Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Help Reform Arab Higher Education?

/ 09 Jun 2020

Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Help Reform Arab Higher Education?

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.”

Hoped-for Advantages

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.

“Earlier, professors did not work online. Now everyone is obligated to.”

Yosr Haffani   An associate professor of genomic medicine at the University of Manouba

Ali Elgayar, a professor and head of quality assurance in the faculty of engineering of the University of Benghazi, in Libya, says a “blended” model, combining in-person and online education, is key to such a long-term shift.

Reform could move teaching away from the professor-focused methods common in many Arab countries, where students’ learning often depends largely on sitting passively in classes or auditoriums.

Instead, a new approach, sometimes referred to as “flipped learning,” would have students follow lectures at their leisure online—ideally on platforms that integrate other supporting resources, like texts, videos, and interactive quizzes. Students would come to their campus for workshops, small seminars, and laboratory classes.

The fact that many universities in the region say they will reopen their campuses initially without large classes or lectures as a precaution against a resurgence of the coronavirus will increase pressure for this type of reform, says Elgayar.

In any case, he argues, “active learning in small classes, supervised by teachers, is more effective than conventional teaching. If students learn something on their own, they will not forget it.”

Embracing Blended Learning

This view is echoed by a number of higher education leaders in the region. Ehab Abdel-Rahman, provost of the American University in Cairo, says the pandemic is making faculty members “think more about their teaching pedagogy,” and consider moves toward blended learning.

“It is more effective to offer lectures online and have students come to class for more in-depth discussions of subjects,” he says. “I think the public universities will take longer, but in the end they will have to do it too.”

Emad El-Din Shahin, dean of the College of Islamic Studies and interim provost at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar, says his graduate-level institution has been developing online courses for several years and intends to use a more blended approach when the campus reopens.

“We are forced to do it now, but we really need to think if in future we want to do it on a larger scale.” Among the advantages of developing the university’s distance-education courses, he says, will be the ability to enroll students outside Qatar. “We can reach out to them by digital learning.”

“Active learning in small classes, supervised by teachers, is more effective than conventional teaching. If students learn something on their own, they will not forget it.”

Ali Elgayar   A professor and head of quality assurance in the faculty of engineering of the University of Benghazi

Dominik L. Michels, a professor of computer science and mathematics at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate level institution in Saudi Arabia, says having more online education would facilitate the use of foreign experts without having to fly them in.

“I sometimes invite lecturers from other universities,” around the world, he says. “I see this [forced reliance on online education] as more positive from an opportunity perspective.”

Strengthening universities’ capacity to teach online creates greater resilience in case of future natural or man-made disruptions, say educators. The coronavirus will stay around for long time, predicts Haffani, at the University of Manouba. “We may have a lockdown again.”

Finally, Abaher El-Sakka, a professor of sociology at Birzeit University, a leading Palestinian institution, says the current closure of institutions in the West Bank and Gaza is forcing them to plan greater investments in their online capacity, even as it “pushes professors with old-school attitudes to open up to new technologies.”

“For a colonized society like Palestine,” he adds, “with many problems getting around, like curfews and roadblocks, that’s a good thing.”




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