Distance Education in Syrian Refugee Camps
Al Ghad – Amman
By Ahmad Malkawi
Originally published on Al Ghad Newspaper, in Arabic.
Nearly 2000 informal students in Zaatari and Azraq camps for Syrian refugees are now attending classes through the ‘Whatsapp’ phone application along with their teachers who have been running an educational program initiated by ‘Relief International’ in light of the recent school closures and the shift to distance education, due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Teachers are now working on ways to create virtual classrooms on the internet, where students can access regular class schedules, so that teachers can each run their classes at a specific time through a Whatsapp group that contains their own students, according to the Director of the Jordan bureau Rozan Khalifeh.
In cooperation with the Ministry of Education (MOE), the NGO provides all registered students with monthly internet bundles for a cost of 3-5 Jordanian Dinars per student, which are automatically added to the authorized phone line that was originally provided to the Organization.
Ahmad Melhem, a teacher residing in Irbed and working on this educational program designed for refugee camp students, provides the explanations of his course content through a video that he sends out to students. He dedicates three hours daily to communicate with students and their parents on a Whatsapp group. However, some parents take a long time before they hand their phones over to their children to attend the class, which makes some students miss the discussion period. In such cases, the teacher ends up sending the explanation to the student again. Melhem indicated that weak internet connections inside the camp hampers the communications between him and his students.
Similarly, Syrian teacher Mohammad Addiri, who resides in Zaatari Camp, records a video of himself explaining the course and writing all the important comments on a board that he received from the organization; however, the educational process is often affected by the weak network connection, which prevents the delivery of those videos, and causes a higher reliance on written communications, according to Addiri.
In the meantime, the weak internet connection inside refugee camps is considered a real obstacle facing formal and informal students, as it prevents them from accessing the ‘Darsak’ (your lesson) platform initiated by MOE for students to continue their education through distance learning, in light of school closures, which was taken as a precautionary measure to confront the outbreak of the virus. The weak internet connection also hinders communications between students and teachers, as students are in constant need for clarifications and explanations of the courses that they watch on TV through the platform, according to Addiri.
Limited Resources in Refugee Camps
Nearly 28 thousand Syrian refugee students in Zaatari and Azraq camps are facing major difficulties with distance education, after MOE closed all camp schools, which make up a total of 47 schools, according to UNHCR data. Muhannad Shbat, a 40-year-old father of five, insists that his children continue their education in spite of the difficulties they are facing due to the authorities’ negligence in improving the network connections in the area. He expressed that education is the only way his children can secure a better life.
In the Zaatari camp caravan, where the family lives, Shbat’s children rotate their turns in the only corner in their caravan where they can study in peace, after watching their classes through the Darsak platform on TV, as they cannot access the platform through the internet due to the weak internet connection, not to mention the power outages that take place every night, noting that one of his children is in a very critical stage, as she is expected to complete her secondary examination this year.
Zaatari camp refugee Abu Rami assured that the families have been requesting internet connection towers for years; most camp residents are workers and students whose studies rely on the use of the internet, but to no avail. He added “the internet connection is one of the major obstacles we face in the camp. It has made it difficult for us to stay in touch with our families abroad and was also a nightmare for students in the camp whose education relies on a strong connection; and now, the internet connection has become an essential need for education.” He clarified that the
UNHCR is able to build coverage networks within days, in collaboration with the telecommunication companies that are located in the camp, so that students can continue their education until they are able to go back to their schools.
Due to an extremely weak internet connection, his children’s attempts to access the Darsak platform start at around 6:30 am, in hopes of reaching the visual content of the course before the network gets overloaded at the start of the electronic education process; however, their attempts of an early access fail as well.
Shbat and Abu Rami’s children represent all students residing in Zaatai and Azraq camps, 10 of which are documented in this report. They all agree that communication networks are very weak and that the power outages at night are impacting students who want to finish their education.
For his part, UNHCR spokesperson Mohammad Alhuwwari considered that the internet and telecommunication networks are not the Commission’s responsibility, and that they depend on the will of telecommunication companies. He added that the connection is not bad generally, but has recently been weak due to a higher pressure on the internet during the curfew, clarifying that it is a national problem faced by everyone across the Kingdom; and since it is populated with nearly 75 thousand refugees, the camp was one of the most affected areas.
The Television Platform is Insufficient
Shbat’s children suffer an overlapping in the times of their classes, as the classes of his third grade daughter, Rahaf, are broadcasted at the same time as the classes of her twin brothers, who are in ninth grade, which makes accessing the internet platform to rewatch the classes a necessity. However, as the weak connection prevents them from doing that, Rahaf watches her classes along with her friends through a Whatsapp group in order to catch up on her studies and find answers to her questions; otherwise, she would have to wait until the end of the week to watch a repeated version of all her classes at once.
Rahaf considers that the classes that are cast on TV are very quick and do not answer all her questions, she says “it used to be easier in school because the teacher would answer all of my questions; but on TV, I cannot ask any questions.” This situation made Rahaf dream of going back to regular caravan classrooms along with her teachers and classmates, where they used to work on homework all together, because online education is full of obstacles.
The same problems face Alaa, a fifth grade student residing in Azraq camp, as she records TV classes using her mother’s phone so that she can refer to them whenever she needs, although the phone is not a modern device and therefore does not contain enough space to save all classes. She came up with this idea because she knows that she will not be able to access the platform through the internet if she needed to rewatch an explanation of the course. Alaa says “if we had good internet connection, we would’ve focused during TV classes and reviewed the content on the internet; but with the current situation, we can’t focus while recording the class.”
Recording TV screens is a method used by many students in Azraq camp, according to the father of sixth grade student Ashwaq. He highlighted that the problem with TV education is the absence of communication between the teacher and the student, and the speed at which things are explained; the students are forced to look for further explanations on their own. Ashwaq, who is keen to not miss any classes, says “we can’t keep up with the teacher and understand everything he says. He gives quick answers on TV, then the class ends immediately.”
Similarly, sixth grader Zaher complained about the speed of the explanations, which makes it hard to concentrate. He tries to communicate with his classmates through his mother’s phone, but what makes things more difficult is that most teachers do not reside in the camp, which makes it hard to communicate with them, as opposed to what happens in Zaatari camp.
For her part, Zaher’s mother does not blame the Ministry for shifting to distance education in light of the coronavirus outbreak, but she admits that the weak connection between teachers and students is affecting the educational process, as her children are missing out on the interaction part of classroom activities.
What makes things worse is that many families in the camp don’t own TVs, according to Hashem, a physics teacher in an Azraq camp school. Hashem also follows up on his children’s education when they reach out to him about things that they did not understand in a class on TV, which makes them luckier than others, having the benefit of an educated father who can help them understand difficult content.
Hashem explains that most TV devices in the camp are old and small and have usually been used only to follow the news and know what happens beyond the camp in an attempt to coexist with the rest of Syria, outside of the camp. He added that those TVs have recently been better than nothing for students to watch a class or two, but the absence of active communication between teachers and students, due to weak internet connections, may cost them very important information and ideas; for this reason, he seeks to compensate his students by explaining course content on his small board and answering their questions through Whatsapp.
Educational affairs expert at UNICEF, Rana Quwar, assures that children of refugee families in particular suffer from a shortage of smart phones and devices that are necessary for the educational process, in addition to the weak connection and internet bundles that are insufficient for proper communication with teachers inside and outside the camp, including access to the Darsak platform.
Overcoming the Obstacles
Om Hussein, a Syrian refugee of the Azraq camp, has four children in school. She confirms that they are unable to catch up on TV classes, saying “if they were lucky enough to catch the class, they’ll study it; if they did not catch it, it means they missed that class,” due to the speed or the overlapping in the times of elementary and secondary classes. For her part, Najwa Qbeilat, Deputy Minister of Education for Administrative Affairs, clarified that this is the only way students can continue their education within the current circumstances, indicating that students inside and outside the camps can overcome the time overlapping problem by referring to Darsak 1 and Darsak 2 TV channels, and rewatching their classes at the end of the week, as the Ministry recasts all classes for all grades.
The Ministry is currently working on determining the number of students in the camps to find out which classes they missed due to these difficult conditions, so as to create an educational pamphlet that summarizes the main subjects for all grade levels, as an easy learning tool before the start of the next school year, so that they can review the main content of the classes that they missed, according to Qbeilat.
In cooperation with the MOE, UNICEF is also looking for more ways to help students, such as distributing written course content, in the form of pamphlets that summarizes the main points of each for students in refugee camps and remote areas, where there is no internet connection or smart phones. UNICEF will also distribute internet access cards among families in the two camps to help students communicate with their teachers and receive the necessary explanations and clarifications, according to Quwar, who assured that the Jordanian experience of online education has been a successful one, despite some of the obstacles that were inevitable in light of the current situation, and which will become easier to overcome in the future.
This article was made with the support of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR).
Originally published here: