Minister of Education and Technical Training Tarek Shawki – Still image Youtube/MBC Masr
With a whole generation spending increasingly big chunks of their days online, it only makes sense that another big aspect of their lives, education, joins the online conversation. Many universities and educational institutions around the world are moving toward blended learning, a hybrid mode of instruction that combines face to face, conventional modes of learning with online instruction.
The ratio of online to physical classrooms education varies from institution to another and depends a great deal on the context and nature of the course, but on average, blended learning entails replacing 20 to 50 percent of class time with online instruction, discussions and activities.“Blended learning is a very interesting way of learning…it eliminates geographical distance,” said Ahmed Said, a student undertaking micro master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), during a panel on blended learning held by the American University in Cairo in September.
“Learning with a huge university like MIT became very easy through blended learning…I can study whenever I want, after work or on weekends.” The panel aimed to promote and raise awareness about blended learning, and hosted Minister of Education Tarek Shawki, Vijay Kumar, associate dean of digital learning at MIT, a leading provider of blended courses, and CFO of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education Maya Jalbout. AUC Provost Ehab Abdel-Rahman, who moderated the panel, explained that to promote online education, AUC has announced a new position of Associate Provost for Blended Courses, appointing Aziza El Lozy for the position.
The university has already trained 68 faculty members on blended courses, with four courses currently taught in blended format and 15 more courses being designed to follow suit. The university is also working on offering the first blended-learning certificate through the School of Continuing Education.
Pioneering blended learning in Egypt
Shawki explained during the panel that the ministry’s efforts are going toward implementing blended learning, assessment and management. The ministry is set to launch a “one-of-a-kind blended learning [initiative] on a mass scale,” that they were
“confidentially” preparing for throughout the past two years. The ministry has also coordinated with the Ministry of Industry, the military and various local manufacturers to provide children, teachers and administrators with access to devices to improve students’ access to technology.
There are also plans to provide access to the 22 million students in the education system with free 4G access to the internet. The program focuses on teacher preparation first to implement blended learning, training staff on using technology in classrooms. The initiative has also already trained 2,000 teachers in Ain Shams for kids with special needs and inclusion.He added that the ministry is working on a digitally-available Egyptian knowledge bank as a foundation to build basic and higher education on. “This has grown tremendously and in the next two months we are going to witness almost a doubling in size to expand and become Egypt’s e-learning bank, adding 17 different content providers for it to become a huge e-learning system,” Shawki announced.
“Content is already brewing in the kitchen.” Several other projects are underway for the ministry, including a radical change to the Thanawya Amma structure by September 2018, introducing a new education system, as well as restructuring and reforming the ministry with new rules and regulatory frameworks and moving part of the new ministry to the New Administrative Capital. “We have to kill that monster guarding those rules,” Shawki said. New regulations will also be introduced to govern private schools.
More opportunities, less cost
Blended learning allows the power to tap into students around the region who can’t access high-quality education without elearning. And with cost of online learning going down, blended learning provides an answer to students who can’t afford to relocate
either internally or to another country, need more flexible hours to balance between a job and education, or can’t afford tuition fees. And although blended courses are normally cheaper than conventional ones, with a lot of overhead cost being cut down, some institutions set the same price for both methods of learning.
However, blended learning still means a student can access a university in the US without having to suffer the costs of living there, of relocating and of losing a job to study abroad. A leading model of e-learning is MIT, which opened its courseware to make all course content available for people around the world for free, becoming a pioneer in the field of blended learning. “The impact was unprecedented; millions of users in the world were either looking at these courses, modelling their curriculum after it or directly using it as supplemental course material,” explained Kumar.
“This widens access to learning opportunities in an unprecedented manner.” Jalbout’s foundation, Al Ghurair, provides access to education to high-achieving students without access to private universities like AUC. With the numbers of students needing the foundations’ help increasing, Jalbout explains that even with the resources they have, “there’s no way we would be able to scratch the surface.” That is why, to Jalbout, blended learning is the answer. “With the help of AUC and AUB [American University in Beirut], we were able to get some of these students to campus,” she said.
Kumar added that blended learning provides access to education, but it is also a great resource for professionals wanting to update their knowledge in certain fields, and allows for online collaborations between people around the world to exchange knowledge and expertise. “Our value proposition [at MIT] is active learning, doing science is learning science, combining online with offline is more valuable,” Kumar said. “We find the blended solution to be much more [valuable].
Education is a contact sport, and for novice learners, blended is a more [valuable] approach.” Blended learning, however, isn’t without its drawback; students might not be ready or accustomed to independent learning, they might not have access to the internet and they might be wary of the quality of courses offered. With the majority of courses being offered in English by Western universities, the content is also inaccessible to students around the region who can’t speak the language fluently.
“The challenges are plenty but not insurmountable,” said Jalbout. “Many governments are reluctant to accredit online education.” And in an education system as big, old and troublesome as Egypt’s, one Shawki calls “an elephant of a system loaded with problems,” blended learning is a rather hopeful initiative. Shawki explained that Egypt’s education system is host to 22 million students who go to school every morning, in addition to 1.3 million teachers in 27 governorates, each with a different administrative structure that needs managing, controlling and upgrading.
“Trying to manage this is a nightmare,” he added. “The stakeholders are the entire country because the parents of these 22 million kids are the rest of the population; so basically everybody is asking and kicking you and it’s very difficult to manage everything.” In addition to the system being overburden and underfunded, the concepts of modern education, including blended learning, are foreign to many stakeholders in the system.
“We’re not talking the same language; blended learning is safe to [discuss] here, at AUC, but to the public, they thought I was a lunatic talking about flip classrooms,” Shawki lamented. “This is a very ambitious program, but I can’t even market that on public television; I have to censor myself. . . . I am the minister from Mars.” Still, the minister remains hopeful. “I am either optimistic, or crazy,” he said with a laugh. “But I see no other way than using these technologies wisely.”
He realizes, however, that the road ahead is a rocky one, and when asked about the challenges facing blended learning, Shawki sarcastically replied “To answer that question, you need to bring enough food here to last us for the next few days.” Shawki believes that to improve the system in Egypt, it needs to be uprooted and rebuilt. “The word disruption is a dear word to me; we are trying to leapfrog the Egyptian education system from where we are to a much higher place in the ranking through huge disruption,”
he said. “The education system is an old car, it’s always going to be an old car, even if you paint it or fix it, so let’s just get a new car.” The minister argued that the core problem isn’t the use of technology, but rather a cultural issue when it comes to attitudes to education, a culture that cares more about “certificates on the wall, as opposed to actually learning,” Shawki said. “Bring back the joy of learning.”
He called on the media to prepare society on what is to come to consolidate efforts in changing people’s cultures about learning. “The culture is a problem; young parent are not aware that they [schools’ are not really teaching anything to their kids, but they [parents] just want degrees,” Shawki added.