JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia began a distance education system as it closed schools and universities across the Kingdom over coronavirus concerns earlier this week, but students and educators have faced problems shifting to a virtual learning experience.
The name of international virtual learning platform Blackboard Learn has been trending on Saudi Twitter over the past couple of days. Many university students have complained about poor Internet connection in their area, problems logging on to the platform and accessing lectures, and the lack of ability to upload assignments or even understand their instructors.
Other issues included lack of commitment as well as technical knowledge — whether from students or educators — and lack of technical support from universities.
This situation is also pushing instructors at universities as well as schools to shorten their courses for this semester and suspend or cancel projects and assignments.
Bayan Sayf, a graphic design student at a private university in Jeddah, highlighted how this was affecting her.
“As a graphic design student in my freshmen year, our educational experience is more than theoretical lessons. We do a lot of manual work that needs direct one-to-one guidance from our professors; this situation is making it impossible,” Sayf told Arab News. “Major assignments were dropped because of this condition, which will have an impact on my educational attainment. We are missing many things that we actually paid for.”
“In such cases I would say it would be better for us if they suspended education until the crisis is over instead of rushing everything like this,” she said. “And on top of it all, many professors are struggling more than students because they are not used to teaching virtually.”
However, other students said that they were extremely comfortable with virtual education.
Zainab Al-Noori said on Twitter: “I like distance learning, it saves two hours of my time spent daily in transportation, it allows me to repeat the lecture and even ignore the instructors who don’t know how to teach, moreover, I can attend lectures in my pajamas while eating or having a cup of coffee.”
The situation, as described by many people on Twitter, has also triggered students’ sense of humor as they flooded different social media platforms with memes. They also several reported embarrassing moments that took place during lectures — such as students falling asleep, loudly sipping coffee, or arguing with a sibling after they forgot to mute their devices’ microphones.
The current Education Ministry “preventive and precautionary” measures cover all educational institutions, including public and private schools, and technical and vocational training institutions.
The ministry has not yet clarified how long the suspension will be continued.
The government wants to ensure the continuation of education through digital learning methods by establishing a new committee to ensure that virtual schools are functioning through the distance learning methods provided by the ministry.
These include the virtual school platform (Vschool.sa) and materials available from the Apple and Android stores, as well as lessons through the “Ain” TV channel and on YouTube. The Saudi Telecom Company (STC) has announced that it will allow free Internet browsing for these educational platforms.
Nonetheless, teachers and parents are finding it difficult to adapt, “since this is the new modern orientation of education in the country and worldwide, we should have been prepared before anything happened,” Sharifa Al-Ghamdi, Arabic section assistant director at Nahdha Academy, told Arab News.
According to Al-Ghamdi, although most learners enjoy Internet connection and availability of devices, education staff are not well prepared to depend on technology and the available virtual alternatives are not sufficiently equipped with the necessary virtual education tools and skills.
“Teachers have to figure out accessible ways to deliver their lessons and ensure that young students are able to acquire the necessary skills remotely.”
Al-Ghamdi said that there was a lack of a culture of commitment and discipline when it came to e-learning as many people were not familiar with it, especially children. “I cannot think that a child suddenly dropped out of school is asked to study the next day from home through a method he had not tried before. This poses a problem for parents and students.”
“Parents should be fully aware of the necessity of their role in completing the educational process, as it is no longer a responsibility in the hands of the school alone . . . teachers are also parents who have children to follow up with at home,” Al-Ghamdi said. “It is not the parents’ role to make sure that homework is done correctly; it is their role to follow up with their children, not do their homework on their behalf.”
The head of the English department at Al-Andalus private girls schools in Jeddah agreed with Al-Ghamdi. “Parents’ cooperation is essential to achieve the best outcome from this experience. It might not be as effective as it is when students are attending school but we can secure a good educational experience for students with the least possible negative effects,” she told Arab News.
Although it might seem difficult to teach young students online, the director confirmed that the younger generation’s familiarity with the technical tools would facilitate the learning process in this emergency period. “They are attached to their devices, therefore they would possibly find learning this way more fun and encouraging.”
“This is an emergency situation, therefore it is a new thing for our staff as well as it is for the students and their parents,” she said. “We will start the actual virtual-learning system on Thursday. We have been preparing for it during the past two days with our teachers and students, and we are keen on making sure that students maintain their commitment and attachment to the school atmosphere.”
As an international department, teachers are relying on different educational platforms than the ones offered by the ministry. “Teachers will deliver their lessons online and provide students with supporting materials from the original curricula supplier or YouTube, surely after ensuring that the content is appropriate for students and their age groups.”
She said that parents’ concerns were understandable. “It is normal because it is something totally new and they didn’t try it before, but I am sure we can go beyond our expectations.”