Distance-learning has expanded and grown in size as a result of efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and though it comes with its own challenges and opportunities, it has also allowed learners to experience a new quality of education.
“It has been a good experience,” Sama, a 21-year-old political science graduate, said enthusiastically. “It was enjoyable and taught me a lot, exposing me to new methods to rely on in my future studies.”
As the pandemic continues, countries around the world are preparing to implement distance-learning again during the new academic year starting soon. Most students will rely on online learning, with Egypt being no exception as the government acts to develop the technological infrastructure needed to provide e-learning for all and a better quality of education.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year has had implications for all countries on a global scale, resulting in the destabilisation of many political, social, and economic sectors. As a result, various countries have imposed strict policies in order to contain the spread of the disease by declaring travel and entry bans, imposing quarantines, and suspending schools and universities, along with other restrictions.
As the world continues the fight against the virus, its implications differ from one state to another depending on the nature of each country’s system and its ability to deal with emergency situations. The closure of schools and its impacts on the educational sector remain one of the most shared repercussions on a global level.
According to a study by UNESCO, the UN education and culture agency, “Covid-19 has caused education disruptions and prolonged school closures all around the world, affecting 90 per cent of the world’s student population.”
The pandemic has led to the largest disruption of education in history, having an impact on almost all learners and leading governments worldwide to declare the suspension and closure of educational institutions as a temporary means to curb the spread of the virus and ensure the continuity of education in a safe environment to protect both learners and educators.
Despite the different recorded infection rates among various countries, nearly all learners around the world have been affected. According to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), “nationwide school closures have been mandated in 192 countries, interrupting learning for close to 1.58 billion learners (91.4 per cent of total enrolled learners).”
This has meant a need to introduce new learning approaches in the education sector, which on a global scale has proved its resilience by introducing different measures, including distance-learning. “Teachers and schools have been creative in adopting a variety of technology-based strategies as alternatives to the traditional classroom, providing lessons through videoconferencing and online learning platforms and sharing learning materials and worksheets through school-based intranets and messaging platforms,” the ILO report said.
Governments have had to adapt to this universal challenge by utilising e-learning as the best and most pragmatic solution. The pandemic has led to dramatic changes in education, abandoning classrooms and face-to-face learning for classes on Zoom and other online platforms.
Traditionally, online learning has been an optional form of education that has targeted mainly full-time workers, those with family commitments, people with special needs, and students in different regions, allowing them to learn remotely through the use of technology to facilitate communication between teachers and students.
But today, online learning has become mandatory for students of different ages, and the shift away from more traditional forms of education has brought its own challenges and opportunities.
Some countries have started to announce plans to reopen schools based on grade level, or in areas with limited cases of the virus. The adoption of online learning has also led to more cooperation among members of the same household in order to accommodate and help one another in the current situation. Some countries have announced the application of blended or hybrid learning.
“Online learning has been a good learning experience because I got to learn new things outside my academic studies,” said 23-year-old Nour, a university graduate who is enrolled in several free courses on online educational platforms. “It was fun and enjoyable to do while being quarantined. However, it can sometimes get boring” as well because of the lack of physical interaction.
During the pandemic, international English-language platforms like Coursera have also provided students of all ages with the possibility to learn and educate themselves without having to worry about fees, location, or timing.
EGYPT GOES ONLINE: This year, Egypt is gearing up for the largest online education rollout in its history.
The new academic year will start on 17 October instead of the usual September, said Education Minister Tarek Shawki, who is committed to developing online learning methods and a wider digital infrastructure in Egypt. He has introduced various tools to develop an online educational system, including an e-library in Arabic and English, and he has underlined the invitation to parents and students to study the materials and resources provided by it.
The materials offer a digital curriculum from kindergarten to school grade 11, and the ministry has made the e-library accessible for all students from mobile phones and computers. The widely used Edmodo platform also allows teachers and students to easily communicate with one another and can be used for videos and documentaries as well as more traditional classroom materials. In addition, the ministry has created the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, an online library accessible to all students, parents, and teachers.
“We will rely on the use of modern technology in the learning process and will take advantage of the educational platforms launched by the ministry,” Shawki told the press at a recent press conference, adding that the ministry was implementing a hybrid strategy to offer the best education possible under the conditions of the current restrictions.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had “directed the government to develop and expand the system of remote learning as part of the state’s strategy to deal with the next academic year in schools and universities amid the coronavirus crisis.”
Yet, while online learning has been able to bring down some barriers for learners, it has also led to challenges. According to the ILO, teachers in “many developing countries lack the skills and equipment needed to provide distance-education effectively,” and vulnerable and disadvantaged communities may be facing particular challenges during the Covid-19 crisis.
Some of them may not be appropriately advancing on their educational pathways, not only in Egypt but also on a global level. The crisis has led to an exacerbation of already existing disparities among learners, the ILO said.
“The situation of refugees’ education in Egypt is still not clear, as the schools have not reopened yet. So, we cannot tell what the percentage of students dropping out from the educational system has been, whether from the formal or the informal sectors,” commented Bahi Ezzi, a caseworker for an international organisation that aids refugees in Egypt.
“I believe there will be a decline in the number of refugees in schools, though this will probably not be as extreme as some people might assume,” he said.
Not only are many developing countries facing a lack of devices and connectivity issues when using online platforms, but also some developed countries in the Global North are not immune to such problems either. The EU countries, for example, may be facing connection issues, and Covid-19 has cast light on existing gaps within Europe’s digital infrastructure.
Some 6.8 million people in France alone lack minimal quality access to the Internet, for example.
“The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated how crucial it is for citizens and businesses to be connected and to be able to interact with each other online. We will continue to work with member states to identify areas where more investment is needed so that all Europeans can benefit from digital services and innovations,” said Margrethe Vestager, executive vice-president of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age.
Different stages of education have also been affected differently, and Covid-19 has been an international concern for post-graduates and higher-education learners. A survey by the International Association of Universities (IAU), a professional association, of higher-education students worldwide has revealed that many learners face connection issues.
According to the IAU, “respondents reported the immediate challenge to ensure clear and effective communication streams with staff and students,” adding that “80 per cent of respondents believe that Covid-19 will have an impact on enrolment numbers for the new academic year” in universities.
The pandemic has also impacted the mobility of international students seeking to study abroad and carry out graduate or post-graduate studies, limiting or even making impossible their movements. “I was extremely happy to receive acceptance emails from universities abroad for my Masters degree in September 2020; however, everything was put on hold due to the pandemic. I was not able to prepare the required documents, and my family thought it unsafe to travel abroad due to the health crisis,” said one 22-year-old Cairo student.
On a national level, students in different teaching systems face the same challenges, ranging from audio and Internet problems, problems in understanding, and time-management issues. “A one-hour lecture could take up to three hours to fully understand,” said Mariam, a graduate of a private university in Cairo.
“Sound issues were difficult, and I had to pause and play the videos several times in order to understand them. Despite the faculty’s support to facilitate the online-learning process, my experience was not very good,” said a senior student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.
“Online learning consumed more time than the traditional way of learning as I had to search and look for a lot more sources. In addition, the Knowledge Bank server does not work all the time,” said a secondary student in a public school in Cairo.
CHALLENGES: The most common challenge has been the lack of reliable Internet access.
“The Internet connection was the most disturbing issue I had to face every day,” Sama said. Other students complained of not being able to grasp the academic content, and sometimes their school’s minimal preparation to deliver online classes due to a lack of financial means.
Ahmed Salah, a 48-year-old mathematics teacher in a public school in Cairo, agreed that “distance education for theoretical subjects is good, but in the case of subjects that need more interaction, such as mathematics, online classes are not so good.”
Almost all students who talked to Al-Ahram Weekly favoured face-to-face learning over online learning methods. Mai, who has recently finished her exams at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science, said “it was good to do them this way at the present time because of the coronavirus. As for the idea of applying it in general, it is not the best way of learning due to the lack of direct communication between the lecturer and the students. Even communication between them through social-networking sites or the university’s email does not always meet our needs as students.”
Online learning can be challenging for both students and teachers. “It is not always easy to provide online learning for students due to reasons like a lack of student focus or the lack of the same Internet speed across the country. Students are also used to face-to-face discussion,” said a French language teacher in a public school in Cairo.
“Online learning doesn’t offer the same quality as the traditional way of learning; rather, it offers a different quality that might not be so efficient for younger students. For elementary students it might not be as efficient or it might still lack the appropriate methodology,” said an academic director at an international school in Cairo.
To attain the best quality of online learning, experts agree that educational institutions and parents must collaborate to provide children with a structured environment that can encourage them to concentrate and make up for their physical absence from class. “Generally, it is an experience that requires a lot of time for both students and teachers to get used to,” added the French teacher.
The academic director commented that “concentration and commitment levels differ from one student to another. Maybe for some students it offers a better quality; maybe for others it offers a lower quality, so it all depends on the students.”
That said, all students have highly appreciated the government’s efforts in delivering a good quality of education through e-learning. Mai said that “the university provided tablets for students who did not have computers or laptops in order to make things easier for them.” Despite being relatively new, this challenging experience allowed students to explore and analyse more material as well.
“Online learning can save time, and it helps me to rely on myself rather than be spoon-fed information,” Sama added.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the need to rethink future education needs and showed the need to further develop the educational sector and digital platforms, countries worldwide are developing their technological infrastructure. The pandemic has showed the critical importance of today’s digital technologies, especially for societal resilience and community development.
Educators across the globe have described connection issues as being a challenge, however, with schools, universities, and government agencies all now relying on fast and reliable Internet access. In Egypt, the government’s digital-transformation strategy will ensure more developments in the sector, as it aims to provide the highest speed of data-transmission possible through fibre-optic cables.
“This transformation towards digital tools brings skills that will be useful in the 21st century. It will be necessary to continue to deepen educators’ knowledge of these materials so they can share them with students,” concluded Eric Charbonnier, an education analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly
Read the original article onAhram Online