We are in the midst of a global pandemic. The novel coronavirus that has swept across the globe is having far reaching ramifications for our health systems and for the global economy. For Lebanese students, though among the demographic least likely to suffer severe health consequences from contracting COVID-19, the impact has been immediate and detrimental to a school year already besought with difficulties. Some institutions in Lebanon had sent students home before the Ministry of Education and Higher Education made the decision to close schools and universities on February 28 until March 9, a decision that has since been expanded into a country-wide lockdown until March 29. Lebanese students who were already in catch-up mode from the school disruptions at the height of the protests last year are now facing further disruptions, cancelled exams, and increasingly uncertain futures.
This crisis requires drastic measures. In order to slow the spread of the virus and flatten the curve (keeping cases at a manageable level so not to overwhelm healthcare systems) the Lebanese government has asked Lebanese to stay at home where possible. But these measures, while necessary, are also creating a crisis for our education system. Questions administers, teachers, students, and parents are now facing are those over the fate of this academic year, of standardized tests, and of the viability of our current education system in the long run should pandemics such as COVID-19 become more frequent occurrences.
Comparatively speaking, Lebanese schools and universities have reacted quickly to this crisis and the need to ensure that students continue to learn and progress from home. The answer, at least as a short term measure to ensure continuity and stability in Lebanese education for all learners amid limited resources, was distance learning. Across Lebanon, stakeholders and school and university directors have instructed their teaching staff (supervisors, coordinators, and instructors) to swiftly activate an online learning system to connect institutions to parents and students through educational platforms.
Several platforms have been adopted to ensure pedagogical follow up with students and minimize the disruption to their learning. Among them are: Google Classroom, a free web service that allows teachers and students to easily share teaching materials and teachers to continue grading students work; Zoom, a remote conferencing service that is being adapted by teachers to act as virtual classrooms; PRONOTE, an online system that links the school to the parents through a platform called KNED, which is being used by schools under the Institut Français du Liban umbrella; and ELearning, an app that allows for active learning through voiceover recordings or through use of Microsoft Teams and BBB (BigBlueButton), a communication and collaboration platform and an open source web conferencing system respectively.
Moving classes to an online, distance learning model was an immediate remedial solution to potentially long lasting problem, but it was not a universal solution. While many schools and universities have the capacity to teach students through remote learning, others do not, particularly less advantaged schools that are in remote areas with limited internet access or those experiencing severe financial restraints. Some schools simply do not have the technological capacity to adopt this model, others suffer from a shortage of resources (financial and staff) that compromises technological ones. Others still are currently working on building platforms that will be able to handle all lessons until the crisis is contained.
Another barrier to offering courses online is the scarcity of instructors who are trained in distance teaching and learning. Educational institutions did not foresee this crisis and so did not provide the adequate professional development to their instructors. This might come as a wakeup call to those who still believe that traditional methods of teaching are the one and only way to transmit knowledge.
Even when students have the means to connect online, sometimes you can have thousands of students trying to connect to a school or university’s system at the same time, crashing the server and preventing access to lessons. Other students may find connecting to the internet difficult or impossible, especially if they live in a region that is facing several crises at the economic and health levels.
Increasing the bandwidth is paramount, but difficult in a country like Lebanon where connection speeds are notoriously slow. The Lebanese government did announce that it was planning to double the speed of the internet as well as the capacity of consumption for internet service subscribers with the official Ogero network until April to encourage people to work from home. This is a good first step, but many Lebanese are not subscribed to Ogero.
Given the economic and financial crises that the Lebanese were facing prior to the coronavirus outbreak, is it even feasible to expect the government, blogged down as it is in its competing priorities, to open lines of access for students to compensate their inability to attend schools and universities. Is it capable of allocating budgets for training and equipment to less advantaged schools and universities who cannot cope with moving to an online model?
Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK) launched a campaign on March 18 calling for all students to have access to free 4G internet to help with online learning amid this nation lockdown. On its Facebook page it posted: “Facing the huge difficulties of online teaching due to slow and interrupted Internet connection, free unlimited mobile data bundles for online teaching and e-learning tools are highly needed for all Lebanese students in these times of crisis.” The university is encouraging other educational institutions to back this campaign and has launched the #4G4education hashtag.
At the home level, not all parents have the capacity to encourage online learning for their children. Perhaps they do not have the means or the knowledge to help them to connect online. In these circumstances, relying on tutoring or on the help of relatives and neighbors who are more tech savvy is key, though increasingly difficult given measures to keep Lebanese at home where possible.
Can technology save what’s left of the academic year?
Distance learning is the best system we can adopt given the circumstances we currently face. It is possible, if adopted to the best of our abilities, that this model could help rescue what is left of the current school year. If, and assuming they will, schools and universities reopen and immediately put in place a summative assessment that would give them a reliable idea of what their students have grasped through distance learning. In the meantime, online instruction needs specific monitoring to insure its efficiency and equity toward all learners. Control should be implemented first on the level of the school/university administration, then at the level of supervisors, coordinators and finally instructors. Some schools in Lebanon have set a specific tracking time for online activities to monitor the interaction of teachers and learners. For example, the Elearning app used at USEK is tracking who is connected and who is not.
Teachers and lecturers should also be aware of compensation inflation and avoid overloading students with work as a reaction to the new distance learning method. We are not in a race here. We are in survival mode, where quality matters more than quantity to insure a good grasp of the subjects on the learners’ part and also to avoid exhaustion on the instructors’ part, who are familiarizing themselves with the world of distance learning. It is true that almost anything can be taught online, but teachers must ensure that concepts have been properly explained and mastered before inundating students with exercises and activities.
Emergency situations require emergency measures, such as alleviating the curriculum of supplemental information without jeopardizing the quality of instruction. What is crucial now, is to make sure to vary activities to keep distance learners motivated. Similarly, when schools reopen, we must implement a solid revision of concepts covered online to ensure proper knowledge acquisition.
This crisis has placed educators in charge of curriculum design and strategic planning, forcing us to rethink our teaching strategies and encouraging us to be selective by providing our learners with the type of information that is absolutely critical to have. In the long term, we should be asking ourselves why this is not common practice all year round, crisis or not, to lift up the load of unnecessary information off the shoulders of our young students.
If we look at the spread of coronavirus from a purely health perspective, it is true that the elderly and those with underlying conditions are the most at risk. But there are impacts beyond health, and unless we preserve a sound education system it will be detrimental to the well-being of all our children. We have to protect the right and access to education for our future generations. This should be the main concern of educators.
The key issue here is to know how to adapt to the crisis, to a new mode of teaching and learning. This crisis could be an opportunity to help us achieve a 21st century profile for our learners (a well rounded, critical thinker, problem solver, and creative). The ultimate goal is to reset our educational priorities by offering our learners only what is pedagogically sound to help them face 21st century challenges with the power that comes from knowledge.