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A Vision for Quality Online and Blended Education in the Arab World

Nearly a year after the Covid-19 pandemic forced a shift to online education, many universities in the Arab region are still struggling to achieve a successful transformation. There are debates about the best way to teach online, whether to use recorded video lectures or to broadcast lessons live on the Internet, and how to verify effective communication with students. In addition, governments in the region have traditionally distrusted online education and have been reluctant to endorse it.

A recent study, however, provides guidelines that could help educators design more-effective online lessons while also enhancing awareness of the value of accredited online learning opportunities.

The study, titled “Charting a Path Forward: A Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration to Promote Blended Learning in the Arab World,” examines efforts at two universities to design or redesign courses to make them suitable for distant teaching, while continuing to develop the capabilities of faculty members and designers of education systems in the Arab world.  It encourages collaboration between universities, institutions and governments in the field of online learning.

“The study came at the right time; a year ago, there was little interest in distance learning,” said Sonia Ben Jaafar, chief executive of the Abdullah Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, which co-published the study with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Office of Open Learning in late October.

Now that universities are giving priority to developing online and blended programs, she added, “it is important to ensure a flexible transition in a manner based on the guidelines shared in the study.”

Inclusion and Feedback

The study recommends designing blended-learning projects with the participation of all stakeholders, including professors, students, educational leaders and study-program designers. It highlights the importance of defining the roles and responsibilities of all team members, adopting clear communication channels, and considering students as stakeholders when designing similar courses in the future.

It also aims to use the feedback from the design team as evidence to help all the stakeholders understand the experience, and to gain the support of university leadership regarding the need to grant accreditation for courses and degrees taught online.

“Blended education alone will not meet the growing demand for higher education in the region; online education can,” said Ben Jaafar. “By offering degrees online, some young people will not need to actually enroll in higher-education institutions,” many of which are struggling from crowdedness and a lack of resources, she said.

“Blended education alone will not meet the growing demand for higher education in the region; online education can.”

Sonia Ben Jaafar  
Chief executive of the Abdullah Al Ghurair Foundation for Education

She added that the flexibility of online programs will make higher education easier for some people, including women, refugees and other disadvantaged groups. (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)

How 2 Universities Redesigned Courses

The study was conducted over three years from 2017 through 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, by faculty members at the American University in Cairo and the American University of Beirut, as well as experts in online course content and design from the Abdullah Al Ghurair Foundation and MIT.

The team took three courses traditionally taught face-to-face and redesigned them based on open online courses offered by MIT, so they could be taught in a blended learning style. The courses were introductory courses in biology, differential equations, and computer science. The redesigned courses mixed course materials with active learning activities and relied on the flipped-classroom model. Students had to study the online course materials and do exercises on them before coming to discuss them in class.

The redesigned courses were used to teach nearly 1,200 students over four semesters. Students initially resisted the switch to interactive intensive courses, and their end-of-semester course evaluations showed they considered the redesigned courses inferior to previous ones. However, faculty members said that they noticed positive effects on their students after the course redesign. By the end of the semester, students became more independent in terms of learning and were able to apply their knowledge to solve difficult problems facing them.

Changing Perspectives

“There was some protest,” said Maha Bali, an associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo. “At first, students expected direct lectures and not active learning; some misunderstood it as a substitution for the teacher, but in reality it was a replacement for the book with a more interactive multimedia experience outside of the classroom.”

Gihan Osman, an assistant professor of instructional design and technology at the American University in Cairo, stressed the students’ change of attitude. “Covid-19 helped break the wall of rejection of online learning,” she said. “Today it appears the best option to continue teaching in universities. We have all noticed a change in attitudes.”

“Covid-19 helped break the wall of rejection of online learning, Today it appears the best option to continue teaching in universities. We have all noticed a change in attitudes.”

Gihan Osman  
Assistant professor of instructional design and technology at the American University in Cairo

Ben Jaafar believes that Arab universities are ready to implement blended learning. “They can do that. You can start doing that without the need for a lot of infrastructure,” she said.

For example, she said, universities could modify some classes or course components for blended learning, eventually putting more than half of the degree online.

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“What is important is to design high quality materials suitable for the Internet and then apply digital activities, not the other way around,” said Ben Jaafar.
She acknowledged that the ability of universities to provide technology varies, “but the basis lies in educational design,” she said, “so it is imperative to support faculty members to obtain the necessary skills and knowledge before anything.”

Still, the biggest challenge remains in changing policies and passing laws that recognize e-learning, which the report recommends. Governments in the region grant, to varying degrees, approval to universities that wish to offer blended learning or a limited number of online courses, but credits have not yet been granted for fully online degree programs.

Governments and higher-education policy makers “must come up with clear steps to create a process like this and determine quality indicators that must be addressed to achieve this,” said Ben Jaafar.


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