Universities explore virtual vivas amid COVID-19

COVID-19 is threatening to derail the completion of masters and PhD theses around the globe as students who are ready for their final defence meetings are being restricted by lockdown measures. Universities in North Africa are using online platforms to meet this challenge.

The faculty of graduate studies and scientific research at the University of the Holy Quran and Islamic Sciences in Sudan is among the first institutions in the region to venture into digital territory. On 27 June, the first online discussion of a masters thesis at a Sudanese university was held for a student in Saudi Arabia through the computer and information technology centre.

Images and a video clip of the event were posted on the official Facebook page of the university.

On 25 June the faculty of arts and humanities of Ibn Tofail University in Quneitra, Morocco indicated in a statement that a blind Sudanese PhD student, Aasim Kamal Eldin Khalifa, discussed his thesis before a committee of four professors. The university's equipment included the integration of video technologies and the Braille method.

Several Egyptian universities including Alexandria University, Zagazig University, Aswan University, Tanta University and Damanhour University have allowed their postgraduate students to present and defend their academic work over video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Skype.

Institutional freedom

“In the current global context of COVID-19, the Ministry of Higher Education has offered Moroccan public universities the freedom to reach...decisions that will … [protect] the safety of candidates and their examiners... [while] maintaining the academic quality of the thesis defence system," Moroccan Professor Jamal Benhayoun, vice-dean in charge of research and cooperation at the faculty of letters and humanities of Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Morocco, told University World News.

He added that nationally, most universities have opted for in-person public thesis defence while taking safety and precautionary measures into consideration.

“Departments have...been given the liberty to use online examinations for some dissertations... [for which] online methods will at least partially be used...We need to have legal texts modified and published to help universities mix digital technology with the conventional defence examinations,” said Benhayoun.

He concluded that universities have to find ways to maintain academic quality, while making use of available digital facilities.

Algerian mathematician, Professor Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, from École Normale Supérieure in Algiers, said he doesn't know if any Algerian university is discussing PhD theses online.

“It is desirable to have PhD vivas in person under social distancing and health measures as the discussion committees are small. Virtual discussions should only be used...when a member of the discussion committee is unable to attend because of the coronavirus lockdown,” he said

Poor internet coverage

Libyan higher education expert, Ahmed Atia, head of the department of advisory, research and training at the faculty of medical technology of the University of Tripoli in Libya, told University World News: “The faculty of pharmacy at the University of Tripoli has used this system for an external examiner who could not travel from the eastern part of Libya due to uprisings...The concern in Libya is that internet coverage is very poor, [restricting] virtual thesis defence.

“I don’t know if a virtual defence can ever really replace an in-person presentation. Even with the advancement in modern technology, I can’t say that the quality of the discussion...would be better... [than] face-to-face interaction,” Atia added. However, he indicated that remote defence is a “viable option”, especially during a pandemic and when committee members are travelling from other universities.

He said it was convenient, for example, for graduate students who cannot be on campus because of visa problems or starting new jobs, or for international students who might need to go back to their countries of origin.

Atia suggested that the digital system reduces costs and anxiety. Students may acquire digital skills and the circle of attendees may be increased. A valuable database for theses could be provided through video feedback, he said. His advice to the university community to make virtual thesis defence a suitable system “would be to become really familiar with... [digital] platforms”.

“The more flexibility we allow students and faculties... the better the virtual defence system will be,” Atia said.