EGYPT: Swine flu prompts shift to distance learning

With the new academic year set to begin on 3 October, Egyptian universities are planning a shift to distance learning in an effort to prevent the spread of the swine flu virus on campuses. Television and the internet will be used extensively to broadcast lectures to students in many of the country's 35 public and private universities, officials said.

Egypt has reported nearly 900 swine flu cases and two deaths since April. The authorities have culled the country's 35,000 pigs amid fears that the virus will spread in crowded places, such as lecture halls and cinema houses.

Earlier this month, the government postponed the start of the new academic year from 6 September to 3 October to better prepare schools and universities to keep swine flu at bay.

"Attendance will be cancelled for irregular students," said Ashraf Hatem, a representative of Egyptian universities on an ad-hoc committee for the prevention of swine flu.

The decision had been taken to protect the large numbers of 'irregular' students - students who score low grades in the school-leaving examinations but are allowed to attend classes in certain institutions, in return for usually high fees. If 'irregular' students perform well in the first year of university they are allowed to continue as 'regular' students.

Several public universities have outlined their anti-swine flu measures.

"As part of our efforts to cut class density, Cairo University has embraced several alternatives, including broadcasting lectures on the two satellite TV channels owned by the university," said Adel Zayed, Vice-president of Egypt's largest public university.

He added that the university plans to lease a third TV channel to present lectures to 'irregular' students in the faculties of arts, law and commerce. These schools usually accommodate the largest numbers of students in state-owned universities - up to 3,000 students a class. This, said Zayed, "is undoubtedly fertile ground for the spread of swine flu".

Officials at Helwan University, a public institution south of Cairo, have said classes will operate in two shifts - first and second-year students will attend lectures in the morning, and third and fourth-year students in the afternoon.

Atef Al Awam, Vice-president of Ain Shams University, Egypt's second largest public university, said: "Some lectures will be recorded and relayed on the student union's radio and the internet. This is one of the measures to be taken by the university to prevent the spread of swine flu among its students."

The Ministries of Higher Education and Information Technology recently intensified cooperation to boost distance learning facilities, according to local media reports.

"Information technology can play an influential role in reducing class size in lecture halls," Ahmed al-Sherbini, an aide to the Egyptian Minister of Information Technology, told the press. "It can be used in transmitting lectures on television and the internet.

"But the problem facing us is the short time during which such facilities have to be made available to education institutions," al-Sherbini added. "In addition, we need to make sure that students will have access to the internet and television channels on which lectures will be broadcast."

While admitting that time is running short for installing distance learning facilities, the official said that television, introduced in Egypt in the 1960s, would at least help irregular students access lectures at home.

"Universities have to expedite efforts to upgrade the content of their syllabi and make it available in an interactive way to students to ensure that the education process will not be negatively affected by swine flu," al-Sherbini said.