By Rim EL Hasbani

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we perceive and experience several things, including education. The world has witnessed a drastic change in education, turning from conventional and traditional on-campus learning to e-learning. Globally, universities and schools are tailoring their programs and curriculums to make them more fit to online learning. This includes pre-recorded or online live lectures, online meetings, online exams, assignments and many more. The pandemic also had repercussions on international students who planned on leaving their country to study their degree abroad. Many of them were not able to leave their country and make it on time for their classes due to a travel ban; Others who were able to travel took blended classes that combine on campus as well as online lectures.

The abrupt shift from traditional on campus learning to e-learning has unveiled several challenges especially for students who study in the MENA region. The article below discusses some of the advantages and inconveniences that online learning has to offer with a focus on the Middle East. It also discusses students’ and employers’ perspectives on e-learning with acknowledging the limitation of research in the region.

Studying online can be more cost effective as tuition fee is generally lower for the programs that are fully conducted online. Students can also save money on living and travel expenses as they do not have to physically move outside of their home country. Studying online enables students to work, either full time or part time and invest in both a career and education. Through learning online, students can learn to optimize their productivity as they juggle between work and lectures. Learning online can also be more inclusive. In a study conducted by Bailey et al., (2018) in the United States, data showed that women are 21% more likely than men to take online courses. This finding could have a drastic effect on MENA populations if a replicate study in the region shows similar results. This would allow stay at home wives and mothers to pursue their education while taking care of their children and household. In other words, women from conservative backgrounds would not have to make a choice between education and family and hence being pressured to drop out of school. Another result from the study shows that students who undertake online degrees in the United States are on average 7 years older than their counterparts in traditional learning (Bailey et al., 2018). We can deduct from the findings that mature students are more likely to enrol in higher education when given the opportunity to study online; By doing that, they will be able to work and pursue a degree at the same time.
E-learning has its own drawbacks as well. One major problem that students from the MENA region might face is the lack of awareness or acceptance they might experience in the workplace or with job recruiters. Although most online programs are accredited and the content and curriculum delivered is remarkably similar to on-campus programs, some employers might still consider an online degree to be less challenging or to hold less integrity. Research in the Arab region is scarce, hence it is somehow challenging to objectively and factually know if employers do have this bias in employment. In a recent study conducted by the Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education (2020), 57 employers were interviewed and asked on whether they would prefer graduates from traditional versus online degrees. The findings are surprising and do not reflect the concern shared by the Arab youth. In Fact, only four out of the 57 employers would prefer graduates from traditional learning compared to those who obtained an online degree (Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education {AGFE}, 2020). The results seem promising but not conclusive unfortunately. The limitation of the study is translated by the small population surveyed which is not representative to draw significant results. In the same study, 1000 Arab youth were surveyed about their perspective on online learning. The vast majority of the participants confirmed taking at least one course online in their lifetime (AGFE , 2020). However, the popularity of online classes did not make it less marginalized as the majority consider online learning and degrees to be complementary learning to their traditional degree (AGFE , 2020). Furthermore, the study unveiled some of the concerns that the young Arab youth face (AGFE , 2020). The concerns are many but include the following: First, online exams are perceived to be easier to pass than exams conducted physically on campus (AGFE , 2020). Second, the lack of physical interaction between the students and instructors might hinder academic progress and understanding of the course material (AGFE , 2020). Finally, some participants perceived online learning to be lacking the support that they would get otherwise from the university in a traditional on campus setting (AGFE , 2020). Studying at home could be very convenient for some students however, it could be a little bit more challenging for those who live with their families as they might get easily distracted or not have the privacy that they desire. Arab students are also faced by other challenges that are far more disturbing and drastic than the inconveniences they face at home.
To conclude, more efforts should be invested in the Education sector and especially improving access to quality online education in the Arab region. Policymakers must work on overcoming and resolving the obstacles that hinder E-learning for the best interest of students. Efforts to overcome those challenges should be coupled with updated research and large scale studies that tackle trends in online education, public opinions, employers preferences, expectations, challenges and more importantly local initiatives that work on improving students’ experiences.

References
– Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education. (2020). Online learning in the Arab world: An educational model that needs support. https://alghurairfoundation.org/sites/default/files/AGFE%20Policy%20Brief%20-%20English.pdf
– Bailey, A., Vaduganathan, N., Henry, T., Laverdiere, R., & Pugliese, L. (2018). Making Digital Learning Work—Success Strategies from Six Leading Universities and Community Colleges. Retrieved from https://edplus.asu.edu/sites/default/files/BCG-Making-Digital-Learning-Work- Apr-2018%20.pdf