“Doctor, can I do this assignment again?”
“No, you can’t.”
“Please doctor, I can do so much better.”
“I’m sure you can, especially after I just said how it should have been done.”
“Please doctor, I really need a good grade in this class.”
“Don’t we all.”
“Please doctor, just this once.”
“No. N.O. No. If I let you repeat this assignment, to be fair, I’ll have to ask everybody else in the class whether they want to do it again. But if I do that, I’ll be opening a door I won’t be able to close.”
“Ok doctor. But please…”
In the over 20 years I’ve been teaching journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC) such duels with students are par for the course. It’s not the greatest part of the job but it comes with the territory.
The give-and-take with this student was just one more exchange, like all the others, and should have fallen by the wayside. But it didn’t. It stuck in the memory. Because this would be the last time I would see the student this spring semester of 2020. In fact, it would be the last time I would see the class. It would be just about the last time I would see the campus — even though there were still over two months left in the semester.
For this was the class of Covid-19. This was the semester of the coronavirus.
Every year AUC’s spring semester begins at the start of February and ends in mid-May, followed by a week of final exams. This semester was no different; it began and ended on schedule. But what happened in between was absolutely not on the schedule.
The university’s last class was on 11 March; it would not hold a single class on campus thereafter.
First it was the torrential rains that lashed Cairo on 12 March. The university had announced the day before that it would close in the face of this rare, cyclone-like storm.
But there was another storm brewing. It had to do with something in the air. Something called coronavirus.
The first coronavirus case in Egypt was discovered on 5 March. Egypt’s first death, a German tourist, was reported on 8 March.
Until then, even as the coronavirus ran amok in Wuhan, the general sentiment was that the virus would remain where it originated. There was little fear from a virus in China which, to us in Egypt, is a million light years away, geographically and figuratively.
But things started getting dicey when, on 11 March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic, and when Covid-19 broke loose from home soil and began ravaging a far-off country like Italy.
It was thus perhaps no surprise when on 13 March, AUC announced it will move its spring break forward from April to March. After that, the university would begin two weeks of online instruction for all classes.
The shift of the 10-day spring break to March had never happened before, but was necessary because it was then that the coronavirus had started its inexorable march on Europe and then the US.
As for remote teaching, two weeks didn’t seem like a big deal. For most professors, the period is equivalent to four classes which, was thought, could be handled without much ado, even with around 30 students in a class which has become the norm in recent years.
But then came a disconcerting announcement. In keeping with the government’s closure of all schools and universities, AUC would extend its online learning and remote work to 16 April.
That meant two more weeks of remote teaching.
That wasn’t all. On 3 April, AUC opted for the full monty: completing the spring semester through online teaching.
And that’s when storm No 3, if you will, erupted.
It seems that many, many students were having a difficult time transitioning to online work. Just as serious, they were experiencing these hardships apparently unbeknownst to many faculty and administrators.
Their biggest complaint was the work was too much and that their professors were wildly piling on assignments.
“I was taking five heavy major courses this semester but I was okay with the workload,” Mohamed Bahaa, 20, an AUC business marketing major, said, “until we shifted to the online mode everything changed. I found myself attending live lectures, having to watch some recorded lectures, several assignments posted and a bulk of e-mails received daily. For sure, the workload was higher than the normal time when we used to attend lectures on campus.”
“It was hard for us students to be able to seek help from a professor or a TA as we would on campus (which is way more helpful than online help with e-mails),” Mohamed Al-Shennawi, 19, of computer engineering,said. “This semester the content was condensed in the final two or three weeks and the workload was unbearable.”
Although the students filled in a brief questionnaire provided by the university every week on how things were going, the answers of which went to their professors, this was not the adequate forum they desired to vent their frustrations.
While it was thought that the process was going swimmingly, many students, if you take them at their word, were sinking.
The natives started getting distinctly restless. The students would defer to their professors, but among themselves, the daggers were out. Voices on their social media groups reportedly were angry and getting more vocal. There were demands for refunds of tuition fees and bus fares. They were also sending ominous warnings of a possible revolt by not doing their homework.
“Some students managed to rise above the chaos, and others suffered greatly, and their academic performance was affected,” Fikri Boutros, senior instructor in rhetoric and composition, said.
The noise was eventually heard loud and clear. On 8 April, AUC announced the introduction of a new optional Credit/Fail grading scheme. Faculty would submit standard grades as usual at the end of the semester. If a student liked his or grade, fine. If not, if a student, for example, received a D grade, the student could change that D to a pass, get his or her full three credit hours for the course, without the student’s grade average being affected.
(A similar grading system was applied in AUC when I was an undergraduate after the 1973 October War. But students could not have it both ways: they could decide whether they wanted all their grades pass/fail or all in letters. They could not pick and choose).
The pass/fail system of 2020 was one of the most consequential decisions AUC took this semester. While to a large extent it placated students who were on the warpath, it was derided by some professors as being too easy.
Its shortcomings were obvious as some students, even if they didn’t spell it out, specifically targeted a low grade by doing the minimum amount of work.
AUC’s online teaching experiment lasted exactly two and a half weeks, not a long time by any means, producing a grading scheme described as overly generous and academically damaging, although, naturally, students viewed it as a godsend.
So what went wrong?
“I believe the pressure was not in the shift to online teaching,” says Hamed Shamma, associate professor of marketing at AUC’s Department of Management, “but the emotional, psychological pressure and fear from such an unprecedented situation that none of us witnessed before.”
What seems clear is that some professors panicked, with the students right behind.
Some professors believed online teaching was unsatisfactory, inferior to face-to-face instruction, so opted to give more work than they would have in a regular class. With no thought of reducing or modifying the workload, they were afraid they would not be able to give a full and proper syllabus online.
So they overreached by overreacting.
The result was much more work than necessary for the professor and the student. And, as anybody who works in the field can attest, inherent in online learning is more effort; remote work seems to progress in slow motion. While online work means you get work fast, it doesn’t necessarily mean you work faster.
It also became clear that online teaching and online learning are not the same; the former is just as difficult. The university provided training to faculty to prepare for online instruction. We took learning management systems, including Blackboard and Panopto. Zoom, which no-one heard of three months ago, became the go-to communications fad.
But experts say it takes six months to retool just one course for online instruction: we were given a little over an hour.
Plus, we were given only the technical aspect. No matter how skilled a professor is in distance learning, the mechanics are not automatically the primary issue. The tools do not tell a professor what to teach, when to teach it, how to teach it. Online teaching depends a lot on a teacher’s intuition, ingenuity and experience.
As best it could, the administration tried to meet the challenge. It urged a relaxed policy on virtual attendance and class timings. To offset difficulties managing stress and anxiety, AUC made its resources available, from the Center of Student Well-Being to the Department of Psychology.
The university’s president, provost and my department’s chair sent a constant stream of e-mails of encouragement to the professors and students.
But our concerns and those of the students were myriad: the fear of the virus and worries that loved ones could get infected; a completely new way of teaching and learning; connectivity issues; hostels that had to be evacuated on short notice; the many assignments that simply would not end; the country’s curfews, Ramadan fasting in sometimes boiling heat, and grades.
In retrospect, AUC was not prepared for the consequences of the coronavirus. But really, who was? The novelty of the disease, plus the speed and ferocity in which it struck the globe, ensured that no one had a playbook for its response. There was no roadmap showing how to transition during a pandemic.
For the better part of its 100-year existence, AUC has been the best-known private university in Egypt, its reputation extending to the Arab world and beyond. But it had no quick fix to the coronavirus.
There was, for instance, a notable increase in cheating, whether copying verbatim from a classmate, plagiarising word for word from material on the Internet, or paying for cheating services. Though it was not rampant, there was a significant spike in violations of academic integrity. The majority of students were thankfully on the up and up, but some saw a golden opportunity to exploit the absence of class proctoring.
Consequently, several professors opted not to give tests or exams, even with monitoring software at their disposal, electing instead for additional papers and projects.
In the end, the semester ended, but it took an eternity to get there.
When the fog cleared, as some students will attest, science lab courses are not online-friendly. Meantime, professors were by and large of the opinion that online work can never truly replace the synergy of classes on campus. “Meeting my students in class has always been something that I am looking forward to since I started teaching 16 years ago. Missing this was like missing my second home,” Shamma said.
“Not being able to see the students, talk to them, feel their pulse was the biggest challenge for me personally,” seconded Boutros.
AUC will have an online summer semester — in which the regular grading system will return — but the make-up of its fall semester remains unknown.
“If the fall semester is also online, it’s going to be an entirely online (distance) learning experience,” Boutros said. “Therefore, I wouldn’t like to see any student or faculty embark on this unprepared. We as faculty are going to have to find ways to create the rapport that we naturally have with students in our classes.”
Adds Catarina Belo, associate professor in philosophy: “It would be good to have a clear plan for the entire semester from the outset, although I understand that this is difficult.”
“The amount of e-mails being sent should be much less because you just get lost in so many e-mails and usually miss important ones,” said Ashrakat Hamad, 22, a fresh graduate in communication and media arts.
Whatever the future holds, any forthcoming AUC virus-related semester will never compare to the original. The Covid-19 semester will never be forgotten by anybody who had a part in it. It made spring 2020 surreal, frenetic, draining, overwhelming. Pick any adjective and you would be right.
Additional reporting by Salma Ahmed
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly