Influence of Covid-19 on teaching in Albanian Higher Education

Albania is a European country with about 2.8 million inhabitants, 15 public and 25 non-public Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and a total of 139,043 students (y. 2018-2019), the majority of which are enrolled in public HEIs (113.277, or 81%).

As many other countries in the world, Albania today is facing the Covid-19 pandemic situation. It has forced the ministry responsible for health to close all HEIs, initially for a period of 2 weeks starting from March 3rd 2020 and then later extended, aiming to prevent further spread of the virus and protect the health of all citizens. The time period of closure is undetermined and is dependent on the evolution of the pandemic.

Considering and analysing the Covid-19 situation, the Ministry of Education, Sports and Youth (MASR), suggested to HEIs to consider online learning and teaching as an alternative. MASR proposed to each HEI to set up a working group of lecturers that piloted and tested different platforms that could be used by each institution. Academic senates, after having evaluated the situation, decided to switch to online learning and teaching as fast as possible. There were some difficulties during the preparatory phase, such as IT infrastructure preparation, student database development and the preliminary assessment of how to prepare didactic materials. However, they were quickly overcome. In a relatively short period of time and with great motivation, the academic staff, the governing bodies and the administrative staff of the Albanian HEIs created online platforms for the students using Google classroom (mostly in public universities), Moodle, Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc. Through those platforms, didactic materials were made available for all study programmes at the bachelor and masters level. Consequently, in the last week of March, the online delivery of lectures, exercises, seminars and course assignments began, reaching 55.000 students from public HEIs and 10.000 from private HEIs (this is partial information since not all private HEIs have reported the statistical data). At the same time, the teaching management revised curricula in accordance with the present teaching conditions.

Regarding other elements of teaching, HEIs are working to solve the issues they have encountered for other academic activities such as laboratories, professional practices or other activities that need physical participation.

Examples of Albanian HEI

Referring briefly to three of the Albanian public HEIs, which enrol 52.942 students (about 38% of students in the country), as examples:

Google Classroom is the platform used by the University of Tirana (UT), where 29.460 students study (y. 2018-2019). Through this platform, lectures are performed in “Google Meet” and other elements of the platform are used to enable students to access written materials, presentations, books or articles, or assignments that students can download.

The percentage of the online students during a usual day of the week is about 85%. At this moment, all academic activities are performed online except the fieldwork and professional practices. Laboratory classes are recorded by the lecturer in “Screen Rec” and then shared with students. The second part of lab classes is organised based on discussions, questions and answers. In some subjects, virtual labs have been executed by staff and students. This process has entailed some difficulties during the first week, such as missing digital equipment or faulty internet connection. The HEIs assisted the staff and students by making available manuals and video tutorials for the use of digital platforms.

It is hoped that online teaching will continue to improve: The quality of the group assignments given to students should be improved to encourage the cooperation of students outside the classroom.  Discussion that promotes the development of critical thinking should also be stimulated. Students should be guided between the interactive learning of projects, case studies, and learning through inquiry and research-based learning, connecting these different means in the pursuit of completing student learning outcomes. Students should be motivated to give thoughtful answers to the questions that arise from observing online laboratory sessions to enable a deeper understanding of processes. Performing online oral exams through individual video calls has been proposed as an alternative to the traditional examination ways. The oral exams will count partially, while the rest of evaluation will be completed by the assessments made during the academic year for each student.

Polytechnic University of Tirana (UPT) started online teaching based on the Rector's order of March 23rd. Organisational preparation and a test week were the first measures taken at the UPT where 14.566 students study (y. 2018-2019). Those measures were followed by the transition to online teaching, effective as of March 30th. After a test week of online platforms, each Faculty chose its own platform. From its 7 faculties, 6 chose Google classroom + Zoom / Meet, while one decided to use the Microsoft Teams. Teaching activities have been re-scheduled quickly, predicting the closure of lectures and seminars until June 22nd, which will be followed by 5 weeks of exams and then 1 week for additional diploma requirements. The fall semester is going to start in the period between September 3rd and October 10th. However, the completion of teaching activities will depend on the Covid-19 situation.

The online process began on April 2nd with a simple video facility, uploading didactic materials to the respective platforms by all faculties. The student participation rate at the end of the third week was reported to be 85% for Bachelor degree students and 88% for Masters students, for a general average of 86.5%. Lecturers are all engaged in online learning. So far very few cases have been observed related to the malfunctioning of the Internet. However, the following problems must be solved: the execution of labs and practices and assessment practices.

At the Agricultural University of Tirana (AUT) there are 8.916 students (a.y.2018-2019). Access to technologies such as Zoom and Google Classroom has been suggested and has been used by all teaching staff and students, as it is considered as the most suitable to both. Both have online training offers and user guides, which have been employed.

About 80% of students are regular followers of online teaching. 85% of teaching activities are taking place online currently. Unfortunately, students who are not yet participating in online teaching belong to the most peripheral areas of Albania, where the quality of the Internet is not good or the students themselves do not have access to Internet.

The Rectorate of AUT decided that:

  • In terms of teaching activities that are not taking place (Professional teaching subjects such as animal surgery, animal diagnostics, plant pathology, etc.):  they should be conducted through compact courses (at least four weeks) as soon as the students  return back to normal teaching activities.
  • For teaching activities that cannot be developed through compact courses: they will be postponed to the first semester of next academic year.
  • Professional internships will take place during the months of May, June and July, only if authorities will permit the activities.
  • The assessment of students in each subject will be based on only the result of the final exam and not on the performance of other milestones, as it has been done in previous years.

Challenges going forward

At national level, the student participation rate varied at the beginning of the lock-down but has been growing during the last weeks. Since April 20th, 2020, the total number of online regular students during the current semester, as reported by all HEIs, is about 65.000. HEIs have identified cases where students have faced difficulties (mainly internet access and performance, home conditions etc.) and staff are working to guarantee the due support. A special financial contribution is being paid to the academic staff who have served as a reference point for identifying and solving all the problems observed.

Being aware of the situation of Covid-19 crisis, but also in compliance with academic standards of teaching, HEI's governing bodies are monitoring the development of the teaching process over the respective online platforms. The main purpose of this monitoring process is to guarantee access to all students and make the improvements needed to the relevant infrastructure.

Relatedly, the Albanian government, in the framework of the economic package approved by Parliament, has provided the possibility of postponing rent payments for some categories including students.

Considering the issues faced in the past and the relatively poor quality of education provided by private HEIs (Government closed down 22 HEIs in 2014), a law had been enacted in Albania to remove part-time and distance learning on a national level (law on HE 80/2015). A few years after the reform came into force, it is still not possible to offer distance education. Nevertheless, the implementation of digital teaching in Albania following the Covid-19 situation shows that academic staff have been adapting quickly to this new mode of teaching, although some shortcomings needing to be addressed.

This new experience for HEIs has led the academic staff to face not only barriers, but also to identify the need for better digital skills and competencies by introducing new methodologies and technologies in teaching and learning.

This experience is expected to affect a large number of HEIs, especially public ones, and encourage increasing, in the future, not only investments in the area of ICT in teaching and learning, but also to strengthen the professional development of staff through training related to digital technology and teaching methods.

The next challenges are difficult to tackle: The management of the reopening of the HEIs, in terms of respecting the rules of social distances and hygiene, the realization of exams, which will require some additional changes to the relevant regulations. It is to be noticed, that that during this academic year (in September & November 2019), Albania has been hit by two earthquakes with a magnitude of 5.7 and 6.4 on the Richter scale. This forced HEIs to postpone some teaching activities and the academic calendar to enable the recovery of the lost teaching hours, causing a delay of about two weeks to the February 2020 exam season.

This period showed, among other things, that solidarity and readiness to cooperate and help each other, despite daily duties and obligations, by staying united and learning through times of crisis has been our biggest lesson.

Tirana, on April 22nd, 2020

HERE Albania

Table. Some online teaching data of the 4 biggest public Albanian HEIs during Covid-19 period

 

HEI

Tirana

“A.M.” Durrës

Polytechnic

Agriculture

Total number of students

29.460

19.278

14.566

8.916

Platform

Depending on Faculty decisions

Google classroom (almost), but with institutional emails; Microsoft teams

Students following online courses (%)

90

90

86.5

80

Teaching Activity

Lectures, Seminars, Exercises & part of Labs

Lectures & Exercises

Lectures & Exercises

Lectures, Exercises & part of Labs

Waiting to start

Part of Labs

Practice & Theses Stage

Labs

Practice & Theses Stage 

Labs

Practice & Theses Stage 

Part of Labs

Practice & Theses Stage 

Difficulties experienced among:

Staff

Beside the first starting week reserved for training; some guidelines were prepared by IT departments

Home conditions

Challenge: fostering of critical thinking development

Difficulties experienced among:

Students

Internet & device Access & technical issues

Internet & device Access & technical issues (exp. remote area)

Home conditions

Internet & device Access & technical issues

Library and didactic materials uploaded

Lectures & Exercises in pdf, ppt, etc., video recorded lessons, supporting didactic materials, e-book, u-library etc.

Expected further decisions on:

Part of Labs, Practices & stages, Exams, Theses – preliminary provisions for being held on June-July 2020, with possible extension over September, depending on Covid-19 evolution. The online oral exams still remain as an alternative.