Education in the Time of COVID-19 #031 – Abu Moghli & Chase
By CEID Blogger, on 23 June 2020
Bridging, not building, capacity: English language conversations as an exemplar of the need for more equitable and collaborative learning opportunities
For some time now, academics from UCL, who are part of the Future Education team at the RELIEF project, have been working with over 100 teachers and education professionals in Lebanon to co-design a MOOC (Massive Open Online Collaboration) which was launched under the title Transforming Education in Challenging Environments in the summer of 2019. (Read the CEID Blog post about the MOOC!) The process of co-design and development of the MOOC purposefully sought to unsettle and dismantle ideas about the assumed superiority of knowledge that trickles down from academic spaces in the global north and instead to start from the wealth of expertise and knowledges among teachers and educators working in some of the most complex circumstances. UCL academics – along with partners in Lebanon at the Centre for Lebanese Studies (CLS), Jusoor, MAPs and other (I)NGOs worked together to assess the needs of the educationalists in that particular context and co-design online shared learning spaces to respond to their professional development needs. The MOOC attracted over 9,000 educators from across Arabic speaking countries and 2,500 educators from across the world and was followed up with a blended learning summer course for teachers who work in refugee contexts in Lebanon.
Some teachers in Lebanon who participated in the workshops, focus groups and other activities expressed interest in developing skills in other areas beyond the co-designed MOOC and related learning sessions. In particular, they requested opportunities to practice speaking English. We saw this as an opportunity for expanding our work with teachers, opening up channels of collaboration beyond the MOOC and enabling alternative cross-cultural social and communicative spaces to emerge organically. As a result of this request, we started a small project pairing teachers in Lebanon with volunteers in the UK, mostly UCL academics and students. The idea was for the pairs to hold weekly conversations for about 30-60 minutes. We put together a set of guidelines for volunteer-teacher conversations in English and Arabic and offered limited administrative support. To date we have managed to pair 18 teachers in Lebanon with volunteer English speakers.
With the COVID-19 outbreak and teaching and learning moving online, we noticed a renewed interest in the continuation and expansion of this initiative. We received a number of requests from teachers in Lebanon to be paired with volunteers, and from volunteers expressing their interest in being linked with teachers in Lebanon. Before moving forward and expanding this network we sought to review the interaction that had already taken place between the volunteers and teachers and better understand the impact of these conversations. This was not only in terms of the initial goal of improving English language conversation skills, but also to capture other aspects such as social interactions, increased knowledge of various contexts amongst the participants as well as any other perceived benefits associated with the project.
We sent the participants a list of questions related to their motivation to participate in the project; the sorts of topics they had discussed; and what they found most interesting during the conversations. We also invited them to highlight any difficulties in communication and to propose suggestions as to how to improve the initiative and the network as a whole. Some of the answers and insights we received were not surprising or unexpected. We were already aware, for example, of the limited administrative capacity for the project and are currently looking to secure further resources to redress this issue. Other responses, however, confirmed a more fundamental concern related to embedded ideas about the nature of knowledge and how it is shared. Before we explain, it is worth reflecting on the situation in Lebanon currently.
In the past year, the already challenging circumstances within which educationalists in Lebanon work have been rapidly deteriorating. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the region, since October 2019 education has been severely disrupted as teachers, parents and students took to the streets to demand their rights, the end of corruption and better living standards for everyone. Street blockades, mass strikes and school and university closures meant that teachers were already having to manage workarounds, or plan for managing the gaps that would be created in education programmes. The ensuing financial crisis has badly affected everyone, and families trying to support young people learning are under great stress. Many teachers have not been paid in months, others have lost their jobs and even those who are paid, the massive devaluation of the currency has devastated economic security and livelihoods. Enter the pandemic, which has forced educators to move all aspects of teaching and learning to various distant modes including online with practically no planning or support.
Yet, in many cases, teaching has continued; teachers have generated pedagogic innovations, in some cases using an online infrastructure that is frequently unstable, and for many non-existent. The challenges are in many cases insurmountable but they still strive to provide education to some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged refugee and Lebanese communities.
Against this backdrop, the responses from the volunteers offering English language support to teachers made us stop and reflect. These tended to reveal an assumed hierarchy and unidirectional flow of knowledge: from the volunteer English speakers towards their colleagues in Lebanon. Teachers in Lebanon expressed their appreciation to having learnt about new pedagogies, ways of using technology in the classroom as well as interview and job application related skills. When the volunteers were asked about why they participated in the initiative, the common answer was to help others. Unlike teachers in Lebanon who articulated what they saw as the multiple learning and benefits of the English conversations, volunteers rarely identified gains beyond the exercise of philanthropy. The missing link, in these exchanges, it seems, is any recognition of the potential for reciprocity and mutual benefit. As our co-design work to date testifies, teachers in Lebanon are experienced educationalists who work in extremely challenging conditions with limited resources and yet manage to transform the lives of learners and their wider communities. COVID-19 combined with the political and economic crisis in Lebanon has revealed the breadth of ingenuity, expertise and creativity of our Lebanese colleagues. However, this enormous wealth of knowledge and experience appears to have become muted in the language exchanges which position the acquisition of the English language as the pinnacle of all knowledge, leaving teachers in Lebanon feeling unable or unwilling to assert their own expertise and experiences as valid and valuable. While volunteers tended to express their appreciation of learning about the contexts in which these teachers work, their culture and cuisine, they appeared not to fully recognise the enormous possibilities to learn about new approaches, ideas, values, philosophies and pedagogies.
The skills, knowledge(s) and experiences of teachers working in refugee contexts are invaluable. Having the chance to work and communicate with these teachers, particularly in a social and informal space allows us to build our own understanding and our own capacity as academics and educationalists in the global north. As academics striving for social justice and towards redressing inequalities, it is our role to seek chances to positively engage with alternative narratives and grassroots knowledge and to include them in our own practice. In doing so we can help decentre ideas about the assumed superiority of knowledge that trickles down from academic spaces in the global north.
These reflections are not intended in any way to undermine the efforts of colleagues in England and Lebanon. The perceived value of these exchanges was unquestionable. What we propose is further critical thought which pushes us all to think more deeply about the nature and exchange of knowledge and to collectively seek to problematise the many assumptions upholding a hierarchical system which continuously inflates the value of certain forms of knowledge and knowledge holders to the detriment and dismissal of others.
Mai Abu Moghli is a Research Associate at the UCL Institute of Education where Elaine Chase is an Associate Professor.
Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.
Want to publish a blog post? Send us a submission or idea.