Universities turn to online learning as pandemic continues

Public and private universities in Sudan were instructed last week to commence online teaching and learning, four months after all higher education institutions were closed on 14 March owing to the coronavirus outbreak. Experts are concerned about the preparedness of students and staff to handle the transition.

In a statement on Facebook, Sudanese Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Intisar Saghiroun said e-learning should commence from 14 July.

According to UNESCO, over 204,000 university students have experienced disruption to their studies as a result of closures of Sudan's higher education institutions.

The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR) is implementing an online support initiative for the teaching process, which provides synchronised and asynchronous teaching materials for students online.

The platform will use the capabilities available at the Open University of Sudan which has 18 branches in Sudan, along with TV channels and educational radio.

The MHESR has identified six universities to provide educational content and has suggested focusing on the final years of study. The content is currently being prepared and teachers and technicians are being trained, with students being assured of free access to all mobile phone networks (Zain, MTN and other Sudanese networks) during the health emergency period.

An obvious solution, but there are challenges

Academics and IT experts say while e-learning is an obvious solution to the issue, there are many factors challenging its implementation.

"At the time of COVID-19 e-learning is necessary but there are many challenges that make it not feasible at present. The most important of these are the weak infrastructure, instability of power supply, availability of internet, and financial problems, with most of the students struggling to access computers and cover the cost of internet," Professor Gamal Abdo, director of the Water Research Center at the University of Khartoum in Sudan, told University World News.

A survey by the University of Khartoum of staff and students on their readiness for e-learning revealed a low capacity for e-learning in terms of material and equipment, human resource training and financial resources, according to Abdo.

Laboratory work is essential in disciplines such as engineering and will require the physical presence of the students, he added.

"If the capacity for e-learning is improved, blended (face-to-face and online learning) could be a feasible option," Abdo said.

According to Internet World Stats, out of a Sudanese population of about 44 million, only 13 million have access to the internet. In addition, Sudan is ranked at 164 out of 207 countries when it comes to internet speed.

In the 2020 edition of its Inclusive Internet Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Sudan at 75 out of 100 countries in its affordability index which examines the cost of internet access relative to income and the level of competition in the marketplace.

According to Sudanese educational technology expert Mohd Eltahir, who is an associate dean in the college of humanities and sciences at Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates, a “new way of thinking” about learning is required for successful implementation of e-learning.

A new culture

"With e-learning, we're not just introducing new technology for learning, but also a new way of thinking about learning, a totally new culture for learning," Eltahir told University World News.

"We need to have a culture which will embrace e-learning and build the leadership support for that culture," he said.

"There may be lots of activities going on, but without support from the leadership, these activities will have no base, and they won't be durable enough to build the momentum and critical mass that's necessary to transform the community into one that accepts e-learning."

Eltahir said e-learning also relies heavily on the preparation and talent of instructors. He said based on a realistic assessment of Sudan’s readiness, there were two options available for the successful delivery of e-learning, both of which the ministry claims to have accommodated.

One of these is asynchronous learning; and the other is distance learning without the use of computers and-or the internet. “Like many open universities which provide distance learning through books, regular mail, and-or satellite TV," he said.


Izzeldin Osman, professor of computer science at Sudan University of Science and Technology told University World News that institutional flexibility, creativity and autonomy were necessary if e-learning is to succeed.

"Students, in most cases, will be physically in the university campus some days of the week where internet and other resources are available and to maintain human relationships with their teachers and colleagues under the strict COVID-19 health precautions.

"Class schedules will change dramatically. A course/module would be offered once or repeated face-to-face (for example, in a laboratory tutorial), online or in both modes as dictated by the nature of the course and the given situation," Osman said.

In line with the ministry’s instruction, the Council of Deans of the White Nile University approved the proposal to commence online study following an asynchronous system for students in different faculties, with exceptions in the case of medicine and architecture which start on 8 August.

And the Sudan University of Science and Technology also announced it would commence online learning for final-year students for the academic year 2018-19 and for the first year students for the academic year 2019-20. Students are not allowed to be on campus until further notice based on the development of the coronavirus pandemic.