued working with beamline users on different projects, particularly in the area of cultural heritage. "With enormous passion, and long days of curfew, it became possible to speed up the data analysis of painted and gilded architectural wall fragments from Petra, that is soon to be submitted for publication by the international research team working on the project from Jordan and Germany, together with SESAME" said Beamline Scientist, Gihan Kamel.
- Ministerial committee formed to supervise the transition to e-learning at 85 private and public universities.
- Some universities (e.g. such as the University of Information and Communication Technology) have data centres to host learning platforms.
- Agreement signed between the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Communications to rebuild the Syrian Higher Education and Scientific Research Network (Shirin).
- Syrian Virtual University active in continuing provision of education digitally, offering tools also to other universities.
2) COVID-19 response of Gulf Countries
- The Saudi Research and Innovation Network, Maeen, secured up to 50% capacity increase at no extra cost for connected members.
- Maeen is providing unlimited access to the Zoom collaboration service hosted on the Maeen Cloud.
- Maeen is providing unlimited bandwidth access to e-learning providers in KSA.
- OMREN has managed to convince the government to allow videoconference tools that were previously not permitted (e.g. Zoom and Google Classroom).
- OMREN has configured and launched the filesender service Mirsal [Mirsal].
- ISPs are providing free access to all edu.om domains from mobiles and home for students to access materials at their schools and colleges. This was achieved as a result of significant lobbying by OMREN.
- The Ministry of Education is broadcasting lessons through Oman TV.
- The IT team of the UAE NREN Ankabut has created an online learning ecosystem, primarily for Khalifa University, with a variety of virtual classroom platforms to choose from (BigBlueButton, MS Teams, Blackboard Collaborate) and provided training for faculty and students.
- Bandwidth has been ramped up.
3) Tools developed by the R&E community
- GÉANT is fast-tracking and making available new services that facilitate communication and collaboration, such as eduMEET [eduMEET]. Developed by the R&E community for the R&E community, eduMEET offers a low-cost, easy-to-use, secure, trusted VC service for small to medium-sized groups, with screen sharing, file sharing and chat facilities. Although still at Beta stage, it forms a key part of the Up2U NGDLE platform and is already being widely used. Examples include:
- By a university lecturer, to deliver lectures to students, and by the students themselves, who are creating virtual rooms in which to do their group work.
- By a school’s extracurricular theatre group, for their drama sessions, and by the pupils themselves, to chat after the session has finished.
- By the R&E networking community, for regular meetings and as a virtual open office for ad hoc team communication throughout the day.
- EUMEDCONNECT3 partners have trialled this videoconferencing platform among their user constituencies.
- The EU-funded Up2U (Up to University) project, in which GÉANT and a number of European NRENs are project partners, has announced that openUp2U, a version of its trusted, remote learning platform, will be available to all schools and universities across Europe, in an effort to support continued learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Up2U platform is a next-generation digital learning environment (NGDLE) that is modular, interoperable, highly customisable and portable. Based on open source technology developed by European not-for-profit organisations and research institutions such as CERN, it offers services such as course management, videoconferencing and file sharing integrated into a learning management system so that teachers and students can collaborate in real time, supporting remote learning and educational support.
These services include:
- Moodle – a course management system based on a free open source software package designed to help educators create effective online courses.
- eduMEET – an open source web-based videoconferencing platform developed in the GÉANT (GN4-3) Project that provides a self-hosted, secure and trustworthy environment for distance learning. eduMEET is currently in Beta stage.
- SWAN – a turn-key platform to produce digital notebooks to be created in a simple web interface – with text, code, pictures and video – that can be stored in CERNBox.
- CERNBox powered by EOS and ownCloud – the Sync and Share storage solution for science, that allows students and teachers to work and collaborate anytime and anywhere from their mobile devices.
Although currently available only in Europe, work is underway to create national instances in other world regions.