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UNESCO survey exploring remote learning experiences during COVID-19 lockdowns

Perspectives, priorities, and possibilities for education amid pandemics

by Mona Betour el-Zoghbi

According to the initial results from a May survey being administered by the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States (UNESCO Beirut Office), more than half of the parents of schoolchildren in the Arab region consider current online studying (whether using an online platform, mobile application, etc.) to be “inefficient” when compared to the traditional approach (face-to-face in a classroom). In addition, more than 80 percent of the parents are concerned that homeschooling is not providing the necessary education for their children.  

The survey, which targets parents of schoolchildren currently residing in all countries across the Arab region, was launched this May by the UNESCO Beirut Office, as part of its multi-pronged response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the educational system. This response includes the formation of an Arab Regional Task-Force for COVID-19 Educational Response to support member states in deploying equitable distance learning solutions and to build more resilient, innovative, and open education systems. It also encompasses the formulation of a regional communications strategy to raise awareness on relevant topics amongst various target audiences such as teachers, students, and policy-makers through producing brochures, videos, and social media messages, as well as circulars and policy papers on topics such as higher education in the Arab states and technical and vocational education and training. 

The main aim of the survey is to explore the needs, challenges, and priorities of parents and children during the current COVID-19 pandemic, and to identify the most important lessons and takeaways from this experience to help guide future educational planning and design in the region. The opt-in survey, running throughout May, has been widely disseminated online (on our website, and via email and social media) in both English and Arabic versions, through the multiple networks and partners of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States.  Over 750 responses to the survey have been garnered from more than 18 Arab countries (see chart); with almost half of these responses from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait combined, and the other half dispersed across the remaining Arab countries. While this was an exploratory survey, the response rate thus far suggests that this online, opt-in survey format has provided a much-needed platform for parents to voice their concerns and share their experiences during these critical times of transformative change in the region and the world.   

Chart 1: Overview of Response Rate per Arab Country (as of May 20, 2020)

The data generated by May 20 provides important insight into what parents and students are thinking about remote learning and how they assess their experience with it. (These are initial findings; a deeper data analysis will not be possible until all responses have been gathered.) One of the main recurring issues that was raised amongst parents who reported that their children are utilizing online learning platforms was the difficulty of securing good internet access at home. The data indicated that such difficulty was faced both in terms of availability of infrastructure and connection, as well as the sufficiency of the limited quota for such extensive daily usage. Many respondents called for the provision of free or facilitated internet access to households during these times of remote learning. Some also raised the need for the government to provide free access to a homeschooling curriculum and supplementary material and tools that can offer guidance and assistance to both students and their parents, especially for poor households or for public schools that might not have internet access or the digital tools (such as Edmodo, Zoom, Socrative, or Google Classrooms) necessary for adequate online learning.

Other challenges facing families with regard to remote learning and home study range from the technical to the practical. Over 60 percent of responding parents thus far report that their children have too many distractions at home and so have difficulty keeping a regular study schedule. In terms of the user friendliness of remote learning, just 30 percent of parents report that their children are capable of using an online platform, by, for example, coordinating timings and classes, and maintaining concentration. Many respondents emphasize the need to benefit from technology for more timely and efficient feedback to students so they can better evaluate and regulate their learning. Others also call to simplify lessons and reduce online classes so that students are not overwhelmed. Lack of access to good educational online resources in the Arabic language was raised by 15 percent of respondents.

The main dilemma facing parents seems to be that of balancing work and homeschooling. 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. The implications of these initial survey responses suggest not only a need for greater technical and digital support for households participating in online learning, but also, and equally important, the provision of psycho-social support and guidance to both children and their parents for enhanced well-being. Some respondents even recommend that, in parallel to the regular academic classes online, supplementary courses and orientation should be provided for students as well as for parents on how to study online and best utilize technological applications and search for resources online, for a more efficient and useful learning experience. 

With regards to the parents’ perspectives regarding online teaching in particular, around 45 percent indicate that teachers need to be better trained and equipped to administer and lead online classes. Special focus is placed on the need for these lessons to be more interactive, to ensure student understanding and concentration through innovative prompts and methods, and to generate better instructional design for a more friendly and facilitated learning process. Overall, the survey responses so far seem to emphasize the importance of promoting teacher training for online classes, student training for remote and autonomous learning, and parental support for overall health and well-being of the family household. 

In projecting the eventual transition back to school, over half of the parents report being “very worried” about the impact of coronavirus on their kids. They indicate the need for ensuring proper awareness for children on how to deal with other students and people in public (such as proximity and hygiene), as well as psycho-social support and physical activity after a prolonged period of confinement. In terms of educational content, many parents see a need for schools to administer additional classes to make-up for lost time and to incorporate blended learning through a combination of online and face-to-face learning methods.

As for the main policy measures that survey respondents would like governments to take, more than half of the respondents so far agree on facilitating or even canceling official examinations, whereas many others call for prioritizing learning objectives and reducing the curriculum requirements for moving to the next grade. The provision of financial support to families who lost their income was also amongst the top answers, along with providing practical guidelines for parents and students to support distance learning. In addition, many of the survey respondents voice concern with regard to vulnerable students, including poor households as well as the refugees and displaced. They call on their governments to develop educational resources for autonomous learning for children who are unable to access online platforms, and to promote a more inclusive educational response with special focus on households and children living in rural and remote areas. 

Finally, the survey also highlights the need for Arab countries to maximize the benefit from technological innovations and digital tools for improving the online learning experience for students and learners in general. Many respondents call for the development of a comprehensive online platform that contains all necessary services such as online classes, new assessment and assignment tools such as the smart-board or the point-based system, and free educational resources and guidebooks. Others point to the need to develop good software, applications, and online platforms for hands-on/practical lessons, such as science classes, laboratory classes, or technical and vocational education and training, and for incorporating artistic and physical education activities into online learning in a more methodical way. 

Ultimately, the challenge for the Arab region remains developing sustainable solutions to educational provision that is also equitable and inclusive, and which leaves no one behind. In line with the insights generated through this survey, UNESCO remains committed to supporting governments for distance learning as well as for access to science, knowledge, and culture-sharing for the Arab region. The key targeted reprogramming efforts entail a priority focus on supporting countries and learning institutions in school reopenings, with main pillars of health and safety, quality of education, inclusivity, and overall well-being. In addition, increased emphasis is being placed on building the capacities of educators and teachers for remote learning, especially using online resources, as well as for developing tools for crisis-sensitive planning and curricula. A more long-term outlook poses questions on rethinking education amid the implications of COVID-19 for the education sector policy reforms in the Arab region, and developing a long-term strategy for strengthening e-learning in the region, including needs assessment of distinct countries and their capabilities in implementing e-learning. 

The UNESCO response is also set within a wider UN system framework to comprehensively address the needs and responses in both the short and long term. At the global level, one of UNESCO’s most immediate responses to the COVID-19 crisis was the launch of a Global Education Coalition with three flagship programs on gender, teachers, and connectivity. In addition, UNESCO provided policy and technical support to member states, established communities of practice in direct coordination with ministries of education, and organized global and regional webinars on different topics. Overall, UNESCO’s core areas of action have focused on main pillars, which entail rebuilding educational systems, promoting environmental sustainability, recognizing cultures in economic recovery, securing access to reliable information for all, and preventing discrmination to achieve social cohesion whilst reaching out to vulnerable countries and populations.

UNESCO continues to work at the forefront of the educational response to COVID-19 to ensure that quality education is sustained in both public and private educational institutions, and that learning never stops.  

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Mona Betour el-Zoghbi

Mona Betour el-Zoghbi is a consultant working with the Education Programme at UNESCO Beirut Office.

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