COVID-19, a Game Changer For Education

October 3, 2020


Bothaina Adham, 28, normally spends early September buying notebooks and take-home folders to plan English lessons for her 100-plus high school students at an international school in eastern Cairo. This year, Adham neither stocked up on supplies nor had time to prepare lesson plans.

Instead, she spent her time becoming more tech-savvy to adapt to a new virtual teaching environment.

Education Minister Tarek Shawki released guidelines for reopening public and national private schools on October 17, leaving it to school administrators to decide what the hybrid academic year would look like. International schools were allowed to start earlier if they operate fully online.

Schools across the country can follow either a weekly rotation schedule or a shortened week. While each will determine its own schedule, the Education Ministry has recommended that K-3 students go to school in person at least three days a week and Grades 4 to 6 two days. The remaining days will be devoted to online learning. The ministry suggests that middle schoolers be divided into three groups based on grade level and attend in-person classes twice a week on alternating schedules, while high schoolers will be fully online.

Since school closures in April, Adham has been overwhelmed with orientations and tutorials covering such topics as moving educational materials online; creating videos; and using Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

“It was challenging,” says Adham, “The general stressful atmosphere and anxiety that we’re all going through and the unfamiliarity with the software.” But teachers have adapted quickly to the new system and witnessed early on a clear impact on how students absorb new ideas, she says. “It has been educational to us as teachers, too,” she adds. “We had to develop entirely new skills and challenge ourselves to find innovative teaching techniques to engage students and create a classroom-like atmosphere, virtually.”

With this sudden shift away from the classroom, some wonder if online learning will continue post-pandemic and how such a shift would impact education worldwide.

Even before COVID-19, education technology was a growth industry with global edtech investments of $18.66 billion in 2019 and the overall market for online education is projected to reach $350 billion by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. Whether it is language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools or online learning software, there has been a significant surge in use since COVID-19.

Educators increasingly blend online with in-person learning strategies to deliver course content. Blended learning also is known as “hybrid learning” or “flipped classroom.” This mode of learning can allow flexible access to content and instructions at any time. Implementing a blended learning program requires coherent and coordinated planning to be successful and continuous evaluation, says Francis Tornay, pedagogical director of the primary years program at Ecole Oasis Internationale.


Outside comfort zones

One silver lining of the pandemic is it gives educators the chance to think outside the box and execute long-shelved innovations, says Deena Boraie, vice president for student life at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Combining traditional classroom learning models with interactive apps and face-to-face video instruction could become the new norm.

AUC used remote instruction as an emergency measure to cope with the pandemic semester. As infection numbers rose, AUC held intensive training for 800 faculty members on how to hold online classes — a process facilitated by the university’s Center for Learning and Teaching, says AUC Provost Ehab Abdel-Rahman.

“Training finished a couple of days before we fully switched to online learning,” Abdelrahman says. He notes that an efficient transition to hybrid learning calls for quick-thinking instructors and adaptive students.

Initially, many AUC professors were concerned about technological difficulties they might face when told they would be expected to teach online.
“I almost freaked out because I was quite unfamiliar with all [the] remote teaching tools, even Gdrive [Google drive], so I thought that would be extremely difficult,” Nehal Abou El-Nagga, associate professor at the department of applied linguistics, told The Caravan, a student newspaper.

AUC ‘s first day in the hybrid semester was September 3. “I really wish the next semester isn’t conducted online, too,” says Nadine, a business sophomore. “It feels like I am not learning to my full potential. The work definitely keeps me on my toes and is more time-consuming because we learn more independently, but classroom experience is much richer.”

Though it’s still too early to assess the overall quality of hybrid learning, it’s obvious students are missing out on classroom discussions, according to Abdelrahman. “No matter how hard you try to do it by phone, or you meet your colleague at a cafe, it’s not the same as meeting on campus discussing a topic or a problem in your class together,” he added.

However for Salma, a computer engineering senior, online learning isn’t much of a hassle. “It is what it is. The current situation calls for online learning. The university and professors are obliged to make learning online efficient and useful as much as possible. If a student is truly learning nothing, then something in the system is flawed and it’s the university’s responsibility to work on making it better. This is our basic right as students,” she wrote on a student group on Facebook. She added all students should voice their concerns, experiences and challenges to their professors.

Swift action taken by several private schools to deploy measures for online learning is causing a shift toward new approaches. According to Tornay, in-person teaching is not going to be the only way of teaching from now on. Even when students go back to campus, online learning would be part of the future, says Tornay.

Flying solo?

While some students and parents worry about the move to online learning – with inadequate training, insufficient bandwidth and little preparation – others believe a new hybrid model of education could bring significant benefits.

There have already been successful transitions by many universities. Nile University managed to get more than 5,000 courses online in just two weeks. The integration of technology in education will move faster due to the pandemic and online education will eventually become a key component, says Tarek Khalil, Nile University president.

“We were very surprised like many other universities when the pandemic hit us but were able in a very short period of time to transfer all curriculums, labs and activities in a virtual model to welcome students once again, virtually, this month,” he says. “It was certainly quite a task.”

In early September, Nile University hosted an international conference online with representatives from 40 countries. “It was meant to be on campus. When we heard of world travel restrictions, we postponed the event to September and decided to host a virtual conference,” Khalil says.

Meanwhile, moving online has not been a big problem for students, according to Boraie. “Their mobile phones are almost an extension of their hands,” she says. “Students love anything to do with technology and they’re very quick to use it,” she adds.

Tornay agrees that teachers must be agile and adapt. “Learning can be tailored to allow students to really engage with the material … so whenever a more typical classroom situation resumes, the transition to a blended learning model will happen very naturally,” he says.

Ecole Oasis Internationale was planning to move toward using virtual learning before the COVID-19 closures. The school provides every student with a tablet that includes lesson videos, classroom materials and the school’s learning management system. Tornay predicts the whole sector will follow this trend, and teachers will continue to use online tools to post material that students can read or view at home. Students, on the other hand, will be doing independent research by watching video assignments, surfing the web, or even using virtual reality tools, and then discussing what they’ve learned.

“This transforms the role of the teacher from a content provider to a mentor,” Tornay adds.

Students can start taking learning into their own hands, Boraie notes. Enforced online learning is proving that students can enjoy a much more proactive role in discovering their curriculum, and take more responsibility for their growth as learners. “Learning how to learn is a very important skill,” she says. Independent learning adds value in the sense that students no longer have to stick to one book, or one form of content. “Content can be consumed through multiple uploaded digital resources … so it’s an enrichment of learning.”
“Quality education depends on so many factors now: the teacher, curriculum, institution and student, especially because the online modality is all about independent learning. I think that’s one of the changes that we’re going to see happen in education,” notes Shahinaz Ahmed, Amideast country director. However, educators should be asking themselves some questions to ensure they’re on the right path. “For example, does the curriculum reflect the realities of the 21st century? Is it producing or graduating individuals that will have the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for the kind of employment market that exists, and that will exist in the next four or 40 years?”

Flying knowledge

Moreover, adapting to the new normal could lead to long-term benefits for institutions offering international scholarships — including increased accessibility for Egyptians. A case in point is Amideast. Ahmed says her organization temporarily halted programs March 19. Two weeks later, they continued the English language program online.

Starting in May, all other training programs were conducted virtually, operating in seven governorates. While the pre-COVID focus was on physical outreach, once the pandemic hit Amideast was able to distribute tech equipment to those in need and continued operating online. In July, it began administering online assessments with remote proctoring to over 10,000 students across Egypt. “You could be taking an exam in Ismailia, and your proctor might be in Dubai, Tunis or Pakistan,” Ahmed says.

“It’s a very big change and it’s difficult, but we like it, we are surviving it and it’s naive to think we’ll be going back to the way the world was,” she says. “I would say digital transformation is one of the benefits of COVID-19.  It would have taken 10 years to do these shifts.”

Khalil of Nile University agrees that online learning offers more access: “I think before COVID, it would have been harder to set up a session with a professor in the U.S. or Canada to speak to our student.”
Ahmed adds that e-learning has an impact on labor markets in the sense that an institution can hire instructors and trainers from all over the world. “Globalization of education is happening right before our eyes. We no longer have to go to a certain place for a specific kind of education,” she says. This means there’s a lot of opportunity for developing markets, as they have incredible talent and offer much cheaper labor.



Navigating hurdles

Some students without reliable internet access and technology struggle to participate in digital learning. While 95 percent of students in Switzerland, Norway and Austria have a computer to use for schoolwork, only 34 percent in Indonesia do, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data. In Egypt, there is a significant gap between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds: While virtually all 15-year-olds from a privileged background said they had a computer to work on, nearly 25 percent of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not, data shows.

While some schools and governments have been providing equipment to students in need, many are still concerned the pandemic will widen the digital divide and add financial burdens.

Reham Negm says she had to purchase two laptops in August as part of her back-to-school shopping for her three sons. “My eldest son, Mohamed, is an engineering freshman and Hossam is a junior in high school. Both of them will be attending remote classes five days a week, simultaneously,” she says. A working woman, she had no choice but to buy two extra laptops. Negm will share her laptop with her youngest son, Yehia, who is in kindergarten and will be required to attend classes online twice a week.

Many universities, including AUC, only provide laptop and Wi-Fi devices to students on scholarship or in need.

Negm’s family will pay nearly EGP 400,000 for her sons’ education this school year. She says she is aggravated by expensive fees due to online education.

However, according to Khalil and Abdel-Rahman, the costs have increased. “Some people will say ‘but you’re not using the facilities as you used to when you have the students on campus’ and, yes, maybe some parts of the university expenses have been reduced, but there also are other budget items that have increased,” Abdel-Rahman says.

For those who have access to the right technology, learning online can be more effective in a number of ways. Some research shows that on average, students retain 25 to 60 percent more material when learning online compared to 8 to 10 percent in a classroom, according to Shift Learning, a market research consultancy.  This is mostly due to students being able to learn faster online. E-learning requires 40 to 60 percent less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and rereading, skipping or accelerating through concepts as they choose, according to TechJury, which tests and reviews software.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of online learning varies by age group. The general consensus is a structured environment is required for young students because they are easily distracted, says Tornay.

It is very hard to keep students in elementary school engaged online, said Engy El Zahaby, a training and development director, during a Zoom conference titled “Compassionate Educators.” Moreover, education consultant Yomna Tawfik strongly advised maintaining the same routine online for young students during their hybrid semester.

“It is very important they change into their uniforms like they used to, use the same computer and house space,” she says. During the sessions, teachers should start and end classes the same way. “This will ease the distress and anxiety students feel during such unprecedented times,” Tawfik notes.

Moreover, student engagement increases online when tasks are broken into smaller ones, says El Zahaby. For better control over a session, she suggested splitting a class of 22 students into three smaller groups with 15 minutes of instruction for each. Breakout sessions should be administered for the remaining hour, where students can solve problems or work on an activity. She adds that teachers can grab students’ attention by offering virtual rewards, such as playing an instrument online, showing a pet to friends, sharing a video or even asking the teacher to wear something funny for the next class. “This way you win their attention for the entire period,” El Zahaby notes.

To get the full benefit of online learning, there needs to be a collaborative effort to provide a comprehensive structure and go beyond replicating a physical class or lecture through video capabilities by capitalizing on digital literacy and using a range of tools and engagement methods that promote inclusion, personalization and intelligence, says Sherine Galal, vice chair of the board of directors at Sphinx International Schools.

Moreover, educators need to keep in mind that finishing a certain curriculum should be the lowest priority. Students lost from six months to a year of their educational journey due to being in quarantine and it’s the schools’ responsibility to make up that loss by easing students back into education and establishing a positive relationship, she says, adding, “Education is not just about the curriculums, our students lost social life, lessons about time management, communication and physical activities. Smart educators can adapt easily to close the educational gap that occurred … as long as they are supported by leadership.”

Lessons learned

Asked about what lessons educators took away from the pandemic, Abdel-Rahman of AUC replies that with every challenge comes an opportunity. “Educators need to be flexible and creative and know very well that every problem has a solution,” he says.

Once the pandemic is behind us, Tornay believes educators will be able to leverage the ease and scale provided by the online medium wherever it works, find workarounds for some of the roadblocks encountered to expand its effectiveness and clearly identify teaching-learning situations where online pedagogy does not work well.

Boraie of AUC says the pandemic’s silver lining is it forced us out of our comfort zone, jolted us out of our tendency to focus on what will not work, and nudged us toward quickly leveraging all the new tools and techniques that surprisingly do work well.

Khalil agrees. His take-out lessons were, “being alert, agile enough to be able to switch from one mode to another quickly, and training, training and training.”

Finally, Ahmed concludes that it is crucial for educators to mobilize and be prepared. “The work you do prior to a crisis cushions the crisis for you later on,” she says. “You always have to be prepared for a rainy day.”