Editor’s note: The author is a co-founder and managing partner of the Middle East and North Africa Region for Edu Alliance. This is an edited version of a column that is also appearing on Edu Alliance’s website.
Where Does Higher Education Go from Here?
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Higher education leaders in the Middle East and neighboring regions are generally upbeat about the results of the experiment in online learning that the Covid-19 pandemic forced on them, but many say the experience also exposed a number of problems that need to be addressed for e-learning to be used effectively.
Those are among the findings of an informal survey I conducted over the past fortnight, asking a dozen leaders from a range of universities and colleges in the Gulf states, India and Kazakhstan for their perspectives on the future of higher education in a post-Covid-19 world. Given the wide spectrum of institutions they lead, rather than administering a typical quantitative questionnaire, I asked them open-ended questions.
Their comments delve into a number of areas of higher education uniquely affected by the widespread shutdowns imposed to halt the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. These areas included e-learning, enrollment changes, jobs for new graduates, new programs and majors, international students and staff mobility. A brief summary of their perspectives follows. More details will be presented in subsequent blog posts.
A) On the effectiveness of online learning provisions during the shutdowns:
Many of the leaders surveyed shared the pleasant surprise of Khaled Assaleh, provost of Ajman University, in the United Arab Emirates, at the speed at which faculty and students embraced online learning. “It was a positive and pleasant surprise that things went better than most universities anticipated in terms of course delivery, student responsiveness, and faculty adaptation to this mode of delivery,” Assaleh said. “Even student attendance has been better than face-to-face classes.”
Thomas J. Hochstettler, a commissioner of the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) of the emirates’ Ministry of Education, observed that, “first, higher education institutions, by and large, grasped immediately the challenges of converting to e-learning, mid-semester and … faculty and administrators alike threw themselves heart and soul into the herculean task. … Second, many institutions have in the process become Learning Organizations.”
“First, higher education institutions, by and large, grasped immediately the challenges of converting to e-learning, mid-semester and … faculty and administrators alike threw themselves heart and soul into the herculean task. … Second, many institutions have in the process become Learning Organizations.”
About half of the respondents saw effective learning in this format. Ammar Kaka, provost and vice principal of Heriot-Watt University, Dubai, noted, “I think we can do a lot and effectively online, and the last four weeks demonstrated this. Both our staff and students engaged very well.”
T.G. Sitharam, director of the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati, India, projects a bright future for e-learning in his country. “India already has such a huge collection of online course modules and … can certainly take a lead in providing solutions for online teaching and learning throughout the world.”
However, some key issues have also been pointed out. Vidya Yeravdekar, pro chancellor of Symbiosis International University, in Pune, India, observed that faculty members had to adapt to online learning “all of a sudden. … This was more of a reactive approach and not proactive”.
Yusra Mouzughi, vice-chancellor of Muscat University, in Oman, cautioned, “What we have seen in many cases … has not necessarily been e-learning but delivery of the same (traditional) material on a virtual platform. E-learning has a different pedagogical base.” Universities will be best served in the coming months by keeping this warning in view, reflecting on and refining their pedagogy, delivery and assessment to be more appropriate to and effective in the e-learning mode.
The president of a smaller college in Dubai, who preferred to remain anonymous, was not optimistic about the staying power of wholly online learning at his institution, “partly due to our college’s student body which is mainly non-traditional.” However, along with many other respondents, he was optimistic about “a significant long-term change … in the level of acceptance of the regulators regarding distance learning.” This development, if realized, will be of major consequence to the Middle East and North Africa region, where many regulators generally do not accredit fully online or distance learning programs.
Assem Al-Hajj, president of Khawarizmi International College, in Abu Dhabi, shares this hope. “Higher education institutions will be hoping that authorities will be fast to approve this move,” he said.
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In the long-term, for sustainable adoption of online learning, Internet access was identified as a constraint across all the countries that the respondents hail from. Gilbert Linne, vice president for academic affairs at KIMEP University, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, noted that “the bandwidth that is available … has proved to be challenging as the faculty have had to adapt to asynchronous learning for those students.”
Assessment of student learning was also seen by many respondents as one of the challenges to overcome. Abdul Rahim Sabouni, president of Emirates College of Technology, in Abu Dhabi, noted that “the biggest challenge was the assessment, especially through synchronous camera proctored exams, as they are seen to be intrusive.”
“We just need a different mind-set. … Many techniques are being developed to address the issue of authenticity through image and voice recognition.”
Some are considering conducting classical proctored assessment, either online through state-of-the art security technologies or in physical testing centers. Ghassan Aouad, president of Applied Science University, in Bahrain, is emphatic about the viability of online examinations. It “could be more beneficial when designed properly,” he said. “… We just need a different mind-set. … Many techniques are being developed to address the issue of authenticity through image and voice recognition.”
This assessment challenge could also be seen “as an opportunity to evolve new methods for assessing student success … and to make the quantum leap from baseline e-learning platforms into smart learning outright,” said Hochstettler. “The savvy instructor is also learning to avoid having to police students and to engineer assessments in ways that focus on student creativity.”
Mahender Reddy, vice chancellor of ICFAI Foundation for Higher Education, in Hyderabad, India, noted a few more advantages e-learning could offer. They include “learning from eminent persons in the field; scale advantage; and interactive learning processes.”
Almost every respondent seemed to have a strong view that e-learning is here to stay and can make a much stronger contribution to higher education in the years ahead. Sitharam noted that more than 2,000 open online courses had been created on India’s National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning platform. The platform, known as NPTEL, was initiated by Sitharam’s university in Guwahati and six other Indian Institutes of Technology, along with the Indian Institute of Science. Over ten million learnersfrom around the world, including a large number of teachers, he said, have enrolled in the courses, which are available free on the Internet. He believes that many more institutions in India are embracing online learning to reach more students at a low cost.
B) Impact on student enrollment:
I asked the leaders about the potential drop in enrollment of new students and how the universities plan to deal with this impact. Many agreed with Thomas Hochstettler’s observation, that “financial uncertainty is the biggest challenge that colleges and universities face today.”
Mousa Mohsen, president of American International College, in Kuwait, described two opposing effects on enrollment for universities in the Gulf. On the one hand, “expats in the Gulf region, laid off from their jobs, will not be able to sponsor the education of their children at local universities. On the other hand, many students who are currently studying abroad will return to their home countries to finish their degrees at local universities. For example, 35,000 Kuwaiti students who are studying abroad will return to Kuwait in the coming few weeks.”
Khaled Assaleh, of Ajman University, sees a potential to increase graduate student enrollment, as “many unemployed graduates may choose to go for post-graduate studies.”
“In India we will not see much fall in admissions as the numbers seeking admissions in good universities are very high as compared to the seats available,”
Vidya Yeravdekar, of Symbiosis International University, in Pune, is confident about the situation in top Indian universities. “In India we will not see much fall in admissions as the numbers seeking admissions in good universities are very high as compared to the seats available,” she said. In addition, thousands of Indian students who go abroad are likely to stay in the country next year.
In terms of the admissions process for new students, with some lacking standardized tests and even final grades, Assaleh has been thinking of a flexible process that includes conditional admission, remedial provisions and adjustments in the fall semester. Several university leaders are considering increasing need-based tuition support.
There is consensus that international student enrollment in top destinations will be adversely impacted. Abdul Rahim Sabouni, of Emirates College of Technology, noted that these countries may lose their “charm.” Ghassan Aouad, of Applied Science University, in Bahrain, views this as an advantage, saying it “will create opportunities for local and regional universities.”
Al-Hajj, of Khawarizmi International College, in Abu Dhabi, concurred. “Students will stay in their own countries in the foreseeable future,” he said.
For universities that rely significantly on international students, there is a suggestion to allow foreign students to compete for financial aid on the same terms as domestic applicants. At a time like this, said Yusra Mouzughi, of Muscat University, “we may need to reconsider international partnerships and look at how we can leverage blended learning as a tool to maintain a presence in international markets.”
C) Graduate employment and new programs:
Fresh and inexperienced graduates of 2020 are certainly “confronting a truly daunting prospect,” several leaders said. From past experience of national or regional recessions, such unfortunate cohorts are likely to face continuing challenges in their careers over the next decade. Sabouni added, “The new graduates will face new challenges in finding employment, and they may try to get into graduate studies or more online training, until the businesses reopen again.”
A couple of university leaders recognized the need for their institutions to make additional efforts to place their students. However, a number of them felt that these graduates may need to reflect on their skills and “begin to reimagine themselves as members of a rapidly changing labor force.”
“Countries will directly require more graduates from health-related majors. … Applications of AI/Robotics in health and medicine will witness more demand. In addition, there will be a demand on majors such as e-commerce, health-economics and global supply chain management.”
In terms of specific help that universities can offer, Aouad suggested that universities help pursue higher degrees through increasing student aid and allowing more flexibility in the payment of tuition fees.
I also asked leaders for their views on how current and new programs would be affected by the combined impact of the global recession and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”—a term policy makers use to describe how technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing are expected to radically reshape how people live and work. Mohsen responded that “countries will directly require more graduates from health-related majors. … Applications of AI/Robotics in health and medicine will witness more demand. In addition, there will be a demand on majors such as e-commerce, health-economics and global supply chain management.” Assaleh added an educational technology major to the list of new programs that would be needed.
Some important take-aways:
• E-learning has a strong future. Many lessons learned during this period of forced adoption will be put to good use by universities to enhance and expand online learning provisions.
• Specific areas in e-learning that need attention include authentic assessment and equitable student access to the Internet.
• Universities are acutely aware of the potential disruptions to student enrollment. Leaders in the region seem much more optimistic about retaining enrollment levels, as compared to their counterparts at universities in the West.
• There is a clear understanding of economic hardships faced by students, and universities in the region seem to be considering increased financial aid, scholarships and flexible payments.
• Regional education leaders strongly believe that there will be major reductions in the number of students from the region traveling for studies to leading international destinations.
• While most agree that a challenging period lies ahead for the graduating cohort of 2020, universities have yet to devise specific strategies to help students address these challenges.
• There is an awareness about new program majors that would evolve from Covid-19 crisis combined with the imperatives of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
• Universities that rely on international students may wish to consider need-based and merit-based scholarships and also blended learning in partnership with regional universities.
I would like to thank the following academic leaders for their thoughtful and extensive contributions, during a busy and challenging period in their institutions:
Abdul Rahim Sabouni, president & chief executive of Emirates College of Technology, Abu Dhabi;
Ammar Kaka, provost and vice principal of Heriot-Watt University, Dubai;
Assem Al-Hajj, president of Khawarizmi International College, Abu Dhabi;
Ghassan Aouad, president of Applied Science University, Bahrain;
Gilbert Linne, vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer of KIMEP University, Almaty, Kazakhstan;
Khaled Assaleh, vice chancellor for academic affairs, Ajman University, Ajman;
J. Mahender Reddy, vice chancellor of the ICFAI Foundation for Higher Education, Hyderabad, India;
Mousa Mohsen, president of fAmerican International College, Kuwait;
T.G. Sitharam, director, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, India;
Thomas J. Hochstettler, of the Commission for Academic Accreditation, U.A.E. Ministry of Education;
Vidya Yeravdekar, pro chancellor of Symbiosis International University, Pune, India;
Yusra Mouzughi, vice-chancellor of Muscat University, Oman; and
A president of a smaller college in Dubai who asked not to be identified..