Challenges in implementing distance learning in Syria’s Idlib amid lack of electronic devices and stable Internet connection
Enab Baladi – Khawla Hifzy – Yousef Ghuraibi
With the temporary closures of schools and other educational establishments in Idlib, which came as part of preventive measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Idlib’s education directorate has resorted to distance learning to resume the educational process. Students’ parents and teachers did their best to navigate online learning challenges, yet students are faced with some while studying online for the first time in their lives.
It has been more than a month since the e-learning was put into force, and its associated problems became more evident, especially amid the lack of information and communications technology (ICT) capabilities in the opposition-controlled north-west Syria.
“My two daughters are taking their lessons via the “WhatsApp” group created by their teacher, and I am the one responsible for teaching them and helping them adapt to the new way of learning.” With these words, Tariq al-Obaid, a father of two children in Idlib, describes his daughters’ experience and his role in helping them learn “remotely.”
Both of his daughters are primary school students, one in the first grade while the other in the second one. They are following up their lessons seriously, feeling excited, and asking their father to show them the new lessons even on holidays, according to what their father said to Enab Baladi.
On 29 April, the education directorate of Idlib province issued a decision to resume the educational process through whatever available means of remote learning until the end of the academic year, which is scheduled to be on 6 May.
The lack of e-education means
The E-learning education system in Idlib’s cities and villages is based on a weekly plan set by the teacher, the information technology (IT) professional, and the school librarian. This plan is to be supervised by the guidance counselor, the school principal, and the class’s primary teacher.
The weekly study plan includes the materials decided by the teacher and shared with students in the form of photos, videos, audio recordings, and written texts, sent to students’ parents through the mobile communication application, “WhatsApp.”
Saoud al-Issa, a fourth-grade student in Idlib, is facing great difficulties in receiving her lessons due to the poor Internet connection.
Other students face the problem of not having a smartphone, such as the third-grade student Suleiman al-Hammadi, who said he has been following the lessons using his father’s phone. Al-Hammadi noted that he uses his father’s mobile phone to study online only when he is at home.
The child also said that the teacher is explaining the lessons well for him and his friends as if they are in the classroom; nevertheless, he still prefers to be taught at school.
In the new education system, the teacher shares the study materials with students’ parents on a daily basis, checks students’ homework, and answers their inquiries through the “WhatsApp” groups.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has pointed out “shocking digital divides” that have hindered online learning, especially in low-income countries, where devices and Internet service necessary to resume learning are not available.
The 2019-2020 school year in Idlib did not have a good start as classes at schools were delayed for three weeks.
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), half of the schools in Idlib are destroyed, damaged, or used to shelter internally displaced people (IDPs).
UNICEF estimates that more than 300,000 Syrian children were affected in the war-torn province of Idlib.
As per the organization, millions of Syrian children are out of school or at risk of dropping out, as Syria enters its tenth year of conflict.
In the meantime, the preemptively temporary suspension of classes in mid-March has created further uncertainty for millions of children, according to UNICEF.
The role of the students’ parents
Parents play an active role in the digital learning process. Children are learning in a familiar environment at home, surrounded by their families, unlike the case of regular face-to-face classrooms. The more the learning environment is suitable, the more beneficial education is.
Al-Obaid says to Enab Baladi, “I try to support my daughters’ learning at home with all the information I have, and after the teacher sends the lesson, I sit with them to help them understand it fully.”
As for Ahmad Suleiman, a father of fifth and third-grade students, he told Enab Baladi that he does not have the time to follow his children’s lessons.
Suleiman had to choose between working to provide for his family or sparing time to teach his children, and he chose to work. Therefore, his wife takes the lead to help her children study, but she is faced with difficulty explaining some lessons.
It is worth mentioning that remote learning requires a full-time effort of one of the parents, sufficient time, knowledge to use digital learning platforms and the challenging task of convincing children that they are still in a study period, not on vacation at home.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Sari al-Rahmoun, headmaster of one of the Schools in Killi town’s camps, northern Idlib, said that the most prominent of challenges facing distance learning is the lack of experience in its methods on the parents’ side, as well as technical problems such as the poor Internet service or the lack of modern devices available for students’ use.
Al-Rahmoun added, “we are trying to solve these problems, with the help of parents who took the matter seriously, and are following up and helping in it step by step.”
The school and the teacher
The difficulties faced by students and their parents are not very different from those experienced by teachers, namely the poor Internet connection and the absence of modern technological devices.
Furthermore, these difficulties are not limited to Idlib only, as teachers around the world faced “big challenges” after shifting to remote learning, even in countries with a reliable and equipped technological infrastructure.
Idlib’s teachers’ need for adequate training to manage distance learning came to surface, along with the absence of assistive factors such as Internet access, electricity supply, and necessary infrastructure that contributes to the establishment of educational platforms and websites.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Abdullah al-Absi, the director of Idlib’s educational complex, said there are many challenges teachers and students face, adding that most of them are technical and related to the use, availability, and cost of devices and Internet.
According to al-Absi, the complex supported the teachers’ training program to use the necessary software applications to develop the distance learning process. It also created a YouTube channel in this regard.
Al-Absi pointed out that teachers showed their desire to work on the project, adding that “we noticed a level of creativity and excellence that we have not seen before with the conventional education system.”
Success or failure?
The education directorate of Idlib province decided to transfer students of the transitional grades of the basic education and high-school students to the following grade; the second semester’s results are being adopted to be the same as the first semesters’ of the current school year.
The students who do not have the first semester’s results will take an exam at the beginning of the next school year to determine the possibility of transferring them to a higher grade.
These decisions raised a question about the feasibility of proceeding with the remote learning process that should be taken seriously by students and teachers being no more than a “foregone conclusion,” especially with the absence of clear criteria for assessing the success of the new experience.
Nevertheless, al-Absi said that the effectiveness of e-learning experience could not be measured by mere success or failure, but by achieving what could be attained of education lost by students. No matter how little it is, it is better than nothing.
As for al-Rahmoun, he said, “distance education is better than no access to education at all.”
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