Egypt’s Universities Open Up to Blended Learning

Egypt’s new academic year, which has just begun, has a new feature, with universities enrolling students in academic programs based on blended learning for the first time.

One high-profile example of this approach, in which students learn through a combination of traditional classroom lectures and online courses, can be seen at the American University in Cairo.

The university has started a program in which students will earn credits toward a master’s degree by completing a series of online courses. These “MicroMasters” online courses are provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in collaboration with the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education.

“Blended learning and online learning are two major steps toward increasing students’ access to education, not only in student numbers but also by increasing the choices available for students in meeting their different needs and circumstances,” said Maysa Jalbout, chief executive of the Al Ghurair Foundation. (See two related articles: “A Second Chance for Many Arab Students” and “Building on Experience with Digital Education for Refugees.”)

The program seeks to develop and support high-quality online education in the Arab world, said Mona Said, an assistant professor and chair of department of economics at the American University in Cairo’s School of Business.

“The program is serious and promising,” she said, “especially since the online courses are offered by an established education institution, which gives the program strength and reliability.”

To date, the American University in Cairo has trained 68 faculty members to offer blended-learning courses. The university has designed and presented four courses and is designing 15 new courses based on blended-learning curricula.

Krishna Rajagopal, the dean for digital learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes that working with the American University in Cairo will contribute to the educational and professional advancement of many students who would not have had the opportunity to obtain a master’s degree before.

“Blended learning offers great access to information and ensures the best in terms of development cost and time,” he said.

Blended learning is widespread in some Western countries, but it faces challenges in the Arab region. Many Arab countries do not recognize credentials earned through online-education providers and lack laws for regulating online education and laying the foundation for its adoption. (See a related article, “Distance Education—Banned in Bahrain.”)

Hence, the American University in Cairo’s program is particularly important as it is appears to be the first program in the region to adopt blended learning that is both internationally accredited and locally accepted.

AUC’s program coincides with the start of new blended-learning programs for undergraduates at Cairo University’s Open Education Center. The center is admitting students to bachelor’s degree programs based on blended learning in the fields of commerce, early-childhood education, translation from English, psychology, historical studies and world civilizations, applied sociology, and publishing and digital preservation.

In June, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Universities agreed to phase out the old open-education centers at universities and replace them with blended-learning centers. This decision came after a debate that lasted more than two years on canceling the old open-education system after complaints from employers, who often didn’t accept the program’s certificates and questioned whether the program has maintained academic quality as it has increased in student numbers. (See two related articles: “Egypt Reconsiders ‘Open Learning’” and “A Conversation with Ahmed Galal El-Sayed, on the Future of Open Learning in Egypt.”)

“Egypt’s education system applies the concept of making education accessible to all,” said Ashraf Hatem, a professor of pulmonary medicine at Cairo University and former secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Universities.

“With the steady rise in the number of students at public universities in particular, blended learning will be a very useful tool,” said Hatem, who is now counselor to the American University in Cairo’s cabinet, the university’s senior administrators.

But the certificate that students will obtain through the new blended-learning centers will be considered professional, or “technical,” rather than academic, which may be seen by some as inferior to traditional diplomas and consequently could affect graduates’ opportunities in the labor market.

“The partnership of the AUC with a foreign university is good enough to ensure the quality of the provided blended-learning program,” he said. “For our programs, we need more time to make sure of their effectiveness and quality before expanding their application and adoption.”

Ahmed Said, a student who joined the MicroMasters program on “Data, Economics, and Development Policy” at the American University in Cairo after receiving a scholarship from the Al Ghurair Foundation, is enthusiastic about the program’s potential.

“Online education eliminates distances,” he said. “Today I’m studying at a big university like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology without leaving my country. This is just great.