#COVID19: Is Lebanon Ready for Online Higher Education?

​​This article is part of Erasmus+ Newsletter Ja​nuary-​March 2020 published on Monday, March 30, 2020

Dr. Hana Addam El-Ghali, Issam Fares Institute (IFI), American University of Beirut (AUB)
Dr. Diane Nauffal, Lebanese American University (LAU)

The AY 2019-2020 surely has been an unusual year for higher education in Lebanon. A series of events have had both direct and indirect consequences on the present and future of the sector in the country. It is important to consider that the 50 institutions of higher education currently in Lebanon may drop notably soon, not because of a policy implementation to govern quality, but because of the socio-economic situation that may lead many institutions to reconsider the business of higher education. The rapidly deteriorating social situation in Lebanon began a while back, and escalated in October 2019 after a popular uprising erupted demanding better standards of living with equal opportunities for all. Most universities were closed during these times. However, soon after they opened, the country underwent an accelerating inflation fueled by the ongoing sharp depreciation of the Lebanese pound. This new socio-economic situation led to the foreseen increase in the poverty rate to 45%, with 22% of the Lebanese population expected to be living in extreme poverty. Universities were able to salvage the Fall 2019 semester making up for lost classes and administering examinations on time. However, the global pandemic COVID19 that slowly swept into the country sent home over 190,000 university students in Lebanon. Well, one would think that this surely should not be a problem for higher education institutions, as it may be for K-12 schools across the country, because universities are ahead of the game and at pace with advances in technology. Besides, a number of universities already had experiences with online learning or a blended format of the latter before COVID19. However, any effort of institutions to pursue further exploration or experimentation with online learning had been discouraged by the Government of Lebanon (GOL) that insisted on recognizing degrees with up to only 25% online components. It is important to understand that the government's position maybe seen as one that attempts to safeguard higher education in the country particularly in the absence of any quality assurance mechanisms for a sector that now has over 50 institutions of higher education and was grappling with the issue of fraud degrees just last year. It is only rational that the government is careful with what it accredits and recognizes, given that online learning in the context of higher education in Lebanon may be used for quite different purposes. Well, the current circumstances forced universities to close their campuses and seek alternative ways to yet again salvage the Spring semester. Most universities in Lebanon already have existing Learning Management Systems (LMS) and already employ various platform to deliver some online content to their students. However, “most" universities were not ready for the sudden and total shift to an online teaching and learning modality. The units supporting online education are usually either nonexistent or underresourced in the best times. Therefore, institutional capacity became exhausted because the resources fall far short of the need to develop plans to move teaching immediately online and to directly make it happen. As many of our private universities struggle to convene students online, it is important to understand what the Lebanese University (LU) did to reach over 80,000 students in all the different majors and across the country. Did the public institution of higher education manage to make it online, while struggling to respond to some key governance issues at one of the most critical schools, its Faculty of Medicine? And how did the administration ensure that all students were reached? Well, a simple answer is that reaching all students online is not a struggle that the LU faces alone, students from low-income backgrounds consistently underperform in online learning modalities and are usually left-out. With close to half of the population today living in poverty, it is expected that quite a number of students in higher education may be already struggling economically. A number of local universities had already announced after the October uprisings an increase in the scholarship offerings in order to support their students and to continue to attract new students. The impact of the economic distress in the country will be quite dire on universities, particularly ones that are high-fee paying institutions. In order to mitigate the economic crisis in the country, many universities already took austerity measures such as budget cuts, reduction in staff, freeze on wages, curb on facilities and equipment. As universities now transition to online teaching and learning, there will be budget changes ahead that the institutions will have to address. For one thing, if cost is NEWSLETTER JANUARY-MARCH 2020 | Issue 2 9 reduced through digital learning, universities may have the opportunity to attract more students, given that the online learning experiences are enhanced and prove successful to both students and their families. So, if universities think that they have financial problems now, it is important to consider what will happen if students decide not to come back the next semester.

Therefore, universities in Lebanon should be ready for a number of scenarios for the AY 2020-2021, particularly in light of the unpredicted and unprecedented situation we live in today. It is likely that the health crisis will end over the summer and classes resume on campus in the fall. However, it is equally likely that the health crisis persists and universities are forced to continue online learning. Therefore, it is critical that universities develop robust plans they can implement in the event of continued interruptions. It is equally important for the government to consider equivalency measures that may need to be introduced so that students can move through the system, particularly secondary school students who consist the new cohorts of higher education 2020-2021. Alternative assessments and accelerated learning programs may also be required to ensure adequate learning. Finally, in times of crises such as we are now witnessing, universities need to reconsider the existing curriculum and work towards making sure that students receive the foundational information which they can later build in for future courses.

As soon as the universities in Lebanon overcome the health crisis, they will have to address the impact of the financial crisis on the sector, which has been exacerbated as a result of the health crisis. Too many crises, right? Well, we can always think of the opportunity gained: technology has the potential to increase access to education. Therefore, with digital learning, we can reach more learners. However, digital learning also has equity implications as not everyone can access specific technologies, and some learners have special needs which can be difficult to address through distance learning. In any case, it is important to continue to support efforts of universities in Lebanon to pursue digital learning, and perhaps encourage institutions to share good practices. It is equally important that institutions build the capacity and resources needed to develop effective, equitable and quality online programs and that policymakers develop policies that acknowledge and recognize online learning. Quality remains central to higher education, whether delivered online or face-to-face. Institutions need to build on student feedback in order to improve online performance. Universities have to remember, if they want students to continue to show up (even online) and pay tuition, then they have to offer them a better experience than what they are doing now.

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