Learning Remotely as the Only Resort: How is Lebanon Doing?

/ 02 Apr 2020

Learning Remotely as the Only Resort: How is Lebanon Doing?

In mid-March, I started informally documenting the uptake of online learning during the Covid-19 school and university closure in Lebanon. Mostly, I talked to different people affected and listened to their experience. Here are some of my early findings and thoughts, with more to come as the situation continues to unfold and I collect more information. Please get in touch via the comments section below if you find any of the below inaccurate or if you have more feedback and information to share.

The government—trying its best, but will that be ‘remotely’ enough?

In the last couple of weeks, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education launched a National Distance Learning project to provide e-learning support for public schools. Also, in its most recent circular, it announced plans to use our good old national TV channel to air public lessons, complemented with an online form where students can send their questions. The content is now being developed in partnership with the Center for Educational Research and Development and also available on YouTube. Priority has been given to developing content targeting students expected to take the high-stakes national exams very soon. There is no decision yet about if and how these exams, and exams in general, will be administered.

The ministry invited educators from private and public schools to volunteer their time to record lessons. Moreover, it invited education providers to benefit from Microsoft’s offer to use Microsoft Teams, for free, as a tool to engage their students. I found that a bit strange because Microsoft Teams is not a learning management system specifically designed to help educators and students interact in courses.  Still, it is an effective collaboration tool to communicate with students, upload relevant documents and files and perhaps even have teachers collaborate among each other.

In a country where the majority of education provision is private, the ministry faces critical decisions on how, and to what extent, to regulate the behavior of private education providers.

Some of the looming questions are around exams, graduation and what to enforce on public schools. More so, in a country where the majority of education provision is private, the ministry faces critical decisions on how, and to what extent, to regulate the behavior of private education providers. School closings are scheduled to end on April 12, but an extension might be inevitable. Important policy decisions will be needed to guide the sector and provide everyone affected with more clarity on next steps.
Schools and universities—most are learning by doing.
The strategies being used by education providers seem to include a whole gamut of things: Sending content via WhatsApp, using the free version of Zoom to hold 40 minute classes (the time limit on the free Zoom package), sending recommended readings and assignments by email and (for the luckier ones) moving content to a proper learning management system. As expected, providers’ capabilities of teaching online are extremely unequal. There is an opportunity to learn more from each other and to leverage the vast amount of content and tools that are now being offered for free globally. Some global providers, like Pearson and McGraw Hill, have made several of their digital learning tools and trainings available free. If universities can give students credit for the free university courses being offered by Edx and Coursera, that could also save quite some resources. The need for universities to collect tuition always complicates such efforts, I realize.
Lebanon’s financial and banking crisis started squeezing the academic institutions months before the Covid-19 outbreak. Today, the closings of educational institutions may mean that parents and students will have to advocate for themselves even more aggressively. I have heard anecdotes about private schools with limited resources shutting down or not paying salaries because parents are unable to pay tuition. I also came across a petition signed by 1,721 American University of Beirut students (so far) demanding the university to discount the spring term tuition in light of the financial crisis and the alleged “inefficiency and lower quality of education of online learning with respect to the normal learning process.” Knowing that AUB is probably providing an online learning experience superior to most other providers, I wonder how this whole debacle will be managed country wide.

Educators, students and parent—mixed feelings but learning to accept it. The hard way.

Although the speed and consumption capacity of residential internet services has been supposedly doubled, both educators and students I talked to complained about the quality of the connection during classes held online. Unfortunately, it seems, the mere expectation of connectivity issues is leading some teachers and students to opt out of the process entirely. It’s also possible some are using it as an excuse.

Lebanon’s financial and banking crisis started squeezing the academic institutions months before the Covid-19 outbreak. Today, the closings of educational institutions may mean that parents and students will have to advocate for themselves even more aggressively.

In any case, for educators and students alike, it is unrealistic to expect the experience to be very pleasant at this point. The overarching feeling amongst the educators I spoke to is that it is quite overwhelming, but doable. Those carrying out proper online classes or developing new home-based assignments mention the time needed for preparation is much longer than expected. They are also finding it very difficult to prioritize and decide how much of the remaining curriculum or an individual course syllabus can still realistically be completed. On the positive side, a community of practice is clearly being born. Many educators are sharing experiences with one another and with the wider community.
On the students’ side, the feedback sounds exactly like student feedback about studying in general. Some love it, some hate it and some are just “meh.” Online learning puts a lot of emphasis on the learner being self-disciplined, proactive and organized. External factors such as having a productive place to study at home also makes a big difference. The promise of well-designed online learning is that it could actually help those who find it difficult to participate or to stay focused in the traditional classroom. I would be really excited to hear that feedback! But many students may find working online to be more, not less distracting, with the temptation of web surfing or chatting with friends always present.
Finally, I spoke to a few parents whose children are studying online and was surprised that some parents are finding it to be a nightmare while others are really enjoying the process of working side-by-side with their children. This could very much be related to the age of their children, the type of learner their child is and their original level of involvement in their child’s education. I am not a parent, but the soundest advice I heard was to involve children in the planning, create the healthiest possible environment for their child to study in chunks of time rather than all at once, and finally, to reassure kids that it’s perfectly normal to be frustrated.

Non-governmental organizations and social enterprises in the education space—will they come to the rescue?

I wanted to include the NGOs or social enterprises working in education in this conversation because some have been offering online and blended programs way before this situation presented itself. For example, Tabshoura is a platform developed by Lebanese Alternative Learning and offers free online learning (in Arabic, English and French) aligned with the Lebanese curriculum. They are now working with the ministry to get more than 100,000 public school students registered on their platform. I believe their content is high-quality and is really for everyone. Also, some social enterprises are adjusting their technologies and business models. For example, Synkers, an app that helps students find and book qualified peer tutors, has just launched its online tutoring platform. In the weeks to come, I would be very excited to see more and more of these agile NGOs and social enterprises collaborate with and support the more traditional education providers in this journey.

May Wazzan is an independent consultant based in Beirut. She focuses on developing and delivering programs in the education and social sectors. Her most recent full time role was with the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education where she set up and managed their scholarship programs. She has also advised government programs as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and the World Bank.




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