Coronavirus Outbreak Forces Arab Countries to Consider Long-Ignored Online Education

/ 20 Mar 2020

Coronavirus Outbreak Forces Arab Countries to Consider Long-Ignored Online Education

(This article is one of two in a package. The other is “Palestine’s Universities Scramble to Move to Online Learning During Coronavirus Shutdown.”)

CAIRO—With the continuing global spread of the new coronavirus and some Arab countries responding by closing schools and universities, online education, though long disfavored, is now being seen as an essential means of continuing the educational process and avoiding students’ losing an academic year.

Countries like the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have announced the start of online-learning projects to provide alternative educational resources for students while regular classes are suspended. Other countries, like Egypt and Jordan, have announced their intention to resort to this method if they are forced to disrupt classes. (See a related article, “Coronavirus Fears Shut Down Universities and Schools in the Arab World.)

“There is an opportunity today to expand the use of online education and accept other types of education that are based on the use of modern methods of interaction and communication rather than being primarily dependent on face-to-face presence.”

Mona Magdy Farag   A professor in the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University

This new embrace of online education comes as a surprise to many, as digital learning has generally been marginalized, unrecognized and suspended in many Arab countries, whose educational systems still prefer traditional face-to-face teaching methods. (See a related article, “Distance-Education, Banned in Bahrain.”)

Some education experts see the current situation as a chance to use online education on a large scale and at various school and university education levels, and to enhance its image for potential use later as a basic educational method rather than an emergency one.

“There is an opportunity today to expand the use of online education and accept other types of education that are based on the use of modern methods of interaction and communication rather than being primarily dependent on face-to-face presence,” said Mona Magdy Farag, a professor in the Faculty of Mass Communication at Cairo University.

Concerns About Readiness

Samar Farah, director of research at the Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education, agreed that the coronavirus situation presents an opportunity to learn more about the potential of online education and accept its tools, and subsequently to win recognition of its results.

At the same time, she is wary that people may expect too much of the trial online-learning projects that have been booted up in a hurry because of the coronavirus closures.

“We should be careful not to jump to any conclusions about the effectiveness of online learning as a modality when implemented in such unique circumstances,” she said in an email.

She pointed out that there are some countries that have not adopted online learning at all in the past, and doing it quickly, she said, “it is likely that the necessary systems are not in place, the content is not appropriately designed, and faculty and teachers are not well prepared. But it is better than missing out on a few weeks or more of classes.”

Young people in the Arab region are open to adopting online learning “as a way to complement and/or supplement traditional education, which they do not feel is preparing them well for their careers,” a new study found.

Farag, the Cairo University professor, believes that students are more ready to engage in online education than their academic institutions are. “I do not think that most of the educational institutions are currently ready for such a transformation,” she said. “I think students are more prepared for that, being in greater contact with technology and because a number of them have previously enrolled in online courses.”

She also said that the biggest problem lies in the educational systems, where teachers, curricula and infrastructure may not be ready to provide a good level of educational service. (See a related article, “Egypt’s Universities Adopt E-Books in Move Towards Digital Learning.)

Positive Reviews From Students

Farag’s observations about students’ openness are in line with the results of pilot study conducted by the Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education. According to a policy brief titled “Online Learning in the Arab World: An Educational Model That Needs Support,” the study revealed that young people in the Arab region are open to adopting online learning “as a way to complement and/or supplement traditional education, which they do not feel is preparing them well for their careers.”

The study, conducted between October 2018 and January 2019, surveyed more than 1,000 Arab university students. It confirmed that online education is relatively common among Arab students, as more than 55 percent of those surveyed had participated in at least one educational course on the Internet.

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According to the study, students who used online learning did so for two main reasons: Forty-seven percent said they participated in online courses because they were interested in a topic not available at their universities, while 38 percent said they did so to gain more knowledge about the content they learned in the classroom.

However, the study results show that many Arab youth still have misconceptions about online learning that seem to limit their openness to enrolling in it, and the types of courses they would use it for, compared to traditional programs.

“We should be careful not to jump to any conclusions about the effectiveness of online learning as a modality when implemented in such unique circumstances.”

Samar Farah   Director of research at Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education

The top three concerns mentioned by students were that that they would not get support if they did not understand something (63 percent), that online courses are easier to pass than traditional programs (61 percent) and that there is no interaction between teachers and students (46 percent).

These misconceptions coincide with the fact that course certificates and training on the Internet are not recognized by Arab governments, nor are they widely accepted by employers.

On the other hand, the approximately 500 students in the study who had participated in online learning expressed their general satisfaction with their educational experience. Only 1 percent of those students reported that they would not recommend this type of learning to other students.

A majority (63 percent) of them, however, reported that their preferred model for studying was a “blended” form that combines face-to-face and online instruction.

“At the foundation, we think it is important to understand the perspectives of students to know how to better serve them,” said Farah.

Openness From Employers, Too

The study also asked 57 employers based in the Arab region about their views regarding credentials earned online. Although the study represents only a small sample of employers, Farah explained that the data shows that the business world is relatively open to online education and that it “values the quality and reputation of the institution that provides the degree more than the government accreditation for the certificate.”

Only one in four employers said they would prefer to hire someone with a traditional bachelor’s degree over someone who had earned the same degree from the same institution online, according to a new study.

Only one in four employers said they would prefer to hire someone with a traditional bachelor’s degree over someone who had earned the same degree from the same institution online.

In addition, over 80 percent said they would be open to hiring someone who earned a master’s degree online from a good quality international university.

Recommendations

The Al Ghurair Foundation’s study suggests two recommendations for improving the educational experiences and career prospects of youth in the region. The first calls for building stronger links between higher education and employment, and the second calls for recognizing new learning models and investing in online and blended-learning solutions for education and training.

It’s a coincidence that the foundation released its policy brief just as the coronavirus measures were being put in place, Farah said.

Still, she added, the foundation hopes that the brief “provides a strong case for governments to place greater investments in and recognition of online and blended learning as an alternative modality to increase access to higher education.”




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام