With the continuity of the Peri-COVID Era and as the post-COVID era starts to unravel, one cannot but recognize the agility and the nimbleness with which Higher education institutions (HEIs) of the MENA region responded to this disruption that wreaked havoc on HEIs around the world, while ensuring the high quality of the education they deliver.
By Abir Sinno
AUB Suliman S. Olayan School of Business
HEIs in the region joined the global race for digitization despite the multilayered challenges they faced.
The Landscape of Higher Education in MENA comprises universities with varying autonomy, governance, quality assurance practices and resources. Some were well equipped for online teaching and learning through earlier investments in electronic platforms and content, but the majority were struggling with the sudden necessity of providing large-scale quality online teaching and learning this is due to the lack of access to internet , lack of sufficient bandwidth in many student households ,lack of hardware, lack of online platforms for teaching and learning, the limited digital and pedagogical skills of instructors for online teaching, limited digital skills of students and the limited face-to-face and social interaction with instructors and classmates. All these factors can lead to decreased student motivation and learning, affecting disadvantaged students more than others.
Among other challenges that HEIs struggled with is maintaining the quality of students recruited. In Lebanon, students who were preparing for entry or admission to universities in fall 2020 were impacted due to the cancellation of secondary school-leaving exams and HEIs in the country were left with the responsibility of implementing the right evaluation tools to ensure that they recruit students of quality.
Resilience at Its Best
Despite the challenges and despite the fact that HEIs of the region were not competing on equal ground, they have made an enormous effort, and have largely succeeded, in implementing distance education. They moved most of their courses online, almost from day one!
They transitioned from the “This is just a phase” mindset to the “This is the new norm”! So instead of continuing to plan for temporary solutions, HEIs started strategically rethinking their models, reorganizing resources, and restructuring their processes including those that involve quality assurance.
Dr. Anas Ratib AlSoud, Assistant to the President for International Accreditation and Rankings at AL-Ahliyya Amman University in Jordan described the agility with which his university mitigated the challenges resulting from the instant switch from face-to-face learning to distance learning: “there was a negative impact at the beginning, but we managed to mitigate it and convert it to a positive impact by allowing our academic staff to follow our QA standards anytime anywhere.”
“How to maintain internal and external Quality Assurance (QA) in a new virtual setting?”
A question that haunted virtual meeting rooms in universities of the region as they switched to “Upgrade Mode” with their transition to the virtual teaching / learning systems and their race to digitize their content and automate their processes.
Some HEIs struggled with QA related challenges like measuring student learning outcomes, preserving the academic integrity and assessment especially for courses that include a practical component.
Consequently, the situation led HEIs to rethink their QA procedures, and emphasized the importance of online learning, flexibility for assessment deadlines and exams, International coordination and collaboration, proactive preventative measures, and stricter sanitation initiatives.
When QA is brought to the table of discussion in HEIs a big chunk of the conversation revolves around the assessment of the teaching & learning .
In Lebanon, some HEIs have cancelled or postponed exams and/or replaced in-class exams with online exams or alternative, project-based assignments. Others used Electronic tests/examinations provided the required infrastructure/connectivity are available. They were concerned about maintaining the integrity of the assessment, they had to adjust their assessment practices to suit online delivery. In doing so, they had to make sure that these practices are robust, safeguarding against academic misconduct but equally ensuring fairness for students who have had to sit for university assessments during challenging circumstances.
Being one of the most prominent HEIs in the region, the American University of Beirut (AUB) proved to be quite creative and agile in this area. AUB Faculty formulated and adopted alternative and flexible methods of evaluating learning, while addressing the serious issues that students continued to face with limited and interrupted access to the internet such as proctored and non-proctored Moodle based quizzes and exams, open-book home assignments, writing assignments, and surveys to assess higher-level learning, and oral presentations or demonstrations. They invested in online proctoring tools to maintain academic integrity and the quality of the learning.
In some disciplines, role-play activities were used where students can videotape interviews, experiments, pitches and send the videos to faculty for evaluation using rubrics. Another method of assessment was peer review, which served towards team learning in the online environment. For small classes, the use of structured discussion forums with clear guidelines that are designed to meet specific objectives allowed assessment of student engagement and learning of content. Oral exams were only utilized to augment and validate student knowledge.
Some faculties adopted flipped classrooms, a technique requiring students to read and prepare for class, thus making class time more about constructive discussions, working on problems, and case studies. This allowed a formative assessment of student participation, preparation, and assimilation of class material.
AUB was already quite advanced in the digitization arena and they further worked on making resources available to support the quality of their teaching a learning with technology. They deployed a solid technical support system and set up an online repository rich with resources and tools for online teaching and learning.
Shamama Mukhtar, the quality assurance and accreditation supervisor at ALFaisal University in KSA, described how ALFaisal University maintained quality by being open to new ideas and invested in nurturing an accepting and collaborative work environment that allowed faculty to learn from their peers she explained “Workshops on online teaching tools were conducted in every department. The faculty were given the margin to learn and make mistakes. The faculty shared their struggles and challenges and helped each other with solutions.”
Post COVID: The Road to Some Sort of “Business as Usual”
As the vaccination campaigns are rolled out , Indicators point to an optimistic public health and safety situation that likely will allow HEIs in the region to pivot toward a robust, meaningful return to campus. This return to campus is vital to fostering scholars, learners, researchers, care providers, and staff.
Even though HEIs in MENA achieved successes while operating in a virtual environment over the past year or so , a return to the in-person experience is a must but even in that, classrooms will be different, and teaching format will have necessarily benefited from the trials and tribulations of forced, accelerated distance learning.
So there may not be a “Business As Usual “ state but HEIs in the MENA will certainly formulate a “New Usual” and will pave the way for their community to sustain their operations and continue to deliver quality education.