In a scene from the movie “Jurassic World,” Simon Masrani (played by Irrfan Khan) tried to calm everyone in the control room by saying: “The very existence of this park is predicated on our ability to handle incidents like this.” I had a flashback of this scene when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak hit educational institutions worldwide.
In March 2020, to control the spread of COVID-19, a temporary suspension of in-person school and university classes was announced by the government. Because such a shift was unprecedented in the history of higher education in Saudi Arabia, I was expecting an official email from the department with details of the contingency plan. Instead, I was merely told to shift from conventional education (in-person classes) to distance learning.
Most faculty members found this sudden shift particularly challenging for two reasons: First, using unsupervised online assessment tools is not academically equal to in-person classes for medical students; second, they were unfamiliar with e-learning technologies.
From the perspective of faculty members, shifting from in-person to online classes is not an easy task, and cannot be achieved overnight because it is a multifaceted process that relies on having easy access to online content, support, and access to reliable internet connections for students and faculty at home.
In a nutshell, the situation was uncertain and confusing among faculty members. Importantly, our medical students showed signs of frustration because of the way the university dealt with the crisis. We received many complaints from students about the new criteria for their assessment, in particular about the online uncontrolled and unsupervised exams. Many disagreed with the criteria based on valid arguments, such as the availability of personal computers and reliable internet access for all students.
Taken together, my opinion is that the physical presence of medical students and faculties cannot be replaced by virtual tools. As adopted from “Jurassic World,” it is fair to say that the very existence of an educational institution is predicated on its ability to handle incidents such as COVID-19.
• Mohammed Al-Assiri is an assistant professor of physiology at King Saud bin Abdul Aziz University for Health Sciences.