As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic remains present, the world has shifted to digital platforms on an unprecedented scale. Many employees around the world are now, by dint of the circumstances, forced to work from home, with huge conferences also forced to be held virtually.
The situation is no different for schools and universities, which have also sent their students home to continue their studies online. Unfortunately, there is also uncertainty about when the schools or universities will reopen.
Some think that digital learning is simply using digital tools in the classroom, whereas others argue that digital learning aims to enhance the education system itself. The American University in Cairo (AUC) is just one example of a university in Egypt that has taken a leadership role in digital learning. The AUC believes that digital learning is not just a digital means of finding out information, but it is also a way to enhance the education system itself.
Aziza Ellozy, Professor of Practice at the AUC and Associate Provost for Transformative Learning and Teaching, spoke to Daily News Egypt about what digital learning means and how the AUC is implementing it. She is also the Founding Director of the AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching.
What does digital learning mean?
Digital Learning is any type of learning that uses technology to facilitate or enhance students’ learning. At the AUC, we focus on three types of digital learning: web-enhanced, blended, and online learning. All learning is computer-assisted and most teaching and learning at the AUC occurs in a face-to-face modality that is web-enhanced. This means that instructors provide student opportunities to use the resources and activities from the web to enhance the classroom experience.
Some of our courses are designed as blended learning courses, which we have defined as an approach that integrates online with traditional face-to-face class activities, and where some of the face-to-face time is replaced by online activity. In online learning, all teaching and learning occurs online. In addition, we have developed several online courses for our non-degree programmes.
When and how did the AUC implement the idea of digital learning?
The AUC has had a long-term university-wide commitment to web-enhanced and computer-assisted learning. Since I joined the AUC in 2002, it has dedicated significant resources to a solid infrastructure, to substantial computing and educational technologies as well as to faculty development programmes through the Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT). At first, most of the efforts were directed at enhancing and enriching face to face teaching with technology. With time, interest in blended and online learning increased, and recently several courses have been offered in a blended learning and online modality. Of course, with the advent of the present Covid-19 crisis, all our courses have been transformed to fully online courses.
How does the AUC approach digital learning?
There are two complimentary approaches: on the one hand, we built a solid infrastructure and invested in relevant platforms and technologies, and on the other we have invested heavily in faculty development and support.
What sort of applications do you use in the process of digital learning?
We have technologies that are used across the institutions and others that are discipline specific. To be honest, they are too many to cite. I will just mention those that are used by the majority of faculty. We have two Learning Management Systems named Blackboard and Moodle, and we also use a plagiarism prevention software named Turnitin.com. In terms of the video streaming and lecture capture software, we use Panopto, in addition we use Zoom, and Google Suite applications, and the mobile devices themselves.
Besides, I want to mention that we use adaptive technologies for special needs students, and we have a number of library databases and classroom technologies.
Do you develop these applications at the AUC or do you develop your own applications? And what was the cost?
The applications are proprietary and their licences are quite expensive.
In general, most faculty and students were pretty comfortable using the platforms that we had in a web-enhanced approach. What they were not prepared for is online learning. This requires special course design and preparation to study fully online.
How have faculties and students reacted to the COVID-19 situation, which required an immediate conversion from face-to-face teaching and learning to a fully online modality?
First of all, I want to mention that the administration foresaw the possibility of transitioning to online ahead of time, and we had a contingency plan for training our faculty before the closure of the campus. We managed to train almost 600 faculties on a specific set of online teaching and learning tools. We managed to continue teaching all our courses during the quarantine.
Although the transition may have been relatively less painful for the AUC than for other institutions of Higher Education in the region, it was inevitable that we experience challenges some of which we expected and others that we did not. But our faculty and students have shown great agility and flexibility which has allowed us to proceed with online teaching without any major interruption for all courses, which is a remarkable feat.
How can you ensure the commitment of the students to the digital courses?
The role of faculty is to engage students with the course and to guide their learning regardless of the teaching modality. Student performance will range within a spectrum as it usually does. I do not think that student commitment depends on the technology, although student engagement may be greater if a course is better designed and the teacher is a better teacher
What are the challenges that the AUC faced while implementing digital learning and how did it overcome them?
In general, the major challenges revolve around the time it takes for faculty to train on using technologies and the fast rate at which these technologies change. Another challenge is to get faculty to invest time in professional development for designing courses for digital learning. Using technology in and of itself is not enough – it has to accomplish certain pedagogical objectives or else it is best not using it at all.
We have always tried to get feedback from students and faculty through all sorts of means: focus groups, surveys, pilots, mid-semester assessments, consultations etc. Over the years, we have been able to evaluate what works and what does not and how to address it and correct it.
Our most recent effort was during this coronavirus emergency. We have surveyed students and faculty every week since we started online teaching and learning. We have carried out surveys for the past four weeks (course by course) to address anything that needed addressing. It has been a very successful approach as we had our fingers on the pulse of both faculty and students.
Are you planning to offer courses fully online, regardless of quarantine?
Right now, we will be offering non-degree courses that are online and some Arabic courses. We will continue to develop other online courses in the non-degree sector. We have not yet made any new decisions regarding or post-COVID-19 experience. We have however decided to offer our summer courses this year fully online given the uncertainty of when we will go back to campus.
Do you have any plans to cooperate with the Ministry of the Higher Education to transfer your experience to Egyptian universities?
Of course, the AUC is always looking forward to this kind of cooperation. All the resources we have developed are open educational resources which we are very happy to share.
From your experience, do you expect a successful implementation for the AUC`s experience in digital learning in other Egyptian universities?
Our experience can be adapted to other universities while adjusting it to the available resources and the circumstances of the students.
How can we prepare the components (teachers and students) to the implementation of digital learning?
In my view, there needs to be an entity in each university that is devoted to support the professional development of faculty. The teaching and learning landscape has changed dramatically in the last 30 years and all faculty need to get continuous faculty development opportunities as educators. The Center for Learning and Teaching at AUC, established 17 years ago, does just that and has been quite successful.
In your opinion, how can Egypt advance the digital learning in order to get results?
I think we can agree that public higher education in Egypt has not delivered on the promise to give access to quality education to the over 2.5 million students, 80% of whom attend public universities. There is a large number of excellent (digital) free Open Educational Resources (OERs) that can complement any course or curriculum.
My opinion would be to accompany any reform programme with continuous faculty development programmes (as I mentioned in the previous question), to have a strong infrastructure so that all learners have affordable access to online resources, and to possibly translate some of the OERs into Arabic as a first step to an affordable, practical digital learning model.
Will the COVID-19 crisis lead the Egyptian educational system to shift to digital learning?
I think we definitely do not have a choice, regardless of the crisis. Students cannot function properly in a global economy without digital literacy and fluency.
How can an educational facility start its new digital learning system?
I could outline tips from my experience: First the educational facility has to provide a centralised unit (like the Center for Learning and Teaching at AUC) that supports faculty development efforts. Second, the administration should make sure that this centre is staffed with experts (instructional designers).
Third, train students to help faculty with technology. For example at AUC, we have made use of our students and created a Student Technology Assistants programme. We trained students to help faculty with technology, and it has been very successful as it has been going for 17 years.
Fourth, my recommendation is to be patient. To undertake any cultural change in large institutions takes time but with the proper support faculty and students are open to innovation. However all this depends on a strong university IT infrastructure and an investment in one or two educational platforms.