Webcams and microphones on: online education is here to stay
Just a few months ago, Khadija had no idea what ‘distance education’ was. Even if she had known, the possibilities to access this type of learning were reserved for those with a fast internet connection and a smartphone, tablet or laptop.
The COVID-19 crisis has significantly impacted education around the world, in both negative and positive ways. Largely, education has been forced into the online sphere. In fragile and conflict-affected parts of the world, such as Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, schools and universities have had to make major changes to ensure their students keep learning.
Apart from the hardware and software that are needed to make a successful shift to online and blended forms of learning, it also demands a different teaching and pedagogical approach. With over 25 years of experience with vulnerable youth and being the largest provider of scholarships for Syrian refugees in the Middle East, SPARK is helping to make this digital transition successful.
Upskilling teachers and professors
When schools and universities closed in Turkey in March of last year, SPARK checked-in with our five university partners to see what their most urgent needs were. One thing that became clear was that most professors and lecturers were not familiar with online learning tools, and that many universities lacked the necessary infrastructure to provide online courses to their students.
With that in mind, SPARK quickly provided training programmes for 57 university professors on online teaching approaches, with special attention to boosting student engagement and how to use blended learning tools. Thanks to the financial support of the European Union, SPARK purchased 9 servers and distance learning platforms for the universities and donated 800 internet-enabled tablets to vulnerable students to ensure they could access online classes. Now, more than 26,500 students are attending online classes every day in Turkey.
For graduates entering the labour market, the chance to secure real work experience through an internship is hugely valuable, and benefits employers as well. With COVID-19 restrictions, internship opportunities have seriously become jeopardised.
In Iraq, SPARK set up a virtual internship programme for local and Syrian youth. These digital internships at 30 different Iraqi companies, allow students to gain skills and work experience from home, despite the pandemic. Students were provided with a laptop and fast-working internet and received a stipend of $290 per month for a full-time internship. Support and guidance are continuously provided to the companies by SPARK to make sure both the students and the companies get the most out of the internship. Eventually, students will receive a certificate – a significant addition to their CVs.
Not only has COVID-19 put a strain on economies and jobs worldwide, it has also greatly impacted mental health. Through regular contact with our extensive network of students and alumni, we soon recognised the need for psychosocial support to help young people cope with the changing situation. Via an online platform, we offer weekly online awareness sessions, as well as group and one-on-one psychotherapy for around 100 students in Lebanon, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Iraq (including Kurdistan Region of Iraq). With the continuing uncertainty, this remains to be of great importance – also in a post-COVID-19 world.
Kickstarting the digital generation
More than before, it’s necessary to offer new generations a perspective beyond school. In the Middle East, SPARK does this by helping to make entrepreneurship courses part of the curriculum and by providing learning materials and business skills training. Moreover, we organise start-up competitions, such as the Startup Roadshow – the largest competition for entrepreneurs in the Middle East – in which the most promising young entrepreneurs win seed funding that kick starts their business. With the onset of COVID-19, all of this – naturally – had to shift to the online realm. We found this has the advantage that groups, such as women and vulnerable youth, for which it was previously difficult to attend, can now do so more easily as online classes and training have a lower threshold.
The road ahead
Although the sudden shift to the online realm was borne out of necessity, it also created incredible opportunities. Thousands of students and professors from all over the world are learning from each other, which inherently stimulates academic collaboration and breaks down national and cultural boundaries. But not only that. People and groups that before, due to their family or personal situation, were unable to attend classes, are now brought into the loop and can work on their future.
Obviously, none of this goes automatically, but rather requires active help and support. What is needed is improvement of curricula to make these better suited for online- and blended learning, investments in digital infrastructure and devices, and training and support for both teachers and students. Not only can education systems and new generations then cope with the current situation, but they can also become more resilient.
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