As Coronavirus forces online learning, a project with Syrian refugees in Turkey might already set an example

April 3, 2020

Syrian refugees receive Turkish language instruction through a new blended learning approach. Photos: Levent Kulu / UNDP Turkey

The growing Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has compelled decision makers and education officials across the world to shut down schools. Many lectures and in-person classes have been halted, and educators are scrambling to deliver online courses via video conferencing services and digital tools while engaging remotely with students. However, after initial excitement, many countries are finding they lack the necessary digital infrastructure, system, software, methodology, trained human capital and experience for such a sudden shift from classrooms to online.

This crisis could spur a new wave of educational logic and systems, more innovative, inclusive, accessible and sustainable for all. And a first lesson could come from response to another crisis: Syrian refugees and resilience.

 Since March 2019, over 28,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey have received Turkish language courses through a brand-new “Blended” learning model, mixing conventional and e-learning methods. Call it the “New Traditional Model.”

The efforts are part of UNDP Turkey’s Syria Crisis Response and Resilience Programme, designed to support Syrian refugees in the country. Funded by the European Union and in partnership with Turkey’s Ministry of Education, this learning project plans to provide 52,000 Syrians between ages 18 to 57 with good quality Turkish language skills to empower them for social, economic and cultural integration to the society and enable self-reliance among this vulnerable community.

The new traditional model

Distance or e-learning and teaching naturally is different than just making video conferences and lectures. Interacting and engaging with students online, as well as assessing and evaluating them requires specific methodology, expertise and skills. Conventional educational content cannot just be moved online – it must be adapted. And most importantly, not all students and schools have reliable internet access.

Blended learning is an innovative and holistic system where the teacher drives the instruction and improves it with digital tools. Most of the curriculum is delivered via a digital platform and teachers are available for face-to-face consultation and support. Students cycle through a schedule of independent online study and face-to-face classroom time. They choose to enhance their traditional learning with online coursework, and complete an entire course through an online platform with possible teacher check-ins.

Havas el Harbi joined one of the courses in Mersin. “We learned through the internet in this new system. It has been very good for me. I did not have time at first, but now we watch the lessons online.”

This model also includes limited in-classroom teachings, but is quite flexible and adaptive to changing circumstances. The system works remotely on PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets. Students do not necessarily need to have continuous internet connection.

In parallel with the teaching methodology, an online education system was developed including a learning management system, virtual classrooms, learner analytics and evaluation systems. Teachers and students log in, engaging remotely as courses become independent of time and space. It brings connectivity to teachers and students.

“This model is flexible and interactive, encouraging continuous and individualized learning,” says UNDP project manager Ezg Arslan. “According to scientific research, it has higher learning retention.”

 “The flipped classroom” inverts the typical cycle of content acquisition and application. Students are introduced to pre-uploaded content at home and practice working through it at school. They gain necessary knowledge before class, instructors guide students to actively and interactively clarify and apply that knowledge during class.

Benefits beyond learning

The online learning model is also cost effective, since using training materials, classrooms, buildings are limited and it can fully be online without a tremendous amount of investment.

E-education requires specific teaching skills, and through the project, 318 teachers from across Turkey were trained. Turkey now has the baseline human capital for implementing and expanding such a system.

Currently, almost 2,000 Syrian students are involved in language education at the intermediate level, and trainings are now fully online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“As decision makers, educators, students and families around the world are struggling to tackle the unexpected challenge of providing distance learning to millions, this is a model for delivering equitable results while overcoming the challenges inherent in distance learning, says Ruşen İnceoğlu, the project’s outreach specialist.

“It’s our hope that the innovative pilot project can be expanded to different areas in the education sector. Whether it’s language training, vocational and technical skills development, emergency readiness trainings, or curricula in higher education, the system can cover learning and education when schools are closed and formal education is interrupted.“

The model is recognized by the Ministry of Education as a successful pilot and best practice, and are looking at expanding it to other areas of education.

This project on refugee education could set an example for the nearly 1.5 billion children who are out of school and education, and pave the way for more inclusive and accessible opportunities for all.

UNDP, together with “open education” experts at Anadolu University, developed the system, provided the necessary infrastructure and software, trained teachers specifically for distance learning, and adapted education content for such model. The project is the first of its kind to cover a large vulnerable population. If students complete all levels of instruction, their proficiency enables them to apply for jobs or university in Turkey.