The American University in Cairo (AUC), in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE) and the American University of Beirut (AUB), is seeking ways to enrich its own educational approaches and spark dialogue on the benefits of online and blended learning across the region. Egypt’s Minister of Education and Technical Education Tarek Shawki, the associate dean of digital learning and executive director of J-WEL, Veejay Kumar, and CEO of AGFE, Maysa Jalbout discussed “Blended Education in Egypt: Opportunities and Challenges,” in a public panel organized by AUC and moderated by AUC provost Ehab Abdel Rahman. The event was sponsored by MBC Masr, Al Masry Al Youm newspaper and Egypt Today.In his remarks, Francis J. Ricciardone, AUC president said, “What AUC tries to do here in Egypt is explore new ways of learning, new ways of serving and new ways of advancing knowledge and its transmission.”
At the center of the discussion was an emphasis on “disrupting” current educational practices in Egypt and introducing a true “appetite” for learning. “We have to redefine what education is, establish the culture and the joy of learning,” Shawki said.
“I think the real potency is educational transformation,” opened Kumar, discussing the immense impact that online learning initiatives can have on education. MIT has witnessed the wide-reaching potential of its own online and blended learning projects.
Both Jalbout and Kumar view online and blended learning as a key step in widening access to education. Kumar noted that “widening access” does not only refer to an increase in the number of students who can access educational resources, but also signals a diversification of those that can be reached. “What I see happening through these efforts is that we are able to address the learning needs of different kinds of audiences in different ways,” Kumar added.
Jalbout similarly sees the potential of transforming access to education, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa region. “We as a foundation, are focused on providing access to education to the highest achieving students in the region who don’t have access to resources to go to great universities like AUC and AUB,” stated Jalbout. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and online learning is definitely the invention that we need to be able to reach a wider number of students across the region.”
The benefits of online and blended learning are not limited to science and math courses, and the implementation of these strategies is not a question of choosing to study either completely online or face-to-face. Rather, Kumar notes that “combining on-site with online is much more valuable,” and the value of blending is rooted in the potential to customize for any type of course.
Sharing his personal experience with online learning, Ahmed Said, who is currently pursuing a MicroMasters in supply chain management at MIT, with an AGFE scholarship, added that he often sees online learning as a better option than traditional methods.
The MicroMasters program allows students to begin an MIT program of study online, earning academic credits that permit them to later apply for an MIT master’s degree. “It eliminates geographical distance, he said. “Learning with a big university like MIT became so easy with online learning.”
In searching for partners throughout the region, AGFE saw great potential in collaborating with AUC because of its investment in quality education and engagement in the use of technology in the classroom. “Given that AUC is a leader in Egypt, it can also be a leader in collaborating with other universities in the region,” said Jalbout.
Situating itself as a hub for creativity and innovation, AUC has made strides in enhancing its own implementation of online and blended learning approaches. Abdel-Rahman noted that the University recently announced the appointment of a new position, Associate Provost for Transformative Learning and Teaching, pointing to AUC’s commitment to exploring pioneering educational strategies.
AUC has already trained 68 faculty members in offering blended courses, and has designed and delivered four blended courses. Currently, the University is in the process of designing 15 additional blended courses, among the multitude of efforts being made to further incorporate blended approaches into the University experience. The Center for Learning and Teaching has played a major role in training faculty members and stimulating these efforts.
Shawki discussed several plans that the Ministry of Education has set in motion to completely revamp Egypt’s educational system. Among the many projects underway are the expansion of the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, a digital library consolidating a range of international content, and the introduction of a new online managing system. At the core of this shift is a push to reshape the community’s perception of education.
Both Shawki and Jalbout have observed reluctance toward online and blended learning throughout the region. Many governments are not accrediting online learning, hesitant about the quality of this approach.
“The problem with Egypt is not technology, curriculum or assessment,” said Shawki. “It is just really redefining education. All of this will go nowhere, unless we really convince people that it’s all about learning.”
Another major challenge, added Shawki, is managing the enormous size of Egypt’s education system, made up of over 22 million children. Within such a large system, the challenges of implementing innovative strategies are numerous.
Jalbout also added the issue that most online content is produced in English, making it difficult to increase access as many students across the region do not speak English. Another hurdle is developing more access to technology for the underserved population. Jalbout, however, feels encouraged by the efforts currently being made to overcome these obstacles.
“We think that the challenges are plenty, but they are not insurmountable,” she asserted. “Technology is allowing us to dig deeply into where students are having challenges and provide them with support in real time so that they are able to overcome those learning challenges as opposed to being discouraged.”
The Egyptian government cannot be alone in promoting these major changes, added Shawki. He called on AUC and its creative community to propose suggestions for education improvement, particularly when it comes to teacher training and assessment. He also underlined the importance of collaborating with a network of private sector organizations as well as NGOs in order to bring about real change.