The Evaluation of Distance Education Experiences. How the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the role of Bethlehem University vis-à-vis teaching system and international networks.

The world of employment is rapidly evolving and Palestine is categorized as one of the countries severely impacted by the COVID-19 economic crisis especially within the hospitality sector. This concern creates an urgent call to collectively reflect on how we forecast the future of our Palestinian labor force whose access to the local and international experience and exposure is limited even in the best of circumstances.

Addressing these changes in meaningful ways is a topic of immense interest to parents, graduates, educators, and potential employers, however, the question remains: How do we define ’employability’ under the current circumstances? What skills do our graduates need to succeed in the upcoming global market whilst coexisting with COVID-19? What is the role of the HEIs in Palestine in producing employable graduates in our ever-changing reality? What can we do as educators to contribute to the strengthening of economic and social solidity to secure sustainable employability development with the fact that we have limited resources?

Although HEIs, educators, and senior students worked hard to rapidly adapt to secure Summer 2020 graduation, working opportunities and travel are severely curtailed for the foreseeable future. These difficult times mean we need to find innovative ways to create work offers and international connections for young graduates who are not supported by a rescue employability plan, and as mobility restrictions continue to control the socio-economic and education sectors in Palestine, the double burden of adapting to the effect of COVID-19 while living under occupation will further reduce the already limited possibilities of employability. Therefore, we must find alternative ways to increase the competencies of individual graduates for them to become qualified, proactive members of the local and global labor force able to meet with the demands of the 21st-century. We must target to enhance and reinforce the potential of alumni’s’ outcomes in the development of their mindset.

HEIs are always urged to adapt and maintain the organization of virtual international events to sustain the improvement of the flow of knowledge and exchange of experiences between researchers and faculties. Several virtual projects and programs launched best practices on how to adapt and conduct an existing in-person exchange or education program alongside an existing virtual exchange program on the current global conditions. Those initiatives successfully facilitate the virtual exchange of undergrads and postgraduates through the creation of programs and joint supervision of courses and the creation of a series of seminars between official joined partnerships. Several educators grasped this opportunity and upgraded their communication, negotiation, signed international virtual agreements, shared what they know and practiced best, and accepted diversity towards one mutual goal which is defeating the Corona pandemic along with the sequential economic and social crises in Palestine. By adopting those virtual initiatives, educators and students expand knowledge as it encourages dialogue and mutual exchange of information.

The real gain is the massive exposure to the intercultural experience. The COVID-19 experience defined the importance of connecting educators and students working with internationalized entities who come from different cultures, a different way of life, of working and of thinking. All lead towards structuring graduates’ dialogue towards self-awareness by reinforcing their globalized citizenship. It is an opportunity by all means to create new networks, partnerships, and developing joint projects to spread virtual employment opportunities.  Therefore, the HEIs’ committed to preparing alumni’s’ future leaders for the local and international network via reinforcing their cross-cultural awareness as perceived as a need in the region.

While digital technologies have made us more resilient during the Covid-19 pandemic, for some they have negatively impacted work-life balance. 

Knowledge exchange and collaboration activities may not come naturally to all HEIs and cannot be done at the margin of other HEIs’ mission. This requires specific incentives, funding, institutions, and professional figures that promote the entrepreneurial and innovative agenda in higher education.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the connections between HEIs and their ritual systems, many HEIs are still working on reorganizing their activities, to face the second COVID wave challenge. Teaching has been moved on-line. A stronger link between basic and applied research has emerged, due to the pressing need to respond to the crisis. HEIs have explored new ways to support and collaborate with local communities, national, and international networks. Going forward, HEIs may need to better understand the language of digitalization with a better and deeper understanding of the business environment that can help improving teaching to provide students with flexibility, autonomy, accountability, and – more in general – with a “learning-to-learn” attitude.

All HEIs, in all sectors and fields, need to embrace a digital paradigm, which should orient their missions and activities. Entrepreneurial, innovative, and digital HEIs can collect granular information and generate data flows (while respecting privacy) and, in reverse, providing individuals with tailored information and learning opportunities. Knowledge exchange and collaboration activities are multidimensional and encompass other dimensions, besides business. The capacity to create interdisciplinary platforms and holistic planning is a key to handle the pandemic and it will be important also in the “regeneration” phase, to promote sustainable development and inclusion, in all systems once the pandemic is over or under control.

How the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the role of HEIs vis-à-vis the educational teaching system and international networks?

To answer this question we must ask ourselves what are the structural changes in higher education that will emerge from this crisis. What is the impact of the current Covid-19 pandemic on our capacity to cooperate with our stakeholders? How do we define’ employability’ under the current circumstances? What is the role of the HEIs in producing employable graduates in our ever-changing reality? Can educators regenerate the systems, once the pandemic will be over or under control? What skills do our graduates need to succeed in the upcoming global market whilst coexisting with COVID-19? What is the HEIs’ role, and responsibility to contribute to the strengthening of the economic and social solidity to secure sustainable employability development with the fact that we have limited resources?

The overall objective that HEIs gain from all offered online programs and projects is to strengthen the Palestinian human capital specifically at higher education. The short term outcome will be to create a civilized generation that understands local and global issues with self-motivated lifelong learner skills, empowered to enhance professional and leadership skills. The deep impact of this training is developing cross-cultural communication skills and can engage in constructive dialogue across divides. It will further enable us to connect educators to accelerate the speed and spread of sharing experience and knowledge as it is able HEIs to get a broader panoramic understanding of the future labor market needs and demands. Those virtual activities will improve HEIs’ general performance starting with management skills and the quality in the preparation, implementation, monitoring, and follow up with technical skills, all part of applying globalization best practices. It contributes to graduates to transition to the world of work by strengthening their human capital through the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and competences, to generate competent professionals able to face global challenges.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, universities quickly moved education online, rushing into it incredibly quickly. To support its members to cope with this emergency, the UNIMED Subnetwork on eLearning and Open Education have facilitated a collection of experiences, resources, tips, and strategies in response to the change brought by the emergency, in terms of online teaching and virtual approaches to international mobility and cooperation.  As part of the process, the serial of presented webinars aim at sharing experiences, stories, ideas, quick fixes, put in place by the UNIMED members and the larger community, to advance shaping the transition from emergency to sustainable teaching and learning innovation in the Mediterranean region, for example, Bethlehem University engaged with several programs and webinars conducted by Anna Lindh Foundation, UNIMED, UNIMED SubNetwork, COIL Lasallian Teachers Network, UNESCO, ETF, EAIE, ITC, ILO, FAO, OECD, Search for Common Ground, Sharing Perspectives Foundation, Soliya, kiron, Migration Matters, UNICollaboration, Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange and many others shared remarkable stories of how educators have been able to meet the challenges of COVID-19 as each explained the training, the collaboration and the coordination that has made this possible. Recently the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik launched an “Online International Summer School 2020”, and FAO launched the eLearning Academy project under the title “Strengthening capacity to face global challenges”.

Digitalization is affecting how we interact with each other, perform our daily tasks, and ‘think big’ about the future – but how does it play out in the space of local and international employability?

The COVID-19 wave created a cross-cultural collaborative learning experience. Many educators learned how to better work collaboratively and have cross-cultural dialogue as part of reinforcing their networking opportunities with enterprises and socio-economic realities, and to increase the social responsibility in the university system to face the new challenges of the region, for example, I managed to develop an institutionalization plan on how to bridge educators who conduct education and exchange programs to learn more how to design, prepare for, and facilitate future virtual exchange programming outreach, specifically designed to serve undergrads, alumni, educators, researchers, and administrative staff whose access to exchange academic programs will be restricted for some time. Therefore, by strengthening mobility opportunities became a part of transitioning from in-person to future virtual employing opportunities by creating a new perspective of managing the transition from university to the world of work using a holistic approach.

One of the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange programs that will be presented at Bethlehem University by Sharing Perspectives Foundation and executed during Fall 2020 will be “Cultural Encounters The Big Climate Movement” program as a continuation with a higher structured motivational plan to increase the value and volume of these collative efforts for the upcoming 2020-2021 academic year. By Fall 2020, the Institute of Hotel Management and Tourism with the Faculty of Science will host this program and this link to better equip and capable of promoting and creating a pool of opportunities for networking and drafting schemes to the development of alumni’s’ skills which serves the Palestinian society at large.

What we truly need now is to apply 21st-century good practices that target young graduates’ employability. I believe the post-crisis world will be more indebted, less global, and more digital. Accordingly, having personally embedded and integrated the virtual exchange project into my teaching in recent months, I can assert that the outcome has been positive and I highly recommend this approach. The adoption of these methods has helped me shift from a teacher-centered learning approach to a learner and virtual-training-centered approach and it well-positioned my Home University on the global geography map of Higher Education.

In conclusion, to improve the quality of HEIs and professional management and to strengthen the importance of education for the future labor market challenges, a strengthening of the interaction between HEIs, companies, local, national, and regional authorities required. HEIs need to take into consideration modernization, virtual accessibility, and best practices of internationalization as a tool to improve employability in the region, a collaboration to set a plan to improve and strengthen the role and potential of the development of employability by adopting a transversal entrepreneurial dialogue between local and international universities, companies and decision-makers are required.

There is an urgent need to accredit modern teaching methodologies that embed digitalized virtual exchange programs to increase the exposure of students and academics and impart the required skills to match the demands and expectations of local and international labor enterprises. This means we further need to discuss together on how to move from emergency to sustainable innovation in online learning in Palestine, and to continue advocating an open and permanent dialogue on employability and support the realization of the new wave of practical business recruitment experiences in the context of education, training and youth workforce. This is an invitation to embrace the opportunity in front of us today. We can truly redefine who we are as a proactive and creative community. We have an important role to play to create a new and even stronger culture of learning. We don’t have all the answers for now, but we’re all on this journey together.


Shared by: Mahdi Kleibo