Higher Education and Digital Media: Towards the Integration of Means to Ends
April 6, 2020

Cultural and social analysis and approaches abound to generation “Z”, which is the generation of those born between 1996 and 2010, that is the generation that opened its eyes to the internet and electronic media. Despite the fact that this characterization, and that of other generations, is based on Western perceptions of society and historical events, this particular generation holds a quality that transcends societies and cultures; “Digital indulgence.” This generation is seen as one that posses the keys to the future due to the fact that technology is shaping every aspect of life using digital tools which the aforementioned generation is proficient. Additionally, aspects of personal and professional life overlap due to the reign of social media. As a result, carrying out any action depends on this generation, and the one that comes after it (called generation Alpha), not abandoning or fearing digital technology.

It goes without saying that education is one of the most important activities that require follow up and continuous pursuit for development, as it is a necessary tool to shaping a multifaceted reality. Education has experienced radical changes in mechanism, goals, and audience, in the past two decades and in conjunction with successive technical leaps. These changes are represented by the increasing role of information technology and virtual reality in transmitting and presenting educational material, and in enhancing skills to handle informational resources that are used in knowledge production and in making education increasingly transient for the usual age groups. This is done through providing flexible learning opportunities that can integrate to daily life routines.

For example, according to a recent article published by the New York Times, this desired flexibility has pushed some universities to begin administering a monthly subscription model for tuition payment while giving students the choice to learn select courses instead of mandatory enrolment in fixed programs. Additionally, there are trends to replace traditional assessments with interactive record that documentation skills, and theoretical and practice experiences that would accompany the person for life.

The information and digital revolution has forced necessary horizontal and vertical changes at universities on the level of specialized educational structures, and on the level of management and organization. For instance, environmental specialties have risen in importance, and investing in knowledge has become a main financial income to higher education institutions. J.G. Wessama, an academic management and leadership expert, described this as “Third generation universities” in his book “Towards the Third Generation University” which was published nearly a decade ago. Wissema pointed out the historical development of the identity and role of universities that of which its first generation emerged from church schools in the Middle Ages to “defend the truth” and then its role advanced during the Era of Enlightenment in Europe to discovering new knowledge than just transferring it, which brought us to second generation of universities that integrate scientific research as an additional element to teaching, and have thus formed specialized colleges with experienced academics. Wissema considered most universities in the world to be close to that second model, while more advanced universities were able to make structural and financial changes to become incubators for knowledge production and technical investment in cooperation with industrial and production sectors. Thus, they were able to open the door to a new generation of universities that Arab universities are generally far from reaching.

The “Open-Access Model” has emerged as part of this past decade’s digital revolution and has left a mark in educational and scientific research systems. One of the main outcomes of this model is the access to scientific resources from several places around the world which has supported the educational and scientific process considered important to researchers and educational institutions with limited resources. This model has also made it possible for members of the public and civil society organizations to access and engage with the knowledge and new scientific developments. The Model contributed to revitalizing and accelerating the cycle of knowledge production and technical innovation by making research findings available to researchers around the world. For this purpose, “open-access institutional repositories” are commonly used. These repositories are digital platforms, which may be government owned or may belong to universities, institutions, or research groups, and aim to archive and make fully or partly available scientific, research, and technical resources.

According to “Open DOAR” a website that monitors these repositories, the number of digital repositories exceeds five thousand globally, some of which is under development in Palestinian universities. The need for these digital repositories has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as universities sought e-learning methods and required educational material and curriculums for online users, teachers and students alike. For example, China, the country first hit by the virus, scurried to organize workshops on how to use online tools in education, while also releasing a cloud repository online to provide educational material and necessary courses for students through e-learning. In the Palestinian context, there is a dire need for governmental institutional repositories that support electronic learning on a primary and university level education as well as research.

The term “e-learning” is used to emphasize the use of multiple digital platforms to send information and educational material and to present them. The term “learning” emphasizes the interactive role that a student has. E-learning involves various methods and strategies that can be summarized in the following: using digital technology as an asset to the traditional educational method; applying the educational method partly in-person and partly online through “integrated learning”; or through a complete distance-learning process through online platforms. The latter is the most popular method currently being used given the current health crisis. Since distance-learning (or e-learning) has been introduced, it has shows added value and an elevated role to the important educational process. Essentially, the extent of use of these digital learning methods by teachers is connected to the educators’ perception of the added value these online environments provide, and that greatly impacts educator opinions on the effort and time to put in.

As evidence to the extent of impact and spread of e-learning and the open access model, you can note MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that permit millions of people to learn the same course anywhere around the world for free. In light of digital developments, various new qualities and directions emerged for e-learning that are advertised online, including “adaptive learning” which addresses the individual needs of each student through provided special materials, activities, and homework, as well as“social learning”which involves the main ingredients for human interaction and teamwork dynamics. One of the important directions is “micro-learning” which is based on the division of learning activities using digital methods which can be integrated in the daily routine of the student. Another method which adds a hint of entertainment through education is known as “gamification” which involves the developing role of artificial intelligence. It is important to note the ability to develop courses and curriculums that are produced, documented and managed by eudcators is possible due to the capabilities provided by LMS (learning management systems) that help policymakers collect data and other analytical factors for better planning and development.

Many related websites are overflowing with listing advantages of e-learning compared to “traditional” learning, especially in its compatibilities with cultural and modern trends that the young generations follow and its relevance to educational pedagogy that magnify self-learning practices and sees the educator as facilitating and stimulating. E-learning also reduces material costs and improves time management. It also stimulates and provides the educational process a standardized way that raises the quality of learning and limits the influence of geographical, age, or gender barriers in the exercise of the right to education.

Just as e-learning has its advantages it also has challenges. The first of these challenges lies in the need for adequate technical infrastructure and for a qualified human cadre. Another challenge is social and cultural barriers that may limit free access to internet resources as well as the educational and social price resulting from the decline in direct human communication. In addition, limited availability of e-learning for courses and practical exercises and the need to develop appropriate methods for assessing student performance add to the list.

In this context, it is necessary to pay attention to conceptual vagueness to what is described as “traditional” learning. While it may be understood that it relates to the teaching methods pre-digitization, some use this term to denote those patterns of digital education that are considered obsolete compared to the more recent trends, which this article cites. Hence, what is required in the Palestinian context, is the preservation of the multiple options, with a focus on consolidating face-to-face learning with the appropriate tools and digital trends mentioned above. This requires strengthening the technical infrastructures by strengthening the internet networks and creating open cloud repositories, and then formulating policies and action plans that make digital technology an added value that raises the quality of education and contributes to alleviating the objective obstacles it faces. In addition, it seems necessary to develop experiences for integrated education, which multiple international studies have proven useful compared to in-person or e-learning. Finally, the viability of distance-learning must be maintained. Hence, the current experience imposed by the pandemic of COVID-19 represents an opportunity to expand the scope of digital knowledge and bridge the chasm with the emerging generations, but it must later be subject to an in-depth evaluation in order to draw lessons.

In 1997, Peter Drucker, a reputable management expert, predicted that “Universities won’t survive. The future is outside the traditional campus, outside the traditional classroom. Distance learning is coming on fast.” Despite much that has been said and written on this topic, reality defies expectation, as the number of distance-learning graduates is much less than those who graduated from traditional environments. The university campus still preserves its radiance and many students yearn for it. This implies the depth of the human connection factor and its role in shaping the social character, as well as its role in granting students sensory and life skills that can not be gained digitally.

About The Author: 
Talal Shahwan is a faculty member at Birzeit University.

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