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Adopting e-learning in a day


March 19, 2020

The measures the Saudi government has taken as a quick response to the spread of Covid-19 include the closure of schools and universities since March 9, for an as of yet unspecified period of time.

This was preceded by some initial travel restrictions that have since been tightened. If people had not taken notice of the spread of Covid-19 before, they surely have now, since educational institutions are closed. This was followed by the closing of cinemas and cancellations of large public gatherings.

While all these measures are positive, what made everyone sit up and take notice was the school closings. The social structure of citizens and residents (with the exception of low-skill labour) is built around families. When school and university students are forced to stay at home, it impacts every family’s daily routine.

Public universities in Saudi Arabia are all equipped with McGraw-Hill’s learning management system, or LMS, called BlackBoard. BlackBoard has been routinely used to communicate and share course contents with students for years. When the government took the necessary decision to close educational institutions, the order to universities was accompanied with instructions to move classes to BlackBoard’s live streaming feature, which most faculty had never used and many did not know existed.

I do not know whether the deployment of an LMS, capable of delivering lectures online, is the result of good planning and foresight, or merely a stroke of luck by selecting this particular LMS. Nevertheless, the sudden switch-over to e-learning this way on one day’s notice has not been smooth.

It appears that while technologically conversant faculty of engineering and computer science departments have quickly managed to figure out how to conduct their classes online, faculty of other departments in non-technical departments, like the social sciences, humanities, etc, have not been able to do the same and require training.

Moreover, with just a fraction of faculty being able to comply with the order to conduct online classes, the situation is exposing scalability limits of online learning solutions. Several faculty members I talked to shared that due to the sudden surge in usage of the online lesson feature, the LMS is so overloaded that roughly half of the time it is inoperational. Building and demoing an e-learning solution in a single school or classroom is one thing, but building it to be scalable so it keeps running for thousands of classes with hundreds of thousands of people at a time is another matter.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, like Coursera, edX and others, have been successfully delivering excellent learning experience for a decade, where anyone who wants to learn can do so at any time of the day. Then why, you may ask, this insistence on making all students log on at a fixed time? Why not allow faculty to record video lectures and upload them for students to view them at a time of day that suits them? Apparently, there are still legacy administrative issues to consider, like taking student attendance, and even monitoring whether faculty ‘is coming to work’.

Such considerations prevent the whole-hearted adoption of best practices in distance learning. We are quite literally seeing 20th century concerns holding up 21st century solutions. These same concerns have cropped up in the US, where universities have started announcing closings just a few days ago.

There are still some unresolved questions surrounding school / university closures – for eg: if the closings are extended, how can year-end / semester-end assessments be conducted while ensuring there is no cheating? This question still has not been addressed.

Schools received similar instructions, to switch to e-learning, but without any LMS similar to what universities have in place, they are now scrambling and exploring options independently. Some schools have landed on Microsoft Teams, others on Zoom Video Conferencing, etc, to conduct lectures for students at home. Meanwhile, any vendor who has any solution to help the situation has made it available free of cost.

In Pakistan’s education development sector, we have been hearing talk about an education emergency for at least a decade. In that time we have seen various awareness campaigns, development projects, pilot projects leveraging ed-tech and e-learning. There have been extensive discussions about the adoption of technology to reach more children with the limited resources we have.

I have been working in this sector for about just as long, but if you ask me to identify any e-learning project that has been attempted at scale, I could not name anything substantial. The Saudis and other Gulf countries, on the other hand, jumped on the e-learning track (however imperfect and bumpy the experience) at a day’s notice.

We have finally seen a flurry of overdue announcements from various government departments – ordering the suspension of PSL matches, closing schools, universities, large gatherings, and other measures. For our higher education sector, the HEC has given faculty a two-week period to adapt the delivery of their courses for online delivery. The notice is mute on what resources the HEC is providing universities for this. Given that many universities do not even have a basic LMS in place, it remains to be seen how successful Pakistani universities will be in that endeavour.

I have been wondering whether there is some takeaway relevant to us in the Saudi experience to make our own quick transition to e-learning less painful. After giving it a lot of thought and drawing on my professional experience, I came to the conclusion that our challenges to the adoption of e-learning at mass scale are a lot more basic.

For a start, any e-learning solution will assume that every student at least: a) owns a computer; and b) has a broadband Internet connection. Only private schools catering to the upper middle class can make such assumptions.

However, even in the year 2020, 25 years after the internet came to Pakistan, those are two awfully big assumptions to make for most Pakistanis. And so it seems that, unfortunately, Covid-19 will force our schools to short change students’ on their education this year.

The writer is an independenteducation researcher and

consultant. She has a PhD inEducation from Michigan State University.

Email: [email protected]