(This article is one of two in a package. The other is “Next Steps for New Online Courses: Measure Learning, Prevent Cheating.”)
Across the Arab region, academic leaders are struggling with how to assess students for a spring semester transformed hurriedly into distance education, as well as when and how to reopen shuttered campuses.
The transition to online education has gone fairly smoothly in the oil-rich Gulf countries, with their well-developed high-speed Internet networks and high rates of laptop ownership. In less affluent countries, like Egypt and Morocco, authorities have scrambled to put university lectures on television since many students cannot access online courses.
Examinations are a thorny problem. Many countries have already canceled final exams at universities and extended the suspension of educational activities nationwide. For example, in Egypt, the Supreme Council of Universities said it will replace in-person exams with either a research paper or online exams.
“For now, there is no other choice,” said Abdul-Azim El-Gammal, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Suez Canal University. “This is ideal for the current situation.”
Students have a different view of end-of-the-year assessments. In Algeria, university students will have to take online exams by the end of June. “Most of us students have not been able to continue our study online due to weak Internet connections and lack of personal laptops and smartphones,” said Kachtal Ramzi, a student at the University of Science and Technology Houari Boumediene. “So, how can we take the exams? This is not fair and logical.”
Globally, 58 out of 84 countries surveyed in a rapid global analysis conducted by UNESCO had postponed or rescheduled exams and 23 introduced alternative methods such as online or home-based testing.
Countries in Conflict
In war-torn Libya and Yemen, authorities have had to accept that their countries will simply lose several months of university education. Libyan university departments struggled to give students online access to courses. But after two weeks, the country’s two rival governments both decided to end the attempts and instead declared April and May a vacation. Universities are now expecting to reopen in June and continue through the end of August, normally the time of the annual break.
In Yemen, in the midst of a crippling civil war, hunger, and widely damaged infrastructure, the rival authorities in the North and the South closed campuses. Universities have little or no capacity to continue education online.
Elsewhere, better funded public and private institutions were developing online courses using dedicated educational platforms, like Blackboard and Moodle, which support linked video and text resources and communication with the instructor, well before the pandemic. Others have been rushing to simply record lectures and put them online or broadcast them on TV.
“Most of us students have not been able to continue our study online due to weak Internet connections and lack of personal laptops and smartphones. So, how can we take the exams? This is not fair and logical.”Kachtal Ramzi
A student at Algeria’s University of Science and Technology Houari Boumediene
Fear of Cheating
In most if not all Arab countries online education is not officially authorized, though education ministries have widely overlooked this in the current crisis. (See a related article, “Coronavirus Outbreak Forces Arab Countries to Consider Long-Ignored Online Education.”)
One of the main reasons for the lack of accreditation of online learning is the fear of cheating. After all, it seems easy for an ill-prepared student to look up answers on the Internet or get an older sibling or smart friend to take an online test for them.
At a number of institutions, educators had impassioned discussions on how best to measure the student learning that happened while campuses were closed. One solution is special software, such as the Respondus LockDown Browser, which prevents a computer from searching the web or performing other functions while a student is taking an exam. Sometimes it is used with a program that monitors the test taker through the computer’s video camera.
Institutions in various countries have tried such software, but students have generally objected to it. Already stressed by stay-at-home rules and the sudden switch to online learning, students say it represents an invasion of their privacy and only adds to their stress.
In response, a large number of universities have ended up urging faculty members to assess student performance in online classes on the basis of research projects, analytical papers, or similar tasks in which they integrate the information they have learned. In smaller classes, for example in graduate programs, some professors are doing oral exams, although this can be very time consuming.
In a region often criticized for its old-fashioned teaching methods focused on memorization, “a small number of faculty members said, ‘No way; I need proctored exams’,” said Maha Bali, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo who has been training faculty members in setting up online courses. (See a related article, “Literacies Teachers Need During Covid-19.”)
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Some professors have been allowed to give conventional exams online using the lockdown and monitoring software. But “many faculties and departments [at AUC ] have decided it is too stressful for students and banned its use,” Bali said.
In Qatar, Georgetown University’s campus in Education City gave students the final say about such test-monitoring software. “We decided to only use it in a class if all the students agree,” said Ahmad Dallal, dean of Georgetown in Qatar. He said students gave their assent in a few courses.
A Two-Track Approach
Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco’s largest institution, has taken a two-track approach. Students enrolled in the most selective academic programs will take their final exams online. “To avoid cheating,” says Omar Hniche, the vice president for academic and student affairs, or provost, “we asked instructors to choose questions that require reflection, or to use oral exams.”
Students in the larger open enrollment programs will have to wait until the reopening of campuses, tentatively planned for September, to take conventional, in-class exams. (The final exams help weed out considerable numbers of weaker students from these programs and are seen as more prone to cheating.)
Moreover, in Morocco, exams will only cover material taught in class up to mid-March, when the national health authorities ordered schools and campuses shut. “We continue teaching the semester’s material so that students will be prepared to enter the next semester,” says Hniche. But like many other institutions in the Maghreb, Mohammed V feels it would be unfair to test students on the new material, since a considerable number have been unable to access the online courses. “For a question of equity, the exams will only be on what was taught in class,” he says.
Institutions have made other accommodations. For example, Qatar University, the country’s single, large public institution, reduced the weight of the final exam in grading, while raising the weight of class assignments and final projects.
And many universities have either switched to pass/fail grading or have given students the choice between normal grading or pass/fail.
Decisions on Reopening
Meanwhile, higher-education authorities across the region are trying to decide when to reopen their campuses, weighing health risks against lost education and trying to find the proper balance.
In Lebanon, Saint Joseph University of Beirut may be one of the first to reopen. On May 25, final-year students will resume on-campus classes, with all other students returning on June 8. Yet the return will be carried out with strict precautions. Carla Eddé, Saint Joseph’s vice-rector for international relations, said in an interview that large lectures will be canceled, class times will be staggered to have fewer people on campus at the same time, classrooms will be disinfected between classes, and face masks will be widely used.
“Distance education can never replace classroom education, especially for weaker students.”Omar Hniche
Vice president for academic and student affairs at Mohammed V University in Rabat
Higher education officials across the region are planning similar precautions for when students return to their campuses. Some say they plan to open their campuses gradually, at first allowing only final-year students and students in disciplines that need to use laboratories or other campus facilities.
Syria, Tunisia and Libya are eyeing a return to campuses in June. However, the General Tunisian Union of Students (UGET) and some faculty members oppose the move, which they see as an unacceptable health risk, and student representatives are negotiating with authorities at both the national and the university levels to try to delay the plan.
And in Libya, university officials say they expect to learn only at the end of May the decisions of the country’s two rival national authorities, which may coordinate their plans. That will leave universities with only a few days to prepare for a June opening, either on campus or online.
Contingency Plans for the Fall
In Egypt, national authorities have told universities not to reopen before next fall. Even so, the American University in Cairo is making contingency plans to break the semester into shorter blocks of six weeks “to allow us more agility” to move between on-campus and online education, depending on the evolution of the pandemic, according to AUC’s provost, Ehab Abdel-Rahman.
A number of the Gulf states are eyeing a possible reopening of campuses in the fall. Palestinian universities are planning to reopen in early September. Morocco is looking to open campuses in September for delayed exams from the spring semester and then to start a delayed fall term on campus in October.
Many administrators at institutions report significantly increased enrollments for online summer sessions from people who lost their employment and want to use their free time constructively, and from students seeking to reinforce their sometimes-shaky spring semesters. It seems that those lucky enough to have good Internet access want to take advantage of it.
Meanwhile, across the region, some well-funded universities have given tablet or laptop computers to students and faculty members who lacked them to help them participate in online education, and some have beefed up professor’s Internet connections. “The university sent technicians to my house to install better Internet,” said Abaher El-Sakka, a professor of sociology at Birzeit University, a leading Palestinian institution.
In Libya, the national authorities have been in talks with the country’s three big telecom companies to provide free highspeed cellular data to students and professors. (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
All in all, the past couple of months have been a learning experience for universities. “Distance education can never replace classroom education, especially for weaker students,” said Hniche, Mohammed V’s provost in Morocco. “But we have no choice.”
Many students are not enthusiastic about their online experience. “We did not learn much this year,” said Leila Ismail, a student in the computer science faculty at Al-Nahda University, a private university south of Cairo. “We are almost like mice being tested in the labs to see how we react with online learning. Still, this should not be the situation next year. We should get better-qualified education, I pray.”
Al-Fanar Media reporters interviewed nearly 30 sources—students, professors and administrators—for this article. Tarek Abd El-Galil and Riad Mazzouzi contributed interviews.