Online Learning, the NOW Big Thing!
The global COVID-19 crisis, which hit Palestine in early March 2020, had affected all aspects of life especially education.
In Palestine, this was a crucial challenge, but many people took the lead to keep the educational process operating. An-Najah National University was the leading institution with this regard. A distinguished team worked 24/7 to make it all happen. Among the team, a pioneering young expert woman had the lion share of all of that; she is the amazing Dr. Mona Demaidi.
Dr. Mona Demaidi is an entrepreneur and women’s rights advocate. She obtained her PhD in Advanced Software Engineering and Machine Learning, and MSc with distinction in Software Engineering and Data Management from the University of Manchester, UK. She joined An-Najah National University in 2016, to become the youngest female with a PhD certificate at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology.
How it all started
When I interviewed Dr. Demaidi, she talked in details about what happened when the University closed its doors because of COVID-19 crisis. She said: "Everything happened suddenly. Nobody expected that we're not going to go to the University, and no one understood what was going on; we were all panicking. An idea came to me that I'm already leading a lot of university student societies, so I thought why not to look for help from students themselves. So I created a small Facebook group called "E-learning An-Najah National University Volunteers". Through this group, we produced tutorials for Moodle, an open source learning management system and a learning platform designed to provide educators, administrators and learners with a single robust, secure and integrated system to create personalized learning environments." She added: "Moodle has been there since 2012, but it was used as a complementary tool i.e. not everyone used it. So we brought people together to write down tutorials in Arabic for students or lecturers, who were in fact volunteers. Some ideas emerged, like 'Let's use Facebook, or WhatsApp Messenger'. However, it was not efficient to use social and personal platforms for teaching and learning, so we started googling things. I was involved with the E-Learning Center as a volunteer, when one of its staff suggested testing something called BigBlueButton (BBB plug-in) in Moodle. It is a free software web conferencing system that enables teachers to engage and collaborate with their students online through chat, audio, and video. Nonetheless, we hit a big obstacle; we never knew that we have limited memory, so we went one step back. Discovering that everyone inside the university was using their distinct tools, we did a poll on the Facebook group about the best and easiest tool that can be used. And that was Zoom, thus we adopted this platform for all the University." Then, Dr. Demaidi took the lead to call Zoom offices, and was lucky enough to get a good offer from Zoom in terms of price and the service itself. She started working on offering training for students and staff about Zoom, which was not an easy task at all. She clarified: "We have a big challenge as some faculties are already leading in technology and some are lacking behind!"
E-learning An-Najah National University Volunteers
Created in March 7, 2020, the Facebook page "E-learning An-Najah National University Volunteers" included 469 members, who were all volunteers from An-Najah professors and students. The page aimed to gather feedback from students and professors through polls. Some polls tested BigBlueButton (BBB platform), which was used only for PhD and Masters' students. This means that few students were using it. BBB didn't work, as 250 students was a large number. And Moodle for example could not handle that everyone is online. One of the polls asked: "Which platform are you using to catch up with your lectures?", and it targeted students and staff. The results showed that 127 people used Zoom, and some were affected by the poll and started using Zoom afterwards. After applying Zoom, polls were made to ask students how happy they were with the experience, and their feedback was taken into consideration. The idea of the group was to involve students with every single decision the University administration takes.
In addition, Dr. Demaidi did a quick partnership with Google on March 15, and came up with "Skills from Google Online Session", which was the first online session in Palestine for students.
In Zoom, there are two plans; free (up to 40 minutes duration and up to100 participants) and licensed (more than 40 minutes duration and up to 300 participants).The University relied on Zoom and bought licenses for the professors. "Starting from the first semester, we doubled the licenses. We talked to Zoom and bought more accounts. The exact number was 500 licensed hosts", said Dr. Demaidi.
Regarding this matter, Dr. Demaidi elaborated: "When I first gave a training session about Zoom, I found a gap with the staff's skills. We did one training for all students and staff, and that was a big mistake! I think Students and teachers should be categorized based on their skills and competencies. The training was very challenging as it was the very first time I give training regarding the educational tool for people with different abilities. They have to dig deep into the tool itself to understand it."
Also, the training was not compulsory, and the training sessions courses were too many and all over the place. People never knew how to track things back. If one misses the session, it would be difficult for that one to go back and find the video. Hence, Dr. Demaidi suggested to create a course on Moodle itself called: "Intensive Education in E-Learning". The idea of this course was taking people into topics. So if one wants a topic about assessment for example, one can go to this topic only, and doesn't have to go all through the training session. "It was my suggestion but not my work. The E-Learning Center did it", said Dr. Demaidi.
Working with the E-Learning Staff
Dr. Demaidi was actually part of the emergency committee at the University. She mentioned that the E-Learning Center team had the skills and the ideas, and used some tools. They were already working on enhancing the e-learning infrastructure. During the lockdown, they were working 24/7 very hard to do the job. But she thinks that the number of the staff should be expanded as it was not easy to follow up and offer support at the same time. On the other hand, she said: " Nonetheless, I'm proud of my University which was one of the best and fastest universities to respond to COVID-19 crisis with regards to e-learning."
"I did a poll about the first feedback on March 17, we've been using e-learning for three days now. I got positive and negative feedback from students and staff from different faculties. One of the problems was the overwhelming content. The E-Learning Center took this into consideration and informed the teachers not to overwhelm students with too many lectures. So, they agreed to give one or two lectures per week and one practical.", Dr. Demaidi explained.
How did you reach out to students?
Dr. Demaidi answered: "I approached my IEEE society and the society approached other societies, then the exposition happened. There, I discovered that each department dealt differently with the students."
What were the challenges for the students who had to do scientific research or submit graduation projects?
Regarding this matter, Dr. Demaidi talked about her own experience: "In the Computer Engineering Department, we have two types of graduation projects, software and hardware. As for the software, we didn't face a lot of problems. The challenges were for example, students could not see their partners, they had weak internet connection, and it took them more time to upload their codes. Just these types of problems, which was fine because I think teachers have to be patient with the students and give them confidence because they were panicking too. They didn't understand what was going on. But we worked it out. We held meetings on weekly or monthly basis depending on the supervisor."
She added: "However, the big challenge was the hardware. In hardware you have to bring things out and try them, but the students couldn't even meet. So, 95% of the projects were postponed. Until now we're discussing incomplete graduation projects. That was a huge obstacle."
As for practical courses, she had to change the whole teaching strategy. This led us to the question: if teaching should be online, the teaching strategies and even the curricula should change, did they?
She answered: "Regarding my personal experience, I was lucky enough I teach two courses which include both the theoretical and practical sides. One of these courses is Advanced Software Engineering (Design Patterns), which is project-based course. I already have been following a strategy that students should work in groups and do the discussions and already have the material online. So when we moved to COVID 19, I only changed the strategy of how to give the lectures and I added more projects. So the assessment was project based. It's used in Stanford. No copy and paste and no quizzes. All they have to do is watch videos, join live discussions, and do tasks. These tasks are project-based. The teacher can assess how students can apply the concept. Project- based could be a research or a product. This is the easiest way to understand how students can apply the theoretical concepts. In this course, students had to think about what the customer requirements in such a pandemic. So, we built a platform adapted to COVID-19, which is distributing medication and food for people in a safe healthy way. That was the project during the whole semester."
Recommendations to develop the e-learning system
Dr. Demaidi recommends replacing the idea of exams-based courses in online learning in a way that guarantees that there is no cheating. She also recommends to put more efforts in teacher training to understand teachers and students needs.
ArabWIC Palestine Chapter Initiative
As ArabWIC Palestine Chapter member, Dr. Demaidi initiated a project through Coursera. Coursera is one of the biggest online platforms founded in 2012 that has hundreds of online courses around the world. It includes prominent universities such as Duke, Michigan, and Stanford. During COVID-19 crisis, Coursera created a special program for universities. So, our protagonist took the lead to contact Coursera, and asked for free online courses with free certificates with no conditions for enrollment. She was able to get 4000 free accounts. She says: "We brought an opportunity through which we have 3800 courses and 400 specializations from prominent world universities and companies for free. We offered this to the University students as well as the whole community in the name of An-Najah. Each week the numbers increase. And Coursera gave us extension to September, and we got 10500 licenses."
It was a big hit. Below picture shows the number of enrolment in two weeks only! These numbers were published on June 28, 2020.
This project was initiated by Dr. Demaidi and Ruba Awayes from ITU Girls in ICT at the IT Department. Dr. Demaidi became the admin and Awayes is currently doing the whole enrollment process. Dr. Demaidi pointed out that she did it in collaboration with ArabWIC because she needed volunteers as enrollment is a long process.
Dr. Demaidi concluded: "I think online learning is the future. We don't have to resist it, but we have to work smart on understanding the needs whether for students, lecturers or the administrative staff. We all have to work together to improve our teaching strategies, and the way we communicate with students. It's something totally new. We all learning, and we all have to remember that. It's something all the world is going through; we're not the only ones, so we have to work smart on just coping with it and get the best out of it."