By Annelise Andersen, Communications and Impact Officer (RELIEF Centre), UCL Institute for Global Prosperity
In February 2018 members of RELIEF research strand 3, Future Education, went to Lebanon to co-organise a series of meetings and two workshops with colleagues from the American University of Beirut (AUB), Centre for Lebanese Studies (CLS) and Lebanese American University (LAU).
Colleagues met with representatives from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, academics from AUB, CLS and LAU and partner organisation Multi-Aid Programs. The meetings provided valuable insight into the education landscape of Lebanon, and helped to establish relationships with key actors in this space.
The Future Education team works on supplying the appropriate education and learning opportunities for communities impacted by mass displacement. They aim to co-design a series of open online courses with local teachers and NGOs in Lebanon. This will take the form of a MOOC (a Massive Open Online Course on the Edraak and Future Learn platforms) which is accessible to anyone with online access. The first two MOOCs they are developing are around community researcher practice and teacher professional development in Lebanon.
There were three main aims for their week in Lebanon:
To get a sense of the formal and informal education systems at work in Lebanon
To understand the needs and pre-existing support available for those working in the education sector
To ask how educational technologies might contribute to this
The purpose of the Community Researcher and Teacher Professional Development workshops were to listen to the experiences of those already working in education in Lebanon. Workshop participants were for the most part representatives from NGOs and researchers (for the first workshop) and teachers (for the second). Their reflections provided a detailed picture of life as a community researcher, or teacher. Using their personal and professional experiences, they explained the challenges they face and opportunities they look for.
Professor Diana Laurillard (UCL), Dr Eileen Kennedy (UCL) and Dr Maha Shuayb (CLS) introduced the first workshop A Consultation on Community Researcher Courses Through Technology (MOOCs and Blended Learning). Prior to the workshop, they asked participants to watch examples from pre-existing MOOCS on FutureLearn and Edraak, and consider the following questions:
Is this a valuable way of learning for community researchers?
Are there course features that you think work well? Are there aspects that you would be concerned about?
Participants then uploaded their answers to Mentimeter - a polling tool through which you can set questions and invite input from anyone using a device connected to the Internet. The number of and depth to the answers given provided a broad foundation from which the workshop's discussions could begin.
As the participants were the focus of this workshop, it was structured mostly around group activities that gave them the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas. First, a roundtable discussion was organised around the following questions:
How they work with community researchers
What the most important research issues are for community researchers
What key skills are used in community research
What the main research tools and methods are in community research
The rich and varied responses were communicated to the room in a plenary discussion, and again captured on Mentimeter. This online tool proved to be a quick, easy and non-invasive way of recording in-depth conversations.
Workshop participants quickly found that they shared may of the same challenges when conducting community research. Three common topics of conversation were confidentiality, trust and security issues, barriers to accessibility and self-awareness. Having the status of a "Community Researcher" appears to both open and close doors when working with those who have been displaced. On the one hand, communities may be keen to speak with you because you provide a platform through which their voices can be heard. However, there is no guarantee that communities trust you have good intentions with the information they tell you (if they decide to tell you anything at all).
There were many suggestions as to how a Community Researcher MOOC might help an individual working in the field to be prepared for, or even overcome, these issues. There could be opportunities to explore the importance of reflexivity when interviewing, for example, or role-plays that allow community researchers to imagine how they would respond to particular scenarios.
The question of what motivation there is to sign-up to and, more importantly, complete a MOOC came up repeatedly during discussions. Participants agreed that a certificate of attendance and better yet accreditation is highly appealing. Speaking from their own experiences, some participants expressed the confusion they sometimes feel over how or where to practice what they learn from online courses. In other words, the closer the connection a MOOC has to tangible, real-world impact the better.
The Teacher Professional Development MOOC workshop took place at Sonbola - an education grassroots NGO based in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Sonbola was founded in response to Syria's education crisis, which has left gaps in the educational provision available for Syrian refugee children. Addressing the participants, Syrian teachers for the most part, Professor Laurillard explained that the purpose of the workshop was to listen to those present, and understand the challenges and innovations that are happening at the grassroots, practice-level. The level of experience workshop participants had of teaching varied, as did the contexts in which they teach.
Dr Tejendra Pherali (UCL) provided the context behind this workshop. He explained that generally the focus on Teacher Professional Development (TPD) has been neglected in the context of mass displacement. This is short-sighted, as teachers are the most important component to any kind of education. They are not just there to provide classes in numeracy and literacy. Teachers can provide a sense of hope in the community for those suffering socio-political challenges where they are living.
In a similar format to the first workshop, participants formed small groups to discuss the challenges they face teaching in the context of mass displacement, uploading their insights online. Workshop participants drew on their own experiences to respond to questions posed by the organisers. Challenges included:
Teaching to classes of mixed ability
Differences between Syrian and Lebanese curriculums and learning styles
Classroom management and a lack of support for teachers
Being sensitive towards the incredibly difficult domestic circumstances that some children face
A lack of pastoral care for children
Difficulty in gaining access to continued professional development
From these discussions, it was clear that the classrooms in which workshop participants teach present many unpredictable difficulties. It was agreed that we need to work together to develop learning tools and materials that are easily accessible and responsive to these shifting environments. The Future Education team at the RELIEF Centre aim to contribute to this as powerfully as possible.
We thank all our partners and participants for taking the time to speak with us and share their valuable and unique experiences. The data collected from both workshops in February will be used directly to shape the structure of the MOOCs produced by Future Education and the content in them.