(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel tackling the Acceleration of Online Education as part of the Rebuilding Futures, Education and Jobs for Youth During Crisis conference, organized by Al-Fanar Media and SPARK, a Dutch nongovernmental organization. Together with my panelists, who are front-runners in online education in the Middle East, we set out to discuss how institutions can guarantee access for all students and maintain a quality online educational experience during the Covid-19 outbreak and beyond.
In the early days of the outbreak, long-time proponents of online education were hopeful that the time had come for this misconstrued modality to prove its merit. Soon after that initial surge in excitement, however, there was a collective, gloomier, realization. The well-intended but rushed efforts to go online almost overnight created a serious concern about the potential backlash on online education.
For starters, creating a high-quality online experience not only takes a village, it takes time, resources and most importantly it takes a multi-functional village working purposefully and in harmony. One speaker, Professor Alper Kumtepe of Anadolu University’s Distance Learning Department, put things in perspective when he said that the proper planning and preparation time for a single high-quality university-level online course is six to nine months.
Shireen Yacoub, chief executive of Edraak, a platform for Arabic-language online courses, shared that in just the last five months, 700,000 new learners had accessed the platform. The traffic of new learners has already surpassed that of 2019. While students may have been relatively more prepared to move online, everyone agreed that institutions, faculty members, and the actual content lagged behind.
Another serious concern surfacing is around equity. Before Covid-19, millions of young people still could not access education, let alone quality education. What will become of the prevailing divide when learning is moved online? To add insult to the injury, this disturbance is not happening in a silo away from the rest of the individual and collective situation currently facing students and educators alike. While we expect them to learn the new skills required for teaching and learning online, the mental health challenges, lifestyle challenges and the implications of the uncertain economic future lurk in the background.
The panel offered a number of insightful reflections on what stakeholders can do in order to minimize this impending backlash and begin to realize the benefits of quality online education instead.
- Think of the current situation as “emergency remote teaching” and adopt a well-communicated phased approach going forward.
For starters, creating a high-quality online experience not only takes a village, it takes time, resources and most importantly it takes a multi-functional village working purposefully and in harmony.
Professor Kumtepe’s comment brought it home. “This is not distance education. This is emergency remote teaching.” He emphasized that once the current crisis passes, institutions need to take stock of their practices and what they have learned. They need to restart with a purposeful readiness and needs assessment that takes into account the unique baseline capabilities of each institution.
Another important point raised by Shireen Yacoub, of Edraak, is that institutions should transparently communicate a staged approach to students, parents and all those involved. Leveraging a lean business approach, institutions can start with a “minimum viable product” that focuses on the content and builds from there through feedback and improvements. In hindsight, providers may have gone online without communicating a plan or a vision for the various phases of this transition, thus creating skewed expectations.
- Expect resistance and lead by example to pave the way forward.
In the past, resistance has been one of the key obstacles and most common excuses for not embracing online education. Indeed, resistance from educators, faculty, students, parents and employers is only natural, Halil Can Emre, a blended-learning specialist at SPARK, noted. However, he also challenged everyone by claiming that “people are more adaptable than institutions.” With this perspective, the onus is on institutions to take the lead in role modeling and driving change. I would take this notion a step further and bring in the role of government authorities, whether through establishing accreditation and quality frameworks, investing resources or taking other supportive steps. Even when it comes to government inertia, institutions can play a prominent role instead of taking a back seat, particularly in advocating and advancing the accreditation agenda.
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- Put the student back at the center of the learning process. That also means investing heavily in teachers and faculty.
As experience is showing, the online modality is challenging our prevailing pedagogical approaches by putting the student back at the center of the learning process. “User-centric” is the world Yacoub used while clarifying that in online education there is “no impact unless there is adoption.” Putting students first means ensuring they fully understand the learning journey and can navigate it seamlessly and independently. It also means that interactivity and flexibility become key success factors in the design of an online learning experience.
A unique facet of a well-designed online learning environment is the ability to collect hard data, on student engagement levels and learning outcomes, in real time. The utilization of data to continuously adjust the content and approach reinforces the principle of putting the student back at the center.
As for the choice of technology, when being learner centric, communication and engagement tools become key requirements.
As for the choice of technology, when being learner centric, communication and engagement tools become key requirements. Amidst the rapid transition, most institutions reacted by moving typical classroom dynamics into an online environment through video conferencing tools—what we call synchronous learning. While this approach safeguarded uninterrupted delivery of the planned curricula, we did not sufficiently question the pedagogy. As Kumtepe mentioned, we do not need to have synchronous learning to call it distance learning. For more of a mixed approach, we need to develop courses that are originally built for the purpose of online delivery and we need to invest heavily in educators through training and support in digital literacy, awareness of edtech tools and pedagogy. Omitting this step is potentially one of the most dangerous drivers of the backlash against online learning.
- Beware of the divides, digital and beyond.
The digital divide is on everyone’s mind. As Yacoub stated, today, universal basic Internet access has become a basic human right. Indeed, open online education could translate into more opportunities for those excluded by the current system. Theoretically, moving education online can improve gender equity in education and can provide opportunities for people with disabilities. On the other hand, the digital divide is real and it largely threatens access. Dahlia Maarouf, a leadership development specialist at the Education Above All Foundation who works closely with youth in conflict and post-conflict environments, put the responsibility on each institution and program to take full stock of the connectivity, infrastructure and studying space realities of each student. (See a related article, “Coronavirus School Closings Around the World Will Hit Girls the Hardest.”)
However, the divide is not only digital. Mental health challenges, difficult household situations and learning styles may create further divides and lead to retention issues. That means that the intensity of student support both within and outside the online classroom should probably be even higher than it would be on a physical campus. Dahlia shared a recent example where she learned of students forming their own communities for studying and for resolving each other’s challenges. Her view is that such communities should be part and parcel of the program design and that training students on adaptability, emotional and social intelligence and critical thinking will be crucial for dealing with this new way of learning. In a way, making 21st century skills more important than ever.
- Do not reinvent the wheel. Leverage resources and collaborate.
Frankly, I do not think we have seen enough collaboration or leveraging of resources and capabilities during this transition, especially as it relates to inter-university collaborations or mutually beneficial partnerships between universities and the few regional edtech and online content providers. Yacoub mentioned a great example of multi-stakeholder collaboration in Jordan led by the Ministry of Education. Edraak, two other content providers (Jo Academy and Abwaab), and the online publisher Mawdoo3 came together to create a platform to serve the country’s two million school-age children whose education has been interrupted. Like everyone else on the panel, she urged listeners not to reinvent the wheel. While building capacities in teaching and learning online takes a village, opportunities for leveraging content, technologies and resources in the online learning space are vast.
We ended our discussion with a succinct response from everyone to the million-dollar question, Is teaching and learning online the new normal? Is this modality here to stay?. Everyone agreed that while online learning will likely be part and parcel of the future of education, it works for some but not others. It will co-exist with the current system. For educators, however, Kumtepe affirmed that “nobody will be able to survive if they are not able to teach an online class in 10 years.”
I personally see the online and offline world as quite intertwined in the future. Today is not only an opportunity to show that we can provide an uninterrupted learning experience that is on par with what we were offering before. It is also an opportunity to rethink the future of education, regardless of the modality in which it is delivered. A chance to challenge the pedagogy in a way that puts the student back at the center. An opportunity to challenge assumptions around the true value of contact hours and the expectation that quality education can only come at an exorbitant cost. And finally, given the shifting economic and labor market outlooks, this is a challenge for us to redefine the essential competencies and skills to teach and the most meaningful learning experiences to create.
May Wazzan is an independent consultant based in Beirut. She focuses on developing and delivering programs in higher education and skills development. Her experience spans philanthropy, management consulting and international development, where she supported organizations on large-scale education efforts, including in online and blended learning.