The crash transition to online education has sped up some reforms Arab educators have sought for years, and now they see the potential for long-lasting change.
“We’ve changed our habits,” says Yosr Haffani, an associate professor of genomic medicine at the University of Manouba, a large Tunisian public institution. “Earlier, professors did not work online. Now everyone is obligated to.”
“I don’t see [the disruption caused by] the pandemic as a negative.”
For a decade, a few lone advocates of online education encountered heavy resistance. Even so-called open universities discovered they had to have a brick-and-mortar presence to win the right to get their students’ degrees recognized in Arab countries. Likewise, for years, critics of Arab education have said it has relied too much on lectures and memorization, and not enough on projects and essays that are the result of analytic thinking and that show students can synthesize knowledge.
Now the disruption caused by a disease has forced a rapid evolution in education. In trying to figure out how to test students without worrying about cheating, professors are more frequently seeking evidence that students can put knowledge to use instead of just regurgitating it. (See a related article, “Next Steps for New Online Courses: Measure Learning, Prevent Cheating.”)
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Across the region, academic leaders and reformers say the forced campus closings have spurred efforts to develop online teaching. “Before the pandemic, we wanted to develop distance education but there was always resistance from some instructors,” says Omar Hniche, the vice president for academic and student affairs, or provost, of Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco’s largest institution.
“But believe me—during these two months of the pandemic we have been able to do more than in the last ten years.”
Why go to the trouble of developing online education? Some academic leaders say it provides resilience against future shocks, can reach students who don’t have time for long commutes to classrooms, and can leverage the region’s best teachers to reach a rapidly growing young population.