ASSIUT—Egypt’s public universities started using electronic textbooks instead of printed books this year as the first step in a controversial plan to move the country’s higher education system toward a digitally “smart” university system within two years.
“I think this is an important and significant shift in the development of higher education, using advanced methods to provide educational services,” said Tarek El-Gammal, a professor of orthopedics and president of Assiut University.
Some faculty members and students, however, have raised concerns about the plan, and worry about the potential cost to families.
The new system is being adopted in three stages. The first phase, which is under way now, is to provide the curriculum on CDs instead of books. Later, these curricula will be uploaded to the university website, and finally the curricula will be converted into interactive courses linking professor and students.
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The new system is being applied in all faculties at six Egyptian universities: Assiut, Ain Shams, Kafrelsheikh, Helwan, Suez and Cairo Universities. The system is also being put in place in a limited number of faculties at the other 21 public universities. It is expected to be applied in all colleges starting from the second semester of the current academic year.
Differing Views on Costs
“Introducing the e-book system aims to reduce the economic burden on the university and on students and parents, and to confront the printed books ‘mafia’ which exploits students by selling books at high prices,” said El-Gammal, of Assiut University. He estimated that the cost of e-books for the entire academic year would not exceed half the cost of printed ones. (The average price of books for an academic year at Assiut’s Faculty of Arts, for example, is about 700 Egyptian pounds, equivalent to $42).
A number of students, however, disagreed with El-Gammal’s views about the cost. The switch to e-textbooks requires a computer or at least a tablet for each student, requiring an additional purchase that is not possible for many.
“The cost of studying has become so high,” said Kholoud Mohammed, a third-year student at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Science, who is one of three sisters studying at the university. “My father can’t provide three computers for all of us,” she added.
“Introducing the e-book system aims to reduce the economic burden on the university as well as students and parents.”Tarek El-Gammal
A professor of orthopedics and president of Assiut University
Prices of new laptop computers range from 7,000 Egyptian pounds ($425) to 25,000 pounds ($1,500), while the price of used devices is about 3,500 pounds ($212). The price of a textbook on a compact disc in some faculties ranges from 200 Egyptian pounds ($12) to 700 pounds ($42), while in practical colleges such as medicine and pharmacy the cost of a CD text hits 1,500 pounds ($90). Accordingly, the average cost of a used computer and one or more e-textbooks comes to about 5,000 pounds (US $300).
A Similar Effort in Secondary Schools
The implementation of an online course system in universities will come one year after the completion of a similar system in secondary schools.
The introduction of digital learning technology at the secondary level in 2017 aroused great controversy, with criticism focusing on the lack of adequate infrastructure and Internet access in most schools, and the frequent breakage of the tablets given to students, plus the constant need to charge the devices. Some also criticized the health damage that may be caused by constant exposure to these devices’ screens, such as visual strain and curvature of the spine. (See a related article, “Egypt Debates Introducing Electronic Textbooks.”) However, the new system continues at Egyptian schools for the second year in a row.
“A high school student cannot study on tablets and return to printed books upon joining the university,” said Mohammed Ali, a professor of curriculum and instruction methods at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Education. “The transformation of universities is a logical development of Egypt’s education reform system.”
“There is no system that protects copyright in e-courses. Thousands of copies can be copied without the author’s approval.”Mohammed Kamal
A professor in the faculty of arts at Kafrelsheikh University
Ali added that the new system and the shift toward interactive digital education would help reduce overcrowded classrooms, a big problem for all public universities.
Obaid Abdul-Ati, president of Damanhour University in northwest Cairo, agrees with Ali about the advantages of a shift to digital books.
“This is a first step toward adopting a more sophisticated teaching and learning system that would later include electronic exams, which means stopping the waste of millions of papers and providing additional time for teachers to research instead of being occupied with marking exam papers,” he said.
A Professor’s View
Mohammed Kamal, a professor in the faculty of arts at Kafrelsheikh University, north of Cairo, believes it would be better to combine electronic textbooks and printed ones in the curricula, instead replacing one format with another.
“There is no system that protects copyright in e-courses. Thousands of copies can be copied without the author’s approval,” he said. “The shift is also contributing to a halt in the already troubled book printing industry. So we have to balance both.” He is concerned that books for universities are a core part of publishers’ revenue, and making those books electronic could put publishers out of business, which would in turn cause a loss of jobs in Egypt.
But Kamal said he was happy with attempts to develop education. “it should not stop at this, but universities should also provide students with access to sites in the Egyptian Knowledge Bank related to their studies.”
Giving student electronic books needs to be accompanied by working with professors, he said. “Switching to digitization is good, but a lot of preparation is needed, including training the university professor to deal with interactive courses, for example,” said Mohammed Ali. “You can’t leave it like what happened in high schools. Teachers have not been well trained and most may not have been trained in the new system.”