Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed and Hala Seoudi are Cairo University professors. Married for over three decades, the couple have, for their first time, been working from home.
The two prominent professors of political science have been working from two adjacent rooms, each with a laptop and a shared Internet connection.
Two weeks ago, Egyptian authorities announced the suspension of academic activities, including university classes, to reduce infections from the new coronavirus. This was part of other social distancing measures that the state has been adopting as part of the fight against Covid-19.
However, professors and university students were not sent home for a holiday. They were rather sent home to teach and learn.
“A first for us,” Seoudi said. “We were given options on how to upload the lectures for the benefit of our students and each professor chose the method that was compatible with their command of IT skills.”
Seoudi chose to upload the otherwise customary PowerPoint review of the lecture and to add an audio recording for explanation.
“Not sure if this is fully effective. I mean yes, in the classroom I present PowerPoint and then I talk but it is not a one-way performance. There is also the interaction with the students who get to ask questions and this allows for the lecture to develop,” Seoudi said.
The lack of professor-student communication is not the only problem that Seoudi has faced during the past two weeks. She has to also worry about the quality of the audio and the synchronisation of the voice with the flow of the PowerPoint display that she is using.
Seoudi has to send the file to an IT person who is assigned by the Faculty of Political Science to upload the lectures of all professors to the website of the faculty for the students to be able to access.
In the first week, Seoudi received a call from one of her students, probably the first to look for the lecture, to inquire about the audio.
After a back and forth with the concerned technician, Seoudi had to redo the recording, and again send her file to the technician who duly uploaded the lecture.
Al-Sayed too had to go through the same process. One day, Seoudi and Al-Sayed were each trying to communicate with the IT administrator to get something or other fixed.
Other professors and students were also trying to reach out for IT help. The swamped technician eventually got four assistants to help with the work of the three departments of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, with their Arabic, English and French divisions.
It is an incredible amount of work for only five technicians. The Faculty of Economics and Political Science has three departments and each has three language divisions.
For the second term of this academic year, the technical team had to attend to hundreds of students who kept calling with queries about a particular lecture of a particular professor.
Technicalities aside, Al-Sayed argued, there is serious concern about the quality of education. “University education cannot be a monologue-based process. There has to be discussion and communication,” he said.
There are ample IT programmes that would make it possible for professor and student to go online for lectures, especially for a faculty where a class is around 80 students.
“Ideally, we could have used Skype for lectures but given that this application is suspended in Egypt and given that alternative applications like Zoom require quite a substantial subscription, it becomes unlikely that the full scale of IT would be harnessed to serve the education process at this challenging moment,” Al-Sayed said.
Al-Sayed decided to subscribe to Zoom, these days the most popular remote conferencing services company. He paid his own subscription and has been trying to invite small groups of students for discussion. Apart from post-graduate students, Al-Sayed teaches around 300 students in different classes in different divisions. Not all were invited to Zoom conference chats. Some were invited to send questions by e-mail.
“I guess we are all experimenting with the process, professors and students alike,” he said.
Most other professors, according to students from several universities in the country, have been opting either for a PowerPoint/audio recording mix, or lectures on a YouTube channel that is either self-administered or administered by the faculty or a department at the faculty.
Sherif Younis is a professor of history. He teaches four groups of students at Helwan University. Unlike those of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Younis’ students both at the Faculty of History and the Faculty of Pedagogy, are in the hundreds.
“I have over 700 students enrolled in one of my classes. I could argue that in any given lecture not all these students were in class, so I cannot tell how the entire class is benefiting or not benefiting from uploading the lectures on the university’s site,” Younis said.
Younis opts for the PowerPoint/audio mix. Like Al-Sayed and Seoudi, Younis agreed that there are technical hiccups and lack of communication issues. “But this is an extraordinary moment with so many unprecedented questions. We are all trying and learning in the process,” he said.
Students of several disciplines from several universities were not so sure they were actually learning enough from the current electronic mode of teaching.
Alaa Mohsen is a student of English literature at Cairo University. She said “it has not always been easy.”
Some professors, she said, have been posting PowerPoint slides without enough audio lecturing, or have been conducting a YouTube lecture without a PowerPoint presentation, she said. And in both cases, Mohsen added, she and other students in her class “have been finding it very difficult to really get a handle on the subjects we are supposed to study.
“Some professors are more willing to help, of course. They promptly answer questions that we send by e-mail or WhatsApp, but not everyone,” Mohsen argued.
Ahmed Fawzi, a student of law at Cairo University, is also finding it difficult to depend on the uploaded lectures of his professors.
“This is not about what the professor does or doesn’t do. It is about the fact that some classes and some material need more extensive discussion and explanation. Just having a recording or a recording and a PowerPoint slide show is not helping much,” Fawzi said.
For Mahmoud Ahmed, a student of philosophy at Assiut University, and Ahmed Abdallah, studying commerce at Tanta University, the question is not just about the quality of recorded lectures but access to them.
The Internet is perturbing when following a 90-minute lecture much less getting a grip on the ideas professors want to share with their students.
Then, according to Ahmed Said, a student of commerce at Cairo University, “there is the mother of all questions: how will the exams be conducted, and what will be included and what will not be included?”
Some of Said’s professors have chosen to put their lectures on Telegram. Others have been sending long voice notes on WhatsApp groups. Said has not been paying a lot of attention to any.
“I am just filing them to see how things would go with the exam because if they decide to cancel the exams and relegate part of the material for next year then I should not be working on it now. Nobody is telling us anything about the exams,” he said.
University professors say they are still waiting for the guidelines of the Higher Council of Universities.
This week, the minister of education announced that final exams would only cover curricula material that was covered up until 15 March, the day the academic year was suspended.
University students are now wondering whether the decision will also apply to them or all academic classes including the final years.
And while these are tough questions for students of humanities, there are perhaps more complex questions for students of scientific and applied schools. Particularly challenged are the students of medicine.
Ahmed AlMinawi, a professor of gynaecology and obstetrics, is chair of the e-learning committee at the Faculty of Medicine of Cairo University.
The unit opened just a few months ago as part of a modernisaiton process. “And it has proven to be purposeful, because we managed to keep the process going significantly well,” AlMinawi said.
All the material of the first three years of med school is already uploaded with lectures of many professors. The textbooks of Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine students have dynamic QRCs that allow them to access the lectures of many professors on any material.
According to AlMinawi, the teaching of the first three academic classes could be safely managed online, “including subjects like anatomy because we have a digital anatomy programme for our students”.
The question, he agreed, relates more to clinical teaching that students go through in the last three classes. “This includes the part that deals with patients and this might be slightly tricky because ultimately medicine is about practice,” he said. “But at least for now we have about 70 per cent covered and we will see how things go and act accordingly.”
Students of medicine at Ain Shams and Cairo University say that it should be possible for them to manage parts of the material but it would be impossible to miss sections and rounds where students get to study clinical subjects in small groups and see doctors examining patients in hospitals.
“Usually it is around 40 students per section and the same for rounds. We could split these groups in two or three. This would mean smaller groups and consequently less hazardous situations,” said Amal Mahmoud, a student of medicine.
Like other students, Mahmoud is worried that if the entire clinical part is scratched this would mean a significant delay and would consequently postpone graduation.
Already the suspension of all academic activities has been extended for two more weeks.
“As students of medicine we know very well that this coronavirus problem is not going to go away in four weeks,” she said “and it will continue to be concerning to allow large groups to gather for at least eight more weeks. Now we don’t know what this means for us.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly