The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on lifestyles has been pervasive, and will likely be long-lasting. Its effects on the world economy have been dramatic, with some of the largest national economies shrinking by 30 per cent, and growth rates regressing the world over. Yet amid all the contraction, the demand for education is as high as ever.
Starting next semester, public, private and national universities will adopt hybrid learning systems in an attempt to meet this demand, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has announced, blending traditional classroom experience with online courses. To facilitate the online component of the programme, the ministry has laid out a plan to upgrade the technological infrastructure of universities at a cost of LE4.8 billion.
Freshmen will still need to attend lectures to familiarise themselves with the way university education works, says Mohamed Saraya, a professor of business administration at Misr University for Science and Technology. During the first year, faculties will need to familiarise their students with necessary skills such as self-learning, research techniques, and critical and imaginative thinking, but once students enter the second year there is no reason why the bulk of theoretical courses should not be conducted online. Practical courses, which require the physical presence of the teacher and students in the same space, will continue to be taught in the traditional way.
“I don’t think the government has many choices given the demands being made on limited budgets. It has to direct the majority of investment towards research, rehabilitating teachers, developing curricula and nonconventional education methods, all of which will require improvement in the Internet infrastructure,” says Saraya.
The Ministry of Higher Education should view the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to integrate technology into education and promote e-learning, argues Mohamed Shoman, dean of the Faculty of Media Communication at the British University in Egypt. Developed countries, he says, are already making strides in this direction as universities introduce theoretical subjects online and conduct practical course in small groups.
The challenges to such an approach in Egypt, says Shoman, “run the gamut of university education, from the teaching board, students and curricula to the availability of an Internet infrastructure and applications that can facilitate communication between students and professors”.
At public universities “where large numbers of students are enrolled there is the added challenge of the need to upgrade lecture halls so social distancing is possible.” Not that this is insurmountable. “The government successfully implemented social distancing during the Thanaweya Amma final year exams at schools and there is no reason why it cannot repeat the same success at universities,” points out Shoman.
“During the spring semester, with the implementation of social distancing measures, university professors videorecorded their lectures and uploaded them online on university channels and other outlets for the students to download,” says Hisham Saber, a professor of teaching methods at the University of Zagazig. Which was a start of sorts. But much more needs to be done.
Online education requires programmes that simulate classes and allow teachers to communicate with a closed group of students, manage a virtual class and receive comments as well as deliver lectures.
“For the time being it is best to leave it to each faculty to determine the most suitable system for practical subjects that require attendance, and theoretical material that doesn’t necessitate the presence of teachers and students in one place,” says Saber.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly