The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has required Egypt to rediscover its technological infrastructure after many people have been asked to work from home, the government has launched online learning for school and university students, and some government services have gone online as precautionary measures to ensure social-distancing and help to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.
Chair of the Egyptian African Businessmen Association Yosri Al-Sharqawi said the coronavirus outbreak had led to more people working remotely at a time when Egypt’s digital infrastructure was not always ready to embrace this practice. Working remotely is appropriate for some clerical and oversight jobs, he said, though other jobs require people to be at their regular workplace. He also said it required a high-speed Internet connection, appropriate software including online conferencing and employee-monitoring software, and a quiet work space at home.
Egypt’s workforce is composed of some 30 million employees, Al-Sharqawi said, and working from home could save 20 to 25 per cent of the cost of transportation, as well as other costs of working in offices. “But Egypt is only 30 per cent prepared to work from home,” he said, adding that while online sales have spiked since the outbreak began, other purchases have dropped since people have focused on buying basic necessities such as food and medicine rather than non-essential items. People may also be worried about going to the shops, supermarkets, and malls in order to avoid crowds and possible contamination.
Online government services have helped many, including by issuing subsidised ration cards and driving licenses online. However, Al-Sharqawi said he wanted to see more services go online, including legal services. The speed and capacity of the Internet to efficiently provide such services was also an issue, he said.
For Walid Mohamed Eid, a member of the Division of the Digital Economy and Technology at the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, the pandemic is an opportunity for anyone working in computing, since many employers have asked their staff to work from home, and the Ministry of Higher Education has also instructed university students to complete their academic year remotely.
Eid said that software companies have grown because the government and employers are encouraging working from home, and this has been a perk for software developers that offer educational platforms, video-conferencing, or remote-working applications.
The cost of these programmes can range from $5 to $100 depending on the nature of the work, the subscription, and the number of employees. An individual’s subscription within an organisation could vary between $10 and $15, Eid said, with costs for private-sector companies being different from government firms. He said that software companies were likely to grow even more in September at the start of the new academic year in the light of calls to continue online education.
Various online platforms have different functions depending on company needs. The education sector is most in need of remote-learning software since there are more than 22 million students in Egypt, with the most popular platforms being Zoom, Blackboard, and Moodle. There is a need for strong infrastructure since nearly all institutions are now working remotely. Programmers are working on launching new software compatible with the state education system, including a version of the popular Edmodo software.
Eid said that although many sectors have welcomed working remotely, it was more difficult to rely on this in sectors such as manufacturing and transportation. For Mohamed Reda, an education technology specialist and CEO of a creative education company, the pandemic has forced global companies, including the technology giants Google and Microsoft, to provide some social platforms for free.
The Ministry of Education has signed an agreement with one digital platform to connect students and teachers online, and some Egyptian software companies are offering free services to the education sector, such as videos to educate parents about digital learning, e-books, online schoolwork, and ways to stay connected with school.
Websites such as Udemy, Coursera, and MaharaTech, the first free Arabic IT platform that now has some 500,000 students, are offering online services for free. A website called e3melbusiness is helping business administration students. Reda said that online learning had grown by 45 per cent after the virus outbreak, with the services provided by online learning software companies being divided into three parts.
There were companies that already had educational content but could not market it before because of low demand that now have opportunities to sell it to the education sector, he said. There were companies that had educational websites, games, or videos that are now giving discounts to encourage more traffic, and there were companies pushing out content such as educational games and online lessons, he said.
Some software companies were selling education management systems starting at LE50,000 and going up to LE250,000, Reda said, with the cost of online training sessions varying between LE500 and LE3,000. The sales of remote-learning platforms and companies had jumped by 20 to 30 per cent.
Reda said that over the weeks and months to come companies working in education and training would need to invest more in online learning by increasing the number of platforms and promoting remote-learning because it could save time and cost and encourage participation. He also anticipated more focus on the digital infrastructure in use in schools and universities and using new educational platforms.
DIGITAL BASE: Economist Sherif Delawar said the technological revolution had impacted many sectors including education, consumption, and production. “The notion of working from home and remote learning was there well before the Covid-19 outbreak,” he said, “but people are paying more attention to it now in order to maintain social-distancing in schools, workplaces, and other areas.”
He said Egypt needed a strong digital base, effective software for remote-learning and working, and the spread of high-speed Internet connections for this to take place. He urged greater digital transformation in the industry as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution since Egypt had the human resources to stay abreast of industrial developments around the world.
Fadi Ramzi, a professor of digital media at the American University in Cairo, said students in his classes had welcomed switching to online lessons. They could watch recorded lectures at any time, learn without leaving their homes which saved time and money, and take part in 90-minute live meetings between students and teachers, he said.
The pandemic had also promoted self-learning as local and global educational platforms were providing free training for two to three months to encourage people to improve their practical and technical skills. Some companies in Egypt had already allowed working from home for a couple of a days a week, especially larger companies, to save time and costs for employees, he said, but now working from home had become common practice across all sectors due to the virus outbreak. Many companies and government offices have reduced the number of their staff by half in some cases to ensure social-distancing.
Companies now hold virtual meetings using platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams, Ramzi said. Zoom was the most popular meeting platform, with growing users every day because it is user-friendly and provides a variety of tools and options, he added, whereas Microsoft Teams provides a comprehensive system to manage the work team.
One of the biggest challenges to working at home, Ramzi said, could be the presence of other family members. Nonetheless, this had resulted in more flexibility and understanding from employers when there were domestic interruptions, he added.
He expected more online sales even after the outbreak ends, especially since online sellers such as Souq.com and Jumia have made special offers to boost sales. He said the sector that would likely change the most after the crisis was education, since remote-learning had been very successful. “Schools and universities will revise how they present their curricula to students,” Ramzi said. “I expect a portion of the curriculum will be online learning.” He also expected large companies to encourage their employees to work more from home since this could save time and money.
Mahmoud Al-Hefnawi, the CEO of a software company, said online learning software had become very popular since many institutions were choosing education from home. Private and international schools and universities in Egypt were the top users of the software, he said, and the most-used applications were those connecting students, teachers, and parents. Software that allows teachers to upload files and presentations for students and receive assignments was also popular, he said, with subscription costs being around LE100 per student. He said that a key feature of remote-learning was the ability to record lessons and watch them at any time, though it could be difficult for teachers to manage tests.
Al-Hefnawi said many private and international schools in Egypt preferred buying software and platforms that enabled them to remotely manage their finances, at a cost of LE40,000 to LE50,000 annually. The purchase of learning apps had risen by 50 per cent and would continue to grow as many international universities were pivoting towards online learning, he said. He added that one potential problem was a lack of recognition of online certification, though this would change. Even though the communications infrastructure has improved in Egypt, it had been challenged by the high demand for remote communication, he said.
Minister of Education Tareq Shawqi announced at the start of the coronavirus outbreak that the ministry would use educational channels on television to help key grades, and a website has been created to help students to study from home from primary to prep school. Content for final preparatory and secondary schools has been uploaded online via the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB), and remote learners have been sent instructions on exams.
The ministry is using its own digital content on EKB, as well as content from companies such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Discovery Foundation, the York Press, Designmate, Wolfram, and Nahdet Misr.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly