By: Rim EL Hasbani
2020 was a year full of challenges, to the say the least. Many sectors in Lebanon were drastically affected by the global pandemic, economic crisis, and political tension.
Education in Lebanon has always been a topic of debate, even before the recent events that shook the country. Some of the concerns around education in Lebanon were focused on its quality and integrity. Additionally, the education sector in Lebanon is one of the least financially supported sectors by the government. Those aforementioned concerns are translated by real challenges that the community faces daily. Skeptical of the quality of education, some believe that it has been compromised because of the ever-existing political conflict. The Covid-19 pandemic however, introduced some new challenges that were not foreseen by students, teachers, and parents. Most schools and universities shifted from traditional learning to online or blended learning. While learning online has several advantages, it holds many disadvantages. Some of the obstacles that impede E-learning in Lebanon are: The poor infrastructure, increasing political tension and absurd collapsing economy. We have seldom heard testimonials from teachers and students who were not able to attend their lecture or submit an assignment on time due to the poor internet connection. Access to electrical power is also a privilege as not every household has access to it. While some areas in Lebanon have 24/7 coverage, underprivileged areas have extremely limited coverage. The lack of electrical power means that students will lack access to basic needs such as hot water and heating; It also means that they will not be able to charge their phones and laptops, be able to watch live or prerecorded lectures and submit their assignments on due time. To add on to that, the collapsing economy, inflation, and currency depreciation makes it particularly challenging for the middle and working class to readily face increasing internet charges, higher maintenance fees, higher living expenses etc…
In May 2020, I started an online Masters degree program at Arizona State University. I was thrilled that I got accepted into one of the best universities in the world; however, my experience was coupled with many challenges that I faced throughout my degree. My first challenge was to actually familiarize myself with the different online platforms used in distance learning. Tools such as “Canvas, blackboard, slack etc..” were overwhelming to use all at once at the beginning. Moreover, studying a masters degree completely online felt a little odd and not so genuine at the start. I had to rationalize and challenge the bias that I had in mind that judged an online masters degree to be less worthy or challenging than traditional on-campus courses. This bias is rooted in the Lebanese and Arab culture and is also apparent by the fact that online masters programs are not yet recognized by the Lebanese Ministry of Education. I am currently half way through my masters degree, and I can confirm that an online degree is as challenging and demanding as an on campus one. I have experienced first hand the challenges of a masters degree, even an online one, through sleepless nights, extensive research, long articles and literature, heavy assignments and difficult exams. Through my masters, I also got to meet the online community of Lebanese and Arab students who, like me, study online. We had also made an unofficial promise to try our best to destigmatize distance learning and work on its recognition in the Arab region.
Yet another challenge that I faced is the slow and inefficient internet connection that slowed the flow of my studies. Very often I would be logged out of my zoom meeting or my lecture would be disrupted because of the weak internet connection. Many times, I would also be interrupted when the power goes off.
To conclude, Lebanon is facing many challenges that are affecting its community, especially students. With the aforementioned obstacles, we can firmly say that the social consensus on the reputation of online learning is no longer a major concern in an environment where access to online learning is compromised by logistics challenges. More action should be taken to ensure that all students have equal access to education. Action should also be taken to address challenges that are particular to E-learning.