Responding to COVID-19 in Lebanon

Interview with Rima Malek

Rima Malek talks to Jean Bernard and James Williams.

“I cannot give a face-to-face course, then take the same content and put it online. This is not enough!”

View the full transcript here.

Rima Malek is an Educational Technology specialist and an associate professor of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education in the Lebanese University. She teaches and conducts research on ICT integration for education, ICT integration for special needs, and also on digital humanities, on e-libraries, e- heritage, and e-diplomacy. Dr. Malek is currently involved in international educational projects. She obtained her Ph.D. in Education from Université de Rouen, France. 

Rima Malek has long advocated for accreditation of distance learning courses and programs in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. In her role as professor in the Master’s in Educational Technology program at the Lebanese University in Beirut, she challenges graduate students to use online learning platforms creatively, in ways that unleash the full power of the technology to facilitate deep learning. As Lebanon’s only public university and its premier teacher education institution, the Lebanese University serves some 80,000 students. Although decisions on how and when the university and the public schools will re-open their doors, contingency planning for moving fully online or to some combination of virtual and in-person is currently underway, including how learning will be assessed and how to expand access to reliable, broadband internet in the event of another shutdown in the fall. As Rima points out, it is complicated not only because of weak infrastructure and the high cost of internet services, but also because of the worsening economic and political crisis in Lebanon. ‘We don’t know how things are evolving: we are in a very weird situation.’

Since the overwhelming majority of Rima’s students are teachers in K–12 schools, the emergency closures of schools and universities in March presented her with a unique challenge—how to deliver her courses online in the most interactive and inclusive way while guiding her student-teachers and fellow faculty members to do the same. While acknowledging the difficulties of an overnight transition to distance learning, Rima also saw this period as an opportunity to work with colleagues to create a virtual learning experience for their students. She emphasizes that such experiences can go far beyond than transmission of prescribed subject matter. They can be designed in a way that builds transversal skills like critical thinking and collaboration. In order for this to happen, subject area professors and teachers with little or no background in distance education needed more technical training. In Rima’s words, ‘We need to rewrite the courses in a different way… Just to take a face-to-face course and put it on line, this is not enough!’

The pandemic, she notes, has also created conditions that call for reaching out to students during and between online sessions, not just to keep track of their progress academically, but also to check on their health and emotional state as well as that of their families. As Rima puts it, ‘We have to work on the social and emotional atmosphere because students in their houses are in a very weird condition, they are somehow afraid. So, we cannot open our cameras and tell them, “Now we’ll study this”. We should check on them by asking, “is everything well?” Most people are dealing with different levels of stress and anxiety…including me.’

Among the thorniest issues emerging from the wholesale transition to distance learning at all levels is how to assess student learning. Rima reports that the transition to online has fostered a certain amount of experimentation. For example, some schools and universities are administering examinations online, using software to block screens and internet access while keeping webcams live on students as they take the exam. Others are experimenting with project-based assessment, while others are offering open book exams.

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