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Tiptoeing through online learning

E-learning expert Maha Bali gives her take on the online learning experience in this time of crisis, writes Niveen Wahish

Niveen Wahish , Tuesday 31 Mar 2020
Tiptoeing through online learning

“Home schooling has begun here, and I can say with absolute conviction that teachers should be paid like CEOs,” tweeted John Chandler, sports anchor/reporter at NBC New York in mid-March. Chandler summarised the agony parents were going through and the work they were putting into getting their children to study at home.

It has now been more than two weeks since schools and universities were suspended in Egypt as elsewhere in many parts around the globe on the back of the Covid-19 crisis.

And it is not just school children and their parents who are affected. The whole online learning process is new to university professors and their students, leading to much uncertainty.

Associate professor of Practice, Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Maha Bali is someone whose work involves a lot of educational technology. In the current crisis not only does she have a class of her own to teach, but through her department she must also support the entire faculty body at AUC to teach their courses online. Her department worked to raise digital literacy for all students and faculty, even before the current crisis.

For Bali, teaching online was not difficult. The course she teaches is called digital literacies in an intercultural context. Her students must learn many digital skills throughout the course, so when the time came to learn online, the shift was easier for them, she said.

For other professors there was much variation in how they grasped the technology. There are some faculty members who do not have digital skills, and some do not like to use it, while others may teach subjects like theatre which are not easy to teach with technology. “For some people the paradigm shift was so huge that they were overwhelmed,” she said, while others who are generally comfortable with technology, who tried blended learning, and who do many online things for their classes anyway, the shift was not as big.

She does not believe age is a defining factor in grasping digital skills. Although the younger you are the more likely you are to be comfortable with technology, there are also many older faculty members who are ok with technology while at the same time there are students who are struggling with it, she said.

Professors, according to Bali, were trained on tools that the institution bought and supports, but they were also given guidelines as to how to use other tools. It is important, she said, that in time of crisis when you do not have time to plan, if somebody is already comfortable with something, they should be allowed to use it. In other institutions, she noted, they are requesting one particular way and not accepting any other even though, for example, the hardware such as laptops may not support it.

Success in online teaching also depends on personal skills. “There are some people who are generally better teachers than others in their subject,” and it also depends on how much time people can invest in helping their students. Some may have family responsibilities, Bali pointed out, such as caring for a sick person.

Internet capacity is another decisive factor. Some people have expensive Internet, but it is limited in capacity and with everyone staying home and doing their work online, Internet packages often run out. 

In the midst of all this, Bali said, “professors should just do the best they can with the resources that they have and the resources that their students have.”

The coronavirus crisis, according to Bali, has forced everyone to look at online learning differently. While previously online teaching was perceived as something that would happen in the future, it was viewed as something that may happen to some people and not others and maybe impossible to do for certain things. “Now everybody wants to try to imagine how it might work for everything, all over the world.”

However, she said that it was important to realise that what is happening now is not proper online learning. “Designing a good six-week online course takes about six months,” she said. In the current situation, she pointed out, people only had a few days to merge onto online. “All the good practices about online learning are not necessarily happening and nor should we expect them to happen and nor should we pressure people to make them happen… There is a lot of anxiety and stress in this situation so the most important thing is to learn to be kind to each other and to ourselves.”

She stressed that the current situation is a learning experience. “I am sure people will learn what did not work for them, learn from each other and learn from their own experience and improve on it.”

Going forward, if online learning were to be expanded on, Bali suggested certain things be in place. For starters, the technology infrastructure needs to be worked on “although amazingly it has held up quite well.”

Second: Professors need to be given digital literacy, not to have to necessarily use the same tool if they are not comfortable with it.

Another important issue is to think about what curriculums should cover and make them more flexible. “It is important to recognise what is essential, important and also relevant.” In her class she tried to get students to work on issues related to the current crisis.

Rethinking assessment was another crucial aspect. Bali lauded the fact that the Ministry of Education is requiring some school students to hand in projects instead of sitting for exams. However, she recognised that “the complexity of doing something other than an exam and making sure everybody is doing the work without cheating or paying someone to do it for them is one of the biggest questions on everybody’s mind right now.”

In the midst of all this, Bali stressed, one must think about equity. One of the efforts that is helpful in that regard is the Egyptian Knowledge Bank which is a well thought out project and has much educational material that is available to everybody equitably. “I hope that the world would make resources available for free for everybody.” Many libraries have made their content available for free during the crisis but these are temporary measures. “We need to make sure people have access to things they need, including people with special needs.”

While pursuing her own work from home, Bali is also a mother of an eight-year old who is also getting her school lessons through the Internet. “The combination of working from home, overseeing children, the Internet bandwidth and house chores makes me feels like education should not be taking the rest of our free time,” said Bali.

She tries to be flexible as to how her daughter is learning, coaxing her to do it the school way at times and at other times letting her work for a couple of hours on the things she wants. Home schooling as a concept is about the pace and interest of the child, Bali pointed out, explaining that if, for example, they are interested in cooking, they should learn fractions through cooking, rather than watch a video and do exercises.

However, she said, this needs parents to be very involved which is a hassle because “it is ending up that even educated parents are having fights with their children to get them to work; they don’t understand that it is too much for the kids.” She noted that parents too are stressed because of what is happening. “There is so much to be anxious about that teaching should not be an additional stress.”

What is important in this situation, she stressed, is that kids keep learning with flexibility as to what they would manage and then, next year, when they go back to school, everybody will understand. “Everyone in the world is having a different educational experience. Some people will manage, and some will not… Nobody chose to be in this situation, so I hope nobody gets penalised for it.”

There is one thing that has come out of this situation: students will be eager to go back to school. Bali said her daughter, who normally complains about going to school, wants to go back. “She appreciates the value of school, which is a win.”


*A version of this article appears in print in the  2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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