The rapid adoption of online education in Egyptian universities as a result of the pandemic last year halted student activities.
This year, Egyptian public universities are trying to resume online versions of those activities. The Ministry of Higher Education developed a plan for student activities focusing on cultural, social and art activities.
“Digital and social media platforms have been employed to engage the largest possible number of students,” said Taye’ Taha, advisor to the Minister of Higher Education for student activities.
At Egyptian public universities, student activities usually include cultural, arts and sports, with competitions, exhibitions and festivals. The activities also include cultural exchange programs that are both local and international. For this year, the ministry’s plan includes holding competitions in various fields such as poetry, singing, short story writing, photography, and chess, all of which will be conducted online.
“We hope these activities will contribute to restoring the spirit of fun and joy to student life in light of the social distancing imposed by the epidemic,” said Taha.
Egypt’s universities started the current academic year with regular classrooms and face-to-face student activities, but using the necessary precautionary measures. Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Engineering organized a competition for students from various Egyptian universities to manufacture electric cars using local components. But the high incidence of coronavirus cases the country has experienced since December prompted the ministry to cease on-campus teaching and student activities.
Ambitious Plan, Uncertain Outcomes
Some students welcome these activities for their role in easing the tension and psychological pressure imposed by lockdowns.
“We were in solitary confinement, and we needed to engage in any activity to get out of this crisis,” said Mohammed Mahmoud, a student at Helwan University’s Faculty of Commerce. Many of his fellow students have suffered psychologically recently, Mahmoud said, because of their inability to communicate directly with others.
Although some welcome the partial online resumption of student activities, others are not as enthusiastic. They believe that the online programs do not suit the nature of many activities that require a physical presence, nor does it break their isolation, but on the contrary, it increases the feeling of psychological distance.
“Student activity depends on live direct contact and the physical presence of the participants,” said Mohammed Gomaa, director of the artistic activities department and head of theater at Assiut University, south of Cairo. “There are some activities, like theater, that cannot be held online.”
Gomaa, who is currently training students on theater online, says it is ineffective, especially in performing arts, which need audience interaction, even during rehearsals.
Mohammed Farouk, a student at Assiut University’s Faculty of Commerce and a member of the university’s poetry team, agrees with Gomaa about the difficulty of holding many activities online. “We try our best to participate and interact with our colleagues in poetry sessions online, but it is ineffective, as we are still in front of the computer and there is no real engagement,” he said. “The activity requires interaction, which is what we miss while sitting by the screens.”
Supervisors of youth welfare and student activities in public universities acknowledge that there are many obstacles in electronic versions of activities, especially with the lack of technical capabilities and experience in running competitions on social media and other online platforms.
“We are working to help students in some individual games to interact online,” said Wedad Abdel-Hamid, student activities officer at Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts. “However, this is a difficult matter, especially since we have not received any training so far on methods of communicating with students remotely and activating the competitions included in the student activity plans. Financial support is very limited, and we only have two computers.”
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Before the pandemic, Egyptian students were already reluctant to engage in activities, especially in light of the poor university budgets for such programs. (See a related article, “Participation in Student Activities Drops in Egypt.”) With the spread of the pandemic and the shift toward e-learning, many students found themselves under pressure to study in a new method and in a tense psychological atmosphere.
“We do not have enough time to participate in these activities. We spend most of the day attending lectures online, and we do not find time or energy to attend activities that are also electronic,” said Basant Abdel Rahman, a student in Mansoura University’s sociology department.
Laila Ibrahim, a law student at South Valley University, agrees with Abdel-Rahman about the difficulty of finding time for online activities, noting that she never even participates in in-person activities.