Lebanon’s experience with distance learning

The view from afar

Photo by Greg Demarque
Reading Time: 12 minutes

As students across the world got ready for their first day back at school last fall, they could not have known that they would be spending almost all of the last trimester at home, communicating virtually with their teachers and deprived of the usually enjoyable social elements of campus life such as recess or after-school activities. Graduates of the class of 2020 who were looking forward to their proms and graduation ceremonies could never have imagined that those would be happening remotely, over a screen.

Much like it did with many aspects of modern life—be it social interactions, work, or even grocery shopping—COVID-19-related lockdown measures have upended the current academic year with 134 country-wide school closures and 1.1 billion learners affected by the pandemic, according to June figures published by UNESCO. At the global peak of the pandemic in early April, there were 194 country-wide school closures affecting 1.3 billion students or 91.3 percent of total enrolled learners, according to UNESCO’s figures.  

To ensure at least some continuity of education, and following a period of adjustment, many schools worldwide set up distance learning programs. This was achieved through several channels, from elaborate interactive online classes to broadcasting lessons on national TV stations, depending on what was feasible, in terms of access to technology, for each country.

Lebanon first shut down its schools on February 29, a week after the first case of coronavirus was detected in the country, and made the switch to distance learning on March 17 (see timeline box below). Given the discrepancies both in the income levels of the Lebanese and in the quality of education in the country’s schools, the success of distance learning programs was not uniform (see article for an early take on the switch to distance learning). With schools not reopening this academic year, Executive has investigated how Lebanese schools approached distance learning and what were the main lessons learned.

Timeline of school closures

On February 28, a week following the discovery of the first coronavirus case in Lebanon, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE) announced, through Circular 8, the closures of all educational institutions from February 29 to March 8.

On March 8, Circular 11 postponed the reopening date until March 15 but on that day, the government announced a lockdown and the full closure of all public institutions and businesses. Despite a series of later retracted re-opening dates for schools (as the number of coronavirus cases remained on the rise), school premises in Lebanon essentially remained closed for the remainder of the school year. On June 1, the MoEHE announced that the last day of distance learning for the 2019/2020 academic year would be on June 13; the end of the school year for teachers and admin was set for June 25. 

Students who were supposed to sit for official exams, namely Brevet and Baccalaureate students, were given an automatic e’fa or pass. Should students return to school in 2020/2021 academic year, the MoEHE says it is in the process of preparing a plan that would ensure that learning lost in the last trimester of this academic year will be covered. 

The case of Lebanon

Many schools in Lebanon as of March 2020 were already familiar with distance learning, with students having spent an average of at least fifteen school days at home pre-COVID-19 lockdown due to the closures during the thawra (revolution) at the end of last year. The number of school closure days depended on whether the school was located in an area that was affected by the protests, according to Shukri Husni, chairperson of the board and director general of the Learner’s World International Schools (LWIS), which operates four schools across Lebanon catering mainly to middle- and high-income families. “We were well-trained, the social unrest period helped in that (laughs), so when corona came we were ready,” he says, adding that the LWIS network was in full operation the day after the school campuses closed down.  

Father Boutros Azar, secretary general of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools and coordinator of the Association of Private Educational Institutions in Lebanon, also tells Executive that Catholic schools in Lebanon were “pioneers in distance learning and experienced it early in the academic year because of the hirak (movement).” He acknowledges, however, that thawra-related closures were not nationwide (schools situated away from the protests operated as usual) or continuous (like the COVID-19 school closures) and so some schools did not have distance learning programs already in place when coronavirus hit.

Studying by any means

Realizing that schools would not continue as usual this year, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE) announced a national distance learning strategy on March 17, two days after national lockdown was announced (but almost two weeks after education institutes had closed). According to the MoEHE’s May 15 report on the findings of its distance learning initiative (seen in advance of its publication by Executive), this strategy was guided and supported by “multilateral agencies such as UNESCO, UNDP, WHO, bilateral donor partners, and external partnerships with the global education community.”

The strategy had three recommended pathways or channels for distance learning, as per the report. The first channel was through television broadcasting whereby lessons for students in the Brevet and Baccalaureate classes were filmed at the MoEHE and the Center for Educational Research and Development (which goes by its French acronym CRDP) and aired on the state television station, Tele Liban, a schedule of which was communicated to the parents by the individual schools. 

The second channel was online through interactive e-learning platforms that public school students could access through the CRDP’s dedicated digital learning website—the website features on-demand interactive resources for the Lebanese curriculum that could be browsed by topic as well as an “international libraries” page that features lessons from a variety of international educational technology (edtech) platforms such as Rosetta Stone, a language app, or Britannica Digital Learning. 

The third was a low tech option, referred to as “communication via traditional means” in the report, where parents arranged to pick up hard copies of assignments from the school.

Learning from behind a screen

Of the different channels of remote learning, ones that rely on edtech have the potential to be the most interactive and therefore the most effective. International adoption of edtech was on the rise—with global investments reaching $18.66 billion in 2019—even before the onset of COVID-19 created a “significant surge in usage” of online learning tools such as language apps, virtual tutoring, and video conferencing tools, according to the World Economic Forum.

While there are no official or collated figures regarding the number of private schools in Lebanon that provided their students with online learning tools, Azar says the majority of Catholic schools in his network used online education channels through Microsoft Teams, a unified communications platform that allows for group chat, video meetings, file sharing, and storage (he was unable to provide an exact percentage of the schools who followed online programs). “We, the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools, already had a contract with Microsoft for some of the schools in the network,” he says. “I don’t recall what we paid them at the time but it was not a big sum because it was done through us and not the individual schools.” Azar explains that post COVID-19 school closures, Microsoft opened up their Teams platform free of charge for all the schools within their network that wished to benefit from it and provided free training sessions for teachers as well.

Some curriculums followed by private schools in Lebanon, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) or French Baccalaureate programs, are more conducive to online learning than the Lebanese curriculum, as they are based on research and inquiry learning, both of which are tech reliant, says Husni. Students who attended these schools, typically those that belong to medium- and high-income families, smoothly transitioned to distance learning through online tools, he says, giving the example of his four schools having “no problem transitioning to online learning since we are already tech-based schools.”

Digitally divided

The problem with online learning, however, is that it is a victim of the digital divide, defined as the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. The digital divide in relation to coronavirus is a global issue with the World Economic Forum reporting that 3.7 billion people do not have access to the internet and are unable to work or study from home.

Lebanon is no different, and schools in remote areas that cater to low-income families used low-tech methods of distance learning as opposed to e-platforms. According to statistics from the MoEHE’s regional education offices, based on surveys they conducted in their areas and published in the report, TV broadcasts was the most used channel of distance education among public school students across Lebanon in Baccalaureate classes, with 67 percent of those surveyed saying they used it versus 26 percent who used the CRDP recommended e-platforms. For other public school grade levels, statistics on the breakdown of channels were not available in the report.   

Marjoyoun National College (MNC), located close to the border in south Lebanon, used WhatsApp to communicate with its students and send them their assignments, although it was not a very systematic process, according to Murad Jurdak, president of the board of MNC and professor of mathematics education at the American University of Beirut. “In rural areas, families do not have computers at home and the internet is weak,” he says. “We basically don’t have the necessary infrastructure in our community to have an effective online program. Even if we want to apply it, some students will be at a disadvantage.”

Azar mentions the high cost of internet in Lebanon as a barrier to online education among low-income families. The daily power outages, a common occurrence in Lebanon that can last from three to 12 hours depending on the area, were also detrimental to students with no subscriptions to private generators and who had to attend classes at a certain time. As such, Azar says, those schools in his network that did not have access to online learning either followed the televised lessons or had parents physically pick up students’ assignments.

COO of Geek Express on coding and STEM skills in Lebanon and the MENA region

COVID-19 related school closures and the switch to distance learning has changed our thinking of education and opened it up to new channels of acquiring the skills needed for a viable future. One of those channels for learning is online where students can interact live with their teachers in a virtual classroom. This mode of learning has in turn further highlighted the importance of technology in our daily lives. 

Executive sat with Rayan Najdi, the COO of Greek Express, an after-school tech education platform that offers both online and in-location courses in coding and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills, to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted their startup.

What are the most in-demand skills in your menu of offerings?

To be frank, coding is the main element. One, because we basically advocate for its importance very much as we believe it is highly needed. And two because parents, especially nowadays, are starting to understand its importance. COVID-19 came to accelerate this understanding. In fact, during the crisis, as a startup, we grew in market share. We have our financial struggles of course, but in terms of market share we grew by 50 percent.

What do you see as the factors behind this rapid growth?

The element of confinement played an important role.
But also parents, witnessing how their whole lives were disrupted—be it education of their children, their careers, or their health—started to embrace technology and understand how important it is in the future. This weakness we had in the Arab region where we use technology as passive consumers and not active creators was highlighted in the COVID-19 times.

I have to say that it is not the same across all the MENA region and we have some beautiful initiatives around. The UAE are doing fantastically well because they were ready and they were advocating for the use of technology in education.

In Lebanon, this critical move toward technology was scary for parents and they have started to understand the importance of coding and moving toward that.
 
As a startup which deals with edutech, what is your opinion about the distance learning initiative launched in Lebanon as a response to the COVID-19 lockdown measures?

Unfortunately, in Lebanon, save for few schools and universities, we have not adopted online education yet. We reacted fairly well to the situation. But when you take a lesson from an offline curriculum and you run it over Zoom, with the teacher lecturing the students over camera, we do not consider this online education. Online education has to be through an immersive curriculum with teachers who are trained in presenting content through this channel and the students themselves have to be trained.

To achieve proper tech and online education, we need a change in curriculum. Our curriculums are not relevant to what is happening in the world and where the future lies for one. Second, they are outdated and are unable to move toward online education. If lockdown is resumed in September, we will suffer from the same problems with online education again, unless we have a significant shift in curriculum.
  
How has COVID-19 and the economic crisis in Lebanon affected you as a company?

COVID-19 came to boost our brand awareness but financially, as a startup, we are looking at hardships from now until the end of the year. But the good thing is that we have a local community of supporters who are with us all the way.

From a business perspective, it has become very hard to run a business in Lebanon because you end up working as a sarraf (exchange dealer). Between the lollar, dollar, fresh money, and Lebanese lira we have four currencies in circulation nowadays in Lebanon. This is not normal and unfortunately a lot of startups are already closing down.

Spot the difference

Online access aside, distance learning was met with several other challenges, one of which was lack of parental involvement in their children’s education. Jurdak believes this due to income discrepancies and social inequality. “This social inequality is a problem by itself,” he says. “Some families have a good education and can help their children benefit from online education, while others cannot do so. This equity is a problem not only for us but for public schools as well.” 

Indeed, the MoEHE’s report mentioned that a “lack of educational qualifications or technical expertise constituted a major obstacle to work on the online platform which prompted many schools to work across WhatsApp groups where the participation rates among students was much higher.”

Parents across the Arab region have struggled with their children’s online education, according to initial findings of an opt-in survey conducted by UNESCO. According to Mona Betour el-Zoghbi, a consultant working with the Education Programme at UNESCO Beirut Office, “almost 55 percent of respondents think that online education is more stressful for the parents than for the students or the teachers, and more than 33 percent report feeling overwhelmed and tired” (see UNESCO article).

Azar believes that stress and uncertainty of the pandemic lockdown played their part in distracting families from learning, with low-income families being more likely to be worried about the ongoing economic crisis in Lebanon as well. “The pressure that families are facing in the lockdown is not easy and also disrupts education,” he says. “Children too are suffering; they cannot go out and play or have a normal life, they spend their day on the screen.” Azar adds that when and if children return to school next fall, there will have to be a period of time in which teachers will need to pay extra attention to the emotional and social wellbeing of students in their post-lockdown adjustment.

Husni says schools that cater to low- and low- to middle-income level families, which he believes constitutes the vast majority, tend to favor traditional methods of learning and have not integrated technology into their programs. “There is no culture of online education [in these schools], nor do they have the ability or resources to provide it,” he says, giving the example of a school he visited in Akkar, north Lebanon, which provided its elementary level students with only one YouTube video a week as its online learning offering.

Lessons learned

As the school year draws to a close, it is the perfect time for stakeholders in education to look back and assess Lebanon’s experience with distance learning. This is especially important if a second wave of cases is detected in the fall, and schools need to resort to distance learning once again, or if we will have cyclical waves of closures and reopenings over the next few years.

Azar says further training is required for all involved in online education. “For online to have succeeded better, it would have been better to have more training before usage and here I don’t mean only training for teachers or admin but also for the parents to be able to help their child,” he says. “Even students should have been mentally prepared that they will be pursuing their education online. But things were forced upon us suddenly.”

Husni says there are few online resources for Arabic education, which hindered students’ progress in this subject matter during the trimester they spent behind a screen. “It is hard to find online resources for Arabic,” he says. “We’ve developed our own distance learning program based on videotapes and are in the process of sending a full sample of it to the ministry of education in hopes of them adopting it (for free). We believe that Arabic is very important for us since it is our native language, it is a very marketable skill for every Lebanese student and it is a beautiful language.”

Assessment measures regarding whether key learning objectives were met through distance learning were lacking in many schools and weak in the schools they were found in, according to the MoEHE report, which cites this as a reason why many students did not take distance learning seriously and did not consistently participate in online classes. Even in schools where there was testing for acquired skills, parents anecdotally reported that they were helping their children out to ensure a higher grade for them. As such, MoEHE’s report says that “it is clear that, if distance learning is to continue, work will need to be done to support monitoring, evaluation and quality assurance of materials.” The report also mentions that teacher training and support of families and teachers in “adjusting to new channels of education” are priorities to tackle should distance learning continue.

The comeback

It is still unclear as of mid-June whether students in Lebanon will return to school in the fall. In late April, UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and the World Bank jointly released a Framework for reopening schools with guidelines for schools to follow when deciding whether or not to reopen their premises. The framework also includes detailed points to consider for the schools that do reopen, including everything from health and safety issues, such as having enough handwashing stations, to implications of the lockdown on students’ wellbeing and equipping teachers to deal with students’ mental health upon their return.

Based on this framework, the MoEHE’s report puts forward several factors to consider when thinking of reopening schools and says it will follow the World Health Organization and UNESCO’s recommendations in deciding how to proceed. Points included in the report are whether it would be prudent to thin out classroom capacity by dividing classes into smaller groups that would come to school on alternate days, how to identify an infection before the child comes to school, how to maintain safety at school, and what measures to have in place should an infection be identified in a school. All of these are valid questions with no answers at this point.

Although stakeholders in education are surely also in need of a break from a tough year—probably spent learning new online communication skills and adapting their teaching amid difficult professional and personal circumstances—there is still much work that needs to be done. Now is the time to work on preparing the 2020/2021 academic year, be it from a distance or physically in school premises, and to make sure to learn from the challenges and experiences of this academic year moving forward.  

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail

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