Is online-education an option in north Syria?

Last Autumn, children across the world started heading back to school after prolonged lockdowns and uncertainty about their future. The past year has demonstrated the important role schools play, not just as a place for education but also as a space to meet and to develop social skills that children need, namely in Syria where the war has already deprived them of schooling for many years. A teacher in Mara’a in north-western Syria, Ahmad Al-Qasem, said, “Once children were at school, they started to re-connect, meet up with their peers and enjoy the social and versatile space it provides. School is a place where children develop their social skills and make better progress in education since teachers can personally monitor their development and provide guidance where needed.

Downsides of online education

Al-Qasem argues that, while distance learning during the pandemic has enabled children to carry on with their education, the experience of this type of learning has proven its lack of efficiency to deliver a quality education that would contribute to children’s development.
Furthermore, children need to learn discipline, commitment and good behavior at the same time as their academic journey at school. Although children would learn a great deal of it at home, school remains a pivotal place where children are given the opportunity to apply the knowledge they learn at home, make mistakes and learn from them.

On the practical side, despite students’ and teachers’ passion and endeavors to maintain a positive attitude to carry on the online learning phase, this experience was an utter struggle for teachers, children, and their parents. Unlike first world countries, places like Syria were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Online education is a luxury for a lot of the population in northern Syria as a great proportion of the population do not have reliable internet access or are unable to afford one.

The lack of stable technology as well as a lack of electricity and phones in order to run classes over WhatsApp have contributed to undermining the educational objective and its deliverable success to students in northern Syria. In addition, the disproportionate distribution of NGOs’ technological support coupled with an immense scale of needs make it difficult to tackle the technological and equipment imbalances.

Al-Qasem argues that online learning perpetuates education inequalities between families; those who can afford paying for extra tutoring and those who cannot. Poverty also often means not having a designated space at home devoted to studying, equipped with internet connection. Families have reduced internet access and some do not even own a computer or smartphone. Al-Qasem, who is a math teacher at a primary school, said that one of the most challenging aspects of distance learning for his students was the lack of a strong and stable internet connection and access to a smartphone device.

Hiba Abdullah, a university student in northern Syria considered her online-learning experience as poor and unsatisfactory. She commented, “class or physically attending a school or university allows us to engage with our peers in intellectual and enriching conversations as well as engaging in social and educational activities. We get to ask questions and properly engage in the class without internet connection disruptions or electricity cuts. It might have been a good experience if we had 24/7 electricity and good internet connection, but this is not the case unfortunately.”

On the psychological side, children who come out of intense war circumstances, which many have not recovered from, need an element of normality, stability and community which is what schools offer and foster. Having to replace school with online learning, may have worked, but only where there is no means of holding physical education like what happened during the pandemic. Otherwise, considering taking online education beyond Covid-19 has far less benefits for future generations– at least in countries where crises run rampant and school is the only place where children can study, socialize and play.