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Reflections from the Kingdom of Bahrain

Reflections from the Kingdom of Bahrain
By Geoffrey Elliott
Posted on 4/21/2020 4:00 PM

The first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the Kingdom of Bahrain in February 2020; with the Government taking immediate and decisive action across a number of areas of life in the Kingdom.  Being a small Island with a population of approximately 1.4 million people, the relationship between the King, the Crown Prince, the Government, and the people of Bahrain is a close one; with communication on important matters coming out instantly by text message, Instagram and other social forms of communication. As of the 2nd April 2020 the Kingdom of Bahrain had 290 confirmed active cases of COVID-19 and 4 deaths within its borders.  The Ministry of Health in February set up a national 24-hour hotline to report suspected or confirmed cases, or for any questions about COVID-19 in English or Arabic.

One of the first responses was a directive from the Ministry of Education that all public and private universities were to be closed to both students and staff for two weeks starting from Wednesday 26 February 2020.  This was later extended for students until the end of the academic year, although staff were permitted to come into work, or preferably work from home, as necessary to provide administration and teaching.  In addition, all public and private schools and kindergartens were also be closed at this time.  The Government of Bahrain also implemented enhanced screening and quarantine measures in March 2020 to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Government of Bahrain stated that anyone subjected to quarantine was to comply or face up to three months in jail and a fine of up to 10,000 BHD (equivalent to US$25,000).  In addition, the King Fahd causeway connecting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia was closed to non-commercial traffic in February 2020 with further visa restrictions on air travellers, which meant that only citizens and permanent residents (like the author) were allowed to travel in or out of the country, subject to the same quarantine restrictions on arrival back in Bahrain.

Once it became clear that students were not to return to the campuses of the 16 institutions of higher education in Bahrain, the Ministry of Education, Higher Education Council (HEC), issued a series of directives instructing all institutions to implement on-line e-learning, including issuing 38 conditions to support successful on-line e-learning (please see appendix 1). The HEC also issued directives to ensure that all students in the Kingdom of Bahrain would be suitably assessed on-line for both mid-semester and end-of-semester examinations.  All institutions were required to inform the HEC, for approval, of their measures to support on-line learning and to support and deliver assessment.  We at the University College of Bahrain (UCB), along with all other institutions of higher education in the Kingdom, started to deliver on-line e-learning in mid-February 2020 to ensure completion of the Spring and Summer semesters; including providing substitute mid-semester assessment and offering a mixture of timed open book examination and longer assignments for the end-of-semester examinations.  UCB agreed on variety of assessment, categorised into: (1) Open-Book Examination, issued half an hour before the formal examination was due to start, with a completion and submission time 24 hours later at a specified time and submission method; and (2) Longer-Assignment, which could be mini-project based, with the specification for the assignment being handed out a half hour before the examination was due to start, with a submission date and time 7 days later with a prescribed time and method of submission.  The schedule was published on the University website in the normal manner.

The University College of Bahrain (UCB) uses Microsoft (MS) Teams to support all its on-line classroom delivery and assessment.  MS Teams enabled the University to record on-line classroom lectures and discussions, to record attendance, and to establish student engagement rates with on-line classroom activity.  It was a requirement of the HEC that all universities record and provide evidence of student engagement with on-line e-learning to the Ministry of Education. In order to establish the student satisfaction with the University’s on-line e-learning provision, a questionnaire was sent to all students in April 2020. This questionnaire enabled the University to establish overall satisfaction with on-line classroom activity and assessment; and enabled the University to adjust its provision and accommodate student feedback on ways to improve the experience.

In many respects, the forced delivery of on-line e-learning has broken some of the resistance barriers to distance e-learning that were present in both the staff and student bodies. In many ways the forced delivery of on-line e-learning has encouraged both staff and students to explore delivering mixed and blended learning in systematic ways for the academic year 2020-2021.  The University has 3 major academic departments and one general studies support unit.  The three academic departments are Business Administration (undergraduate and postgraduate programs), Information Technology (undergraduate programs), and Communication and Multimedia (undergraduate), which delivers multimedia, public relations and graphic design courses.  Of interest to the University management was how each academic department delivered its provision and set assessment, given the diverse range of courses including, accounting, finance, management, marketing, computer science, MIS, public relations and graphic design. The variety and originality of classroom delivery, and the style and approach to assessment, varied between these diverse courses; with traditional summative and formative tests being conducted in business and IT and reflective and creative thought exercises being delivered in graphic design.

A significant factor with on-line e-learning at UCB has been the level and intensity of student engagement with the on-line classes with the average attendance being up by 10 to 15 percent during the national lockdown period. Some students, who were not so active during face-to-face classes, appeared to be more active in on-line and virtual class discussions and activities. The remoteness of the classroom situation, and the security and comfort of the student’s home, and the connection with more readily accepted ‘social media forms of engagement’, appear to have stimulated higher student attendance and engagement in on-line classes.  Other advantages and benefits include: (1) Flexibility of delivering the lecture from home or university for faculty staff; (2) students more willing to ask questions in virtual environments.

In terms of the pedagogic approach to teaching and learning the faculty staff have indicated that some of their teaching practice has changed or been modified. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Shahnawaz Khan for articulating many of the benefits and drawbacks of on-line e-learning within the University College of Bahrain.  Clearly, teaching on-line classes requires more concentration and agility of management than face-to-face teaching in that eye contact and ‘mood’ cannot be gauged as easily by the lecturer; and in cases of limited home resources available to students, this can require lecturers to accommodate the various and different needs of the students in one on-line class delivery session. In addition, some students believe on-line classes is a one-to-one experience and often take up more of the lecturer’s time than would be the case in face-to-face classes.

Some disadvantages are the fact that some students are not as ‘tech savvy’ as their colleagues and this may sometimes limit the confidence of the student to ask questions on-line.  It is for the lecturer or instructor to ensure that all students feel comfortable in the on-line classroom as they would do in a face-to-face classroom.  From feedback from academic  faculty staff at the University College of Bahrain some particular drawbacks of on-line teaching were discovered, such as, some students (especially first year students) facing technical issues with their home hardware and software in the beginning of the initial online classes; and, in some cases, a lack of resources (such as touchscreen laptops) made it difficult to deliver mathematical courses and courses which require graphical explanation. With some courses, lecturers found that some students preferred to connect through voice calls, rather than video connection, which limited the picture and understanding of individual student participation. In addition, there were some cases of students having difficulties with their internet connections, particularly in large households all using the internet, causing the on-line e-learning experience to be stressful and limiting. 

However, in conclusion, is clear that the necessity and imposition of on-line e-learning in the Kingdom of Bahrain has unexpectedly given rise to a host of opportunities for universities to explore longer-term and recurrent distance provision as part of its mixed and blended face-to-face education. The flexibility of engagement, the lower costs of delivery, and the benefits of new and innovative on-line e-learning and assessment provide benefits to all universities in the Kingdom of Bahrain.  

 

Acronyms:

HEC – Higher Education Council

UCB – University College of Bahrain

 

References:

Cronje, J., 2020, ‘Towards a New Definition of Blended Learning’, The Electronic Journal of e-Learning (EJEL), Volume 18, February 2020, pp. 114121

Reyna, J., 2020, ‘The Show Must Go On: Coronavirus-Friendly Learning Design’, online, Linkedin.com, available at:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/show-must-go-coronavirus-friendly-learning-design-dr-jorge-reyna/?trackingId=%2FvbYOTXURzWEHAQ%2BbJprGg%3D%3D

Suksakorn, A. and Tubtiang, A., 2020, ‘The acceptance and effectiveness of interactive online learning in virtual face-to-face learning technology’, International Journal of Innovation and Learning, Volume 27, Number 2, pp. 135-158

 

Gulf Daily News - Bahrain

Ministry of Health Bahrain Instagram account (@mohbahrain)

Ministry of Education Bahrain Instagram account (@meobahrain)

US Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain: Bulletins February to April 2020

 

Journals:

American Journal of Distance Education (ISSN 0892-3647)

E-Learning and Digital Media (ISSN 2042-7530)

European Journal of Open and Distance Learning (ISSN 1027-5207)

International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (ISSN 1492-3831)

Learning Technology (ISSN 1438-0625)