For Bedouin Israeli University Students, Remote Learning Is an Obstacle Course

Often with no internet access at home and weak cellphone connections in their unrecognized villages, they might start dropping out, educators fear

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Hassin Aldada, center, with his brother and others at home near Kseifa in the south, October 2020.
Hassin Aldada, center, with his brother and others at home near Kseifa in the south, October 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

When the universities closed down in the first wave of the coronavirus in March, Dida Abu-Kweider was hopeful. “I thought, yallah, online learning, we can rest,” she recalls. “It was nice.”

But soon she realized there would be no remote learning for her. Abu Kweider, 24, an administration and public policy major at Sapir Academic College, couldn’t get online to hear lectures.

In the unrecognized village near Be’er Sheva where she lives, there is no internet reception, and attempts to get online via smartphone failed one after the other.

“I bought packages from all the companies and none of them worked properly,” she says, still visibly upset over the experience. The modem she received from the college didn’t work either.

“For an hour and a half I’d try to get online and in the end didn’t hear anything. When I spoke, the lecturers said they couldn’t hear me clearly.” Eventually, Abu-Kweider gave up. “I realized that it only makes me depressed and pressured. Everything looked black.”

Many Bedouin students have had similar experiences in this year of the coronavirus. They discovered that on top of all the familiar difficulties – language and culture gaps, dropout rates and low matriculation rates – they suffer a digital gap that makes distance learning all but impossible.

Crowded conditions at home are another obstacle to distance learning. “At our house there are two computers and six brothers who need them,” says Hassin Aldada, 22, who lives in an unrecognized village near the nearby town of Kseifa.

“Sometimes you give it to one, sometimes to another. But the heart of the problem is the internet,” he says, or more precisely, a lack of internet.

The unrecognized village of Tel Arad in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Aldada, a communications student at Sapir, is near the end of his studies, and as long as he could, he went to campus to use a computer there. “But when there’s a full lockdown, there’s nothing,” he says.

The extent of these difficulties is clear in a recent study by Hama Abu-Kishk, a senior faculty member at Sapir’s Communications Department, and Yonatan Mendel of the Mofet Institute.

Of 257 Bedouin students in academic institutions in the south, 90 percent said they had “special difficulties” in distance learning, and more than half said they were likely or very likely to drop out as a result.

“We’re losing an entire generation of students, and this will lead to a growing socioeconomic gap and later, difficulty in finding work,” Abu-Kishk said.

What are these “special difficulties”? According to the study, one is availability of a computer. Only about half the students in the study had a computer, and most use their phone for this purpose.

Worse, about 65 percent have no access to an internet connection, thus the need to use a smartphone. But this is rarely a solution because their villages have little or no cell reception.

Abu-Kweider knows the problem well. After her initial despair, she decided to try to keep up her studies by any means necessary. With no internet at home, she would go to Be’er Sheva and seek a place with good cellphone reception.

“Luckily, I have a car, but most Bedouin women don’t,” she says. “Many of them aren’t allowed to go out except to school.”

Dida Abu-Kweider, an administration and public policy major at Sapir Academic College.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

But there are other restrictions. Ben-Gurion University, for example, won’t allow anyone in who isn’t a student or faculty member (“because of the coronavirus,” Haaretz was told).

“I wandered around Be’er Sheva looking for a place to study,” Abu-Kweider says. “I started to cry. Why do I deserve to suffer because I live in an unrecognized village?”

It turned out Abu-Kweider’s travails were unrecognized, too. She constantly found herself having to explain to her teachers that she couldn’t hand in assignments on time because of internet problems.

“They think we’re liars. They don’t understand that we have no reception, and it’s simply impossible,” she says.

One person well aware of the situation is Prof. Jihad El-Sana of Ben-Gurion University, who lives near the nearby town of Lakiya. “It’s a catastrophe,” says El-Sana, a computer sciences researcher also responsible for the Bedouin students at Ben-Gurion.

“Even at our house – and we’re in the upper tenth percentile in terms of quality internet connection – my daughter, who’s a student, asks us all to log out when she has an exam because she’s afraid it will go down.”

If a student’s internet goes down for more than a few minutes during an exam, that effort is disqualified.

According to El-Sana, the university has held meetings with the Education Ministry in the hope of letting students use schools’ internet infrastructure.

“But the Education Ministry says ‘we’ve got a problem too, we don’t have enough infrastructure for our students and teachers,’” El-Sana says. “At the moment there’s no solution. The only solution is to let the Bedouin students study on campus. Otherwise the year will be lost.”

Hassin Aldada, a communications student at Sapir Academic College.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The gateway is blocked

In recent years the number of Bedouin students in higher education has doubled; about 1,000 registered this year, with 4,200 in the system altogether.

Still, the rate of Bedouin students in higher education is low compared with the Jewish population. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, only 14 percent of Bedouin, compared with 46 percent of Jews, have enrolled in higher education in the decade following their graduation from high school.

The increase was achieved in part via years of effort by the Council for Higher Education. Academic preparatory courses in the Academic Gateway program were made available, but now the concern is that the program is in trouble.

“The program is built on a personal and intensive connection with the students – support and tutoring,” says Prof. Shifra Sagi, a member of the Council for Higher Education who takes part in efforts to increase Negev Bedouin’s access to academic studies. “Now this isn't possible, and students are cut off and their efforts are for nothing.”

It’s still not clear how many Bedouin students are dropping out, or how the transition to distance learning will affect registration for the coming year. But Sagi isn’t optimistic. “I’m afraid to look at the numbers,” she says.

Hitham Alnabari, a social work student at Sapir.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Amar Azbarga, head of Sapir College’s unit for access to education in Arab society, shares Sagi’s concerns.

“We’re talking about a population at the bottom of the ladder, with all the problems you can imagine,” he says, adding that economic difficulties and uncertainties can push 20-somethings out of college to support their families instead of investing in their academic future.

This is the dilemma faced by Hitham Alnabari, 22, a social work student at Sapir. He has a laptop but says internet access in his unrecognized village, Tel Arad, is “lousy.” It can take a few minutes to send an email.

“I have friends who say ‘that’s it. I’m stopping my studies until the coronavirus is over,’” he says. But he hasn’t given up. To study like his Jewish friends (or almost like them), he asked his relatives for a car so he could drive to a place with good reception – for example, a gas station on a main road.

At the end of the first lockdown things looked up a bit, Alnabari says. He could take the bus to Sapir, a trip of an hour and a half to two hours, even when there were no classes, and study there. The library was closed, but he found an empty classroom; that’s what he did at exam time as well.

Ironically, he would come to class, the only one there, to take the exams. “One time a teacher came into the room and I had to ask him to leave,” he says. “The proctor asked me on Zoom who I was talking to during the test.”

Now Alnabari is starting a new academic year, whose beginning at least will be via distance learning. He very much hopes he’ll be able to get to campus to study there – “but for that I have to have regular public transportation.”

Young men near Tel Arad.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Longing for the library

Spotty public transportation is only one of many bumps on the road for Bedouin students.

“When the coronavirus started we felt like we were losing them,” Azbarga of Sapir College says. “They didn’t hand in assignments, they didn’t log on to lectures. We started to make phone calls to find them. We tried to see how we could help.”

Azbarga says he hadn’t realized how important the campus environment was for the students, and not only because of lectures. The library, the ability to print out an article and read it on paper, tutoring – they all disappeared during the pandemic.

So the college handed out drives for internet access from a cellphone, helped students upgrade their cellphone packages, and asked the directors of nongovernmental organizations, community centers and public buildings to open their doors to students.

“But even there, reception wasn’t great," Azbarga says. “For example, we got a message from the director of the library in Rahat that the electricity went out just as the students were sitting for an online exam. He wanted to make sure it wouldn’t hurt their grade.”

Azbarga emphasizes the special difficulties of female Bedouin students. The men, he says, can at least go to a gas station or a recognized village to connect, but a woman’s family might be against it.

Sometimes families won’t let a young woman have lessons with a tutor the college has assigned. “If a female student has a male tutor, he won’t be allowed to call her when she’s at home,” Azbarga says. “What’s allowed on campus is not allowed at home.”

Hadil Abu Awida, an education student at Achva Academic College.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Prof. El-Sana is also worried about the female students. “On a typical day they come to campus in the morning and stay until evening for their classes and do all their assignments in the library,” he says.

“Now, not being able to come to the library, where will the women students study? They don’t have a room of their own, and when they’re home, they’re expected to help” with the chores.

El-Sana mentions one of his female Ph.D. candidates who would study in the laboratory until evening. “Last year she managed to publish three articles. In recent months – nothing. At home she doesn’t have the means,” he says.

The restrictions are even there for the women on Zoom lectures. “Most of the female students don’t turn their camera on and don’t speak,” says Hadil Abu Awida, an education student at Achva Academic College who lives in an unrecognized village near Kseifa. “If they have a problem, they’re embarrassed to say anything.”

She was like that in the beginning of remote learning, but opened up as the months went by. “It was scary at first – all the attention was on me. But now I participate just like in the classroom. You get used to it,” she says.

Abu Awida says she can see improvement in general. Last semester she didn’t have a computer so she used her phone. She wrote all her assignments by hand, photographed them on her phone and sent them in. Now the college gave her a computer and she has even written a book with it.

But while Abu Awida has moved ahead, Sondus Alsraiah, a 23-year-old communications major from Hura, is falling behind. Her camera has been turned off since the coronavirus began and she doesn’t think she’ll turn it on anytime soon. She says it’s because of “shyness,” and also because at home she doesn’t cover her hair, so she doesn’t want to be seen on camera without a head covering.

“It’s hard for me to understand anyway, so why make the effort? It’s hard to ask questions because it’s not the atmosphere of a classroom,” she says. “There was a time when I stopped ‘going to class’ this way, classes that I wouldn’t have missed over the past two years.”

Still, she has stayed the course. Today she’s a third-year student, hoping that this year she’ll complete her studies in the classroom.

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