Muscat: Due to COVID-19 all higher education institutions (HEIs) in the Sultanate had to quickly plot an uncharted course to go fully online in March 2020.
A report titled ‘Lessons Learned: Higher Education’s Response to COVID-19’, by Dr Shoba Zachariah, CEO, Catalyst Solutions, examined the response of nine HEIs including 5 universities and 4 colleges in the Sultanate to the pandemic.
According to Dr Zachariah, all HEIs in the survey were able to switch to online teaching quickly; some within a week and a few immediately. 46 per cent of institutions were able to deliver all their modules without constraints.
The remaining HEIs postponed some or all practical modules requiring specialised settings or equipment to the later part of the next semester in the hope that they would be able to incorporate face-to-face classes.
All participants reported that students were able to adapt to the new situation quite well and their performance overall has been satisfactory. 67 per cent of institutions surveyed were quite satisfied and 22 per cent were extremely satisfied with the effectiveness of teaching and learning activities this semester.
However, the major challenge Dr Zachariah identified is the inadequacy of internet connectivity and bandwidth in some parts of the Sultanate. This negatively affected students who do not have the necessary infrastructure or support at home.
Secondly, the lack of online or technical competencies amongst faculty posed significant challenges when moving rapidly to fully online teaching.
Teaching methods, curriculum, learning materials, assessments and student support all had to be adapted for online modes.
Furthermore, these issues had to be swiftly managed through intensive online training,Several HEIs reported that they relied mainly on projects, presentations, and assignments due to difficulties associated with online examination s; this increased the likelihood of academic misconduct and plagiarism.
The report noted that there were several advantages resulting from the pandemic, the major one being the push to assimilate virtual technology for all core activities. This forced staff and students to adapt and improve their technology related skills exponentially.
The management of almost all institutions surveyed believe that blended learning combining both virtual and traditional delivery, has come to stay.
The report notes that most have implemented plans for fully online registration, virtual induction programmes, upgrading IT infrastructure, enhanced virtual teaching and assessment platforms and student support strategies for the next semester.
According to Dr Nasser Al Mawali, Dean, College of Banking and Financial Studies, online delivery allows HEIs to offer contemporary courses at lower costs and to attract students across Oman and abroad. Dr Moosa Al Kindi, VC, Arab Open University, Oman branch, emphasised the importance of including effective solutions to similar scenarios in risk management practices of HEIs in future.
Dr Abood al Sawafi, VC, University of Buraimi, notes that implementing a holistic e-learning plan that includes contextualised curriculum, teaching materials, assessments and students support needs priority.
Dr Maha Kobeil, Dean, Majan University College, believes that it is important for their faculty to become certified online educators which will be valuable to staff and students.
Dr Ahmed al Bulushi, Dean, College of Engineering, NUST, re-assures students becoming more independent so quickly, proving that the right environment and a systemic approach will develop the required skills among students.
Dr Abdulkarim al Mughairy, Dean, Oman Tourism College, notes that online learning can create more value as teaching expertise can be shared between local and international institutions.
As pointed out by Dr Nabil Sahli, Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, GUTech, while HEIs can train faculty and students to adapt to online platforms, ultimately, they are dependent on internet connectivity for success.
Dr Waleed al Harthy, Director of CFLS, Al Sharqiyah University, emphasises further investment in infrastructure and enhanced techniques of delivery by the whole sector.
The consensus from the survey, Dr Zachariah, notes is that while online learning cannot completely replace traditional teaching and on-campus activities, there are strong benefits to students and institutions from incorporating blended learning even in post-pandemic times.
Meeting the diverse needs of the student body, many of whom initially struggle with the requirements of higher education, will require careful planning, creativity and an optimal mix of face-to-face and online interaction and support, the report concludes.
Dr Zachariah is a former Dean of Majan University College having over 20 years of management and teaching experience in higher education in the Sultanate.