Rethinking Virtual Learning

LAU faculty across the schools offer an overview of online learning during COVID-19.

By Editorial Staff

Faculty have been innovative in creating custom-built programs, leveraging every asset to create and facilitate virtual internships, simulate consultations and engage students through gamification.

Amid the many uncertainties that lie ahead, one verdict seems to be gaining traction: the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way we behave, work and live. Higher education is no exception.

“This is an extraordinary moment, and it calls on all of us to be flexible, creative, and adaptive,” declared Provost George E. Nasr, asserting that LAU has responded quickly and efficiently to the crisis while maintaining and ensuring the quality of its educational mission.

Indeed, and aside from available online platforms, faculty have been innovative in creating custom-built programs to help them power through the shift. Some have even come up with their own tools, leveraging every asset to create and facilitate virtual internships, simulate consultations and engage students through gamification.

Here, we take a peek into LAU’s virtual classrooms and beyond, through interviews and the testimonials of faculty on LAU Now.

Adnan Kassar School of Business (AKSOB)

Well before the pandemic struck, a shift in course content had been necessary for a class on institutional cultural capital legacy, taught by Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics Tania Kallab. “Taking Lebanon as a case study, we had added in the role of institutions and growth in debt sustainability,” said Dr. Kallab, with discussions revolving around ways that developing economies can implement fiscal and monetary reforms and instill good governance practices to benefit from international aid.

The Economics of COVID-19 was then introduced, in which students were assigned new readings, analyses and case studies relating to the impact on Lebanon, oil-exporting countries, negative shocks in supply and demand, and governmental responses, among others.

Assistant Professor of Marketing Zahy Ramadan drew on his experience in the Harvard Case Method teaching and his training in the Harvard Business Publishing program on teaching with cases online, to design 10-days-long casework for the senior marketing strategy course, integrating asynchronous and synchronous approaches.

Alice Ramez Chagoury School of Nursing (ARCSON)

Faculty, students and alumni from ARCSON have been considerably active, on a national scale, at the frontlines of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, classes resumed online, and faculty seized the opportunity to work into their courses lessons that can be learned from the pandemic.

“The national situation offered a laboratory for students to experience topics which we otherwise discuss in theory,” noted Associate Professor and Assistant Dean Myrna Abi-Abdallah Doumit, who used live case studies, as they unfolded, to tackle a variety of course content, such as leadership in nursing, the economic impact on the profession, and the use of media and policies in emergency preparedness. 

Although Assistant Clinical Professor Maha Habre had already leveraged the use of available technology for her classes since the closure of the October 17 Uprising, clinical simulations posed a challenge. With administrative support, she identified and subscribed to a virtual clinical nursing simulation program, which she used for the High Acuity Nursing course. “The program allowed students to make clinical decisions pertaining to the prioritization of care and management of staffing and resources,” she said, adding that the simulations and patient cases were very realistic, complete with the noises and interruptions of hospital wards.

Following a brief disruption, the senior class was able to resume the clinical capstone course, on an intensive basis, at the LAU Medical Center-Rizk Hospital, to wrap up their learning and become practice-ready upon graduation.

Gilbert and Rose-Marie Chagoury School of Medicine (SOM)

At the SOM, the transition to virtual learning was particularly challenging for Med III and Med IV students, who typically learn through direct interaction with patients and the healthcare team.

“In order to keep students on track, we had to create virtual clerkships, and devise new tools,” said Professor of Nephrology and Associate Dean for Medical Education Sola Bahous.

Rounds have gone virtual; activities of on-the-ground residents are videotaped, with the patient’s consent, ­and shared with students for case discussions; and history-taking for the students’ psychiatry clerkship is being done remotely.

Surgery and anesthesiology students access direct demonstrations of procedures and surgical acts, while e-learning in radiology involves live discussions of challenging quizzes and findings selected from an anonymous patient bank.

Notably and as a first in Lebanon, said Dr. Bahous, “we conducted a virtual Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) for the graduating class (Med IV) to complement teaching by assessment of learning.” A hybrid of on-site (at the Clinical Simulation Center) and remote interaction between examinees and examiners, virtual OSCEs involved the concomitant use of multiple platforms such as the Learning Space, Webex and Blackboard.

Meanwhile, Internal Medicine students attended a series of lectures on COVID-19 delivered by Assistant Clinical Professor of Immunology and Microbiology Anna Farra, and Associate Professor of Population Health Marie Deeb will be providing Med I and Med II students with recent epidemiological data about the virus as well as future projections.

School of Pharmacy (SOP)

Despite connectivity issues, the shift to online learning has been embraced by Clinical Associate Professor of Pharmacy Lamis Karaoui, who intends to use it in the future to free up lecture time and capitalize on active learning in the physical classroom. Her students are remotely engaged in journal clubs, topic discussions, patient cases, presentations, protocols, policies and procedures, as well as hot topics such as handling drug shortages, and preparing monographs. Some have also joined the medical team for virtual rounds.

In her capacity as director of Experiential Education, Dr. Karaoui has also liaised with preceptors on innovative ways to incorporate references and new releases on the pandemic in their discussions with students. 

“I have a P4 student who will start her women’s health advanced pharmacy practice experience remotely,” she said, having arranged for her to attend two webinars on COVID-19 management across pregnancy, childbirth and fertility.

School of Architecture and Design (SArD)

SArD’s crowning achievement in these challenging times and a testament to the robust education it offers, even now virtually, has been the accreditation of its Bachelor of Architecture by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), making it the first school in Lebanon to be fully accredited. The accreditation takes the school to a global level, enabling its graduates to sit for the licensing exam in the US, and enhancing their job prospects in the US, Gulf and worldwide.

The faculty’s resourcefulness in delivering studio courses online has been inspiring for Associate Professor of Graphic Design Melissa Plourde Khoury whose courses this semester are lecture-based. She has been working collaboratively with her students “on written research and analysis with weekly submissions and guided lectures,” she said, and the fact that students can listen to lectures in their own time gives them agency and the benefit of pacing the course material’s delivery. Khoury is already exploring online delivery options for her upcoming studio courses in the fall semester.

All SArD Studios went online this term too, with frequent one-on-one meetings between studio tutors and students, and regular reviews conducted online with the participation of invited jurors locally and from abroad. Visiting Professor Gerasimos Vamvakidis initially came to Beirut for the Spring term, but ended up conducting his studio successfully from his hometown of Athens in Greece.

Many other faculty rose to the challenge of turning their lectures into online delivery, using Panopto to transmit their lectures to students, and conducting joint meetings to discuss content and assign further readings.

School of Arts and Sciences (SoAS)

Associate Professor of Nutrition and Coordinator of the Nutrition and Dietetics Coordinated Program Maya Bassil explained how students’ experiences moved online, through simulations of real cases via online videos. “We developed a new service for LAU students, faculty and staff,” she said, “whereby dietetic practice students offer online dietary advice via tele-consultation, under the supervision of their preceptors.”

But technology “can never replace real-life experiences,” added Dr. Bassil, as simulated work makes it difficult to bolster students’ self-confidence – which is easily done in a clinical setting – and is carried out in silos, which goes against the interprofessional approach to education. In addition, all hands-on activities and clinical rotations at the hospital had to be stopped.

In his political science classes, Assistant Professor of Political Science Jeffrey G. Karam seized the opportunity to have his students apply relevant concepts and theories to real-world problems, through active learning exercises.

While his students typically learn about connections between health crises and human security, Dr. Karam brought in an additional focus, such as whether states alone are responsible for tackling COVID-19, and why we should consider the role of non-state actors and international organizations.

“The inclusion of learning tools such as podcasts, short films, online discussion boards and scholarly and policy articles can help students bridge the gap between traditional scholarly works and the world around them,” he said.

With schools closed, some opportunities that education majors rely on have dwindled. The hands-on internship they have to complete by teaching classes at school – known as the practicum – has posed one of the largest challenges for education seniors. The solution was to have them assist school teachers with whom they were already cooperating, by joining their online classes and offering help in correcting assignments.

Students working toward a Teaching Diploma even tuned in to some sessions, which were broadcast on the national TV channel, and followed up with their professors through discussions and reflections.

To keep students engaged in the learning process has required that the department’s faculty put in extra hours, said Associate Professor and Department Chair Rima Bahous.

The availability of online resources extended beyond virtual classrooms. Following the intermittent campus closure due to the October 17 Uprising, the Writing Center had made virtual tutoring available for the students who could not make it to campus.

“With the closure in response to COVID-19, however, we have had to shift to another consultation mode entirely, while safeguarding the philosophy of the center,” said its Director and Senior Instructor of English Paula Habre. The center started offering both synchronous and asynchronous tutoring options for students to choose from based on preference, internet speed and type of writing.

While the transition was relatively straightforward for lecture courses, those who teach hands-on courses had to resort to online tools and resources to make up for lab work. 

For Assistant Professor of Communication Arts Claudia Kozman, the shift turned out more positive than she had expected, and she credits her students for being open to it. To simulate a lab setting and ensure that the students do no miss out on the process, Dr. Kozman used a statistical software, shared her screen and asked students to prompt her the commands, just as they would had they been physically at the lab. The method, she said, allowed her “to stay true to the course learning outcomes without jeopardizing learning.”

At the Department of Computer Science and Mathematics, said Associate Professor and Associate Chair Azzam Mourad, an online judge system is used “allowing students to practice online at any time and receive feedback on their solutions.”

In addition, faculty have prepared video tutorials for students, while teaching assistants were available through scheduled lab hours for online assistance.

School of Engineering (SOE)

At the SOE, where a vast majority of courses require access to the labs, professors have been innovative in using different tools to bridge the gaps.

Petroleum Engineering Lab Instructor Marc Njeim, along with Lab Supervisor Elias Abi Aad took on a show-and-tell learning module, whereby they videotape lab experiments and share them with the students.

Practice Lecturer of Industrial and Mechanical Engineering Ali Ammouri also used gamification to entice his students to solve ‘challenges’ at their own pace, using a custom-built software that autocorrects assignments. He is also currently working on a virtual lab, where instructors can connect from the actual labs, and prompt students to program the hardware remotely.

Despite the available tools, Chair of Civil Engineering and Associate Professor Caesar Abi Shdid mentioned overarching limitations, from nationwide challenges such as strained Internet infrastructure, to the lack of face-to-face interaction required to supplement online learning.

Nevertheless, he said, “course syllabi were modified to include different elements of learning assessment that lend themselves more suitable for online education.”

Looking to the future

As the year comes to an end, questions on distance learning and assessments in the future loom ahead.

LAU’s Center for Innovative Learning (CIL) formed a Distant Learning Support Unit composed of the CIL Faculty Fellows to promote better online delivery practices and support faculty individually and through webinars, as they transitioned their courses into online delivery.

To provide adequate academic support for students, the Office of the Provost added a dedicated webpage that offers tips for academic success, an FAQ section, and a list of the latest academic measures and decisions taken by the university.

Students were also invited to give feedback on their online learning experience, which will feed into continued improvement.

To that end, Assistant to the President for Institutional Research & Assessment (DIRA) Diane Nauffal affirmed that it was important for LAU to assess student satisfaction with online learning, identify challenges faced, and share best practices with faculty. “Survey findings suggest that students preferred a mix of pre-recorded and live-streamed sessions, while internet connectivity is an overarching challenge,” said Dr. Nauffal.

Measures such as a flexible grading system and the Pass/No Pass option, asserted Provost Nasr, were implemented “to offer students flexibility, alleviate their anxiety about exams and grades, and most importantly allow them to focus on their learning and well-being.”

Ultimately, he said, “the transition to remote learning has forced us all to adapt to a new challenging and unpredictable situation. Nevertheless, we are very proud of the efforts and determination of our faculty and students that enabled us to navigate successfully through this crisis, and we will certainly continue to enhance and expand our online learning delivery beyond the current pandemic.”