The outbreak of Covid-19 in Lebanon, like the rest of the World, shocked the education system. All schools, including schools and education centers in refugee camps, had to close their doors during the pandemic.
Our education team in Lebanon responded to the crisis by pivoting quickly and effectively to teaching through WhatsApp. Consistent with the spirit that has characterized this program since its inception in 2013, our students were determined to continue learning and our teachers were determined to continue teaching. Therefore we named our online education program, “Azima,” which means determination in Arabic.
The program was extremely effective in ensuring children continued to learn during this period, Azima reached 1,184 children and we saw substantial progress towards learning outcomes in Math, Arabic and English. At our Beirut Centre, the average assessment scores over the 4 classes ranging from 70-91%, showing a high level of aptitude despite the challenges of learning from home. Azima gained international recognition as one of the most promising online learning programs for refugees and was showcased at UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week and selected by the UNHCR edtech accelerator for the EdTech Hub’s technical mentorship “sandbox” support, funded by DFID.
Our novel approach was strongly supported by the EdTech Hub, who joined Jusoor to run an innovative Sandbox program focused on delving deeper and gathering more evidence on the WhatsApp learning model, to ensure the model we designed was best adapted to the community we serve and the curriculum we teach. We took a series of deep dives into our assumptions on the model, and also additional factors to take into account to ensure we continue to deliver a holistic education program. We have broken down our activities and learnings into four key areas; maintaining teacher-student relationships, scarcity of educational tools in remote learning, money as a bridge to education, and tactics to help parents adopt. Each area is explained further below.
Maintaining Teacher-Student Relationships
About two-thirds of the Syrian refugees we work with within Lebanon own a smartphone, which made WhatsApp a widely accessible and effective communication tool among refugee communities to deliver educational material. Our main aim was to enhance remote learning and make it an interesting and joyful experience both for students and teachers.
The main aim was to keep teachers connected to their existing students, but with the onset of school closures, new student enrollments continued to take place and joined the WhatsApp classroom.
For program assessment, the Jusoor team observed some of the WhatsApp lessons by joining the class WhatsApp groups. Teachers were evaluated for their lesson plans, videos they create, and the feedback they give to children. These observations ensured that remote learning was effectively delivered by the majority of teachers.
Also, we conducted a review of the existing research and evidence on the use of virtual learning environments and messaging; WhatsApp appeared to be an effective learning tool. It provides all the required key functionality with the notable exception that students cannot be observed during assessments.
Scarcity of Educational Tools in Remote Learning
Our next step was to investigate the challenges and different engagement levels. Some of the challenges encountered by the Syrian parents due to their lack of experience in home-schooling were: the reorganization of studying time (setting a specific time for studying, including in the evening) and absence of a good learning atmosphere (no distraction from TV or siblings playing around...).
A conducted survey revealed that 68% of households had smartphones, but this doesn’t automatically translate into children having direct access to that phone. It had to be shared between parents and several children. The majority of the children commented that due to the presence of only one phone at home, they rush to finish their homework in order to pass the phone for their siblings to study on it.
Other families who owned a smartphone struggled to afford data packages from phone service providers; which led parents to deprioritize children’s education and expect them to find work to boost family income and miss out on education. The hardships of the daily reality of living in a refugee camp compelled Jusoor to take an action to alleviate such challenges.
Money as a Bridge to Education
Our first step was to undergo a cash experiment in Jurahiya camp by offering families no-strings grants of $25. They were given three different options on how to spend this amount of money: rent a smartphone from Jusoor, buy a mobile phone data package, or spend it the way they prefer. After distributing the cash, WhatsApp engagement learning increased by 16%. The majority of families - about 60% - decided to use cash on a combination of devices and data.
The most impactful option was combining both phone rental and data; it witnessed a 28% increase in engagement. While the second cash option only saw an 8% attendance engagement. Almost all parents were satisfied with the first option (99%).
One story of a man we interviewed claimed that he was willing to choose the phone rental option as it was desperately needed, yet he didn't. He then explained to us his reasons behind his choice of the mobile phone data package and the concerns about phone rental. He maintained that: “My children may break or damage the phone, which would impose financial consequences on me.”
Tactics to Help Parents Adopt
Cheaper alternatives were also tested to check their impact on children’s engagement. For instance, Smart Buys suggests that information and positive messaging can be efficient.
The sandbox team strived to ensure that refugees receive relevant advice on how to adapt to remote learning via communication applications on their smartphones, such as WhatsApp. There are situations where families can feel overwhelmed by the amount of information being offered to them from different sources to the extent that it can become easily overlooked, especially if it’s generic. It was important to make sure the advice given was specific, actionable, and tailored to local circumstances.
To help children learn at home, Jusoor designed tailored information to send to parents giving them practical tips. For example, how to give children a space to work and concentrate in; knowing that it is very challenging in refugee accommodation.
Some parents mentioned that: “although the advice was helpful, it took some time to institute a routine with the children.” According to them, children tend to be less concentrated and motivated compared to when they study at school. Conversely, some parents revealed that the advice succeeded where they failed at convincing their children to follow a routine because of the influence of the teachers/principals (children are more open to listening to advice coming from their teachers).
Parents assured that the advice they had been sent felt very relevant to their circumstances and experiences; it was genuinely useful for them. One parent said: “It’s like you’re sitting in my head!” – the Arabic equivalent of "You're reading my mind!
"Another parent maintained that: “The thing that was most beneficial to me from the videos is setting up a dedicated time to the child and their learning, not only in terms of teaching - teaching, understanding, the atmosphere at home, or playing outside, etc.
Jusoor is continuing to explore the best ways to support refugee learners in school and at home. Our team is keen that Syrian refugees are granted the opportunity to continue their education, despite the global challenges taking place.