Op-ed: What the global shift to online learning means for education and QFI

This article is a contribution by Carine Allaf to Qatar Foundation blog.  It is available in Arabic. You can find this article here

When the COVID-19 crisis turned global schooling on its head seemingly overnight, Qatar Foundation International (QFI) was immediately able to leverage its existing digital programming and use its 10 years of experience, expertise, and knowledge in this space to quickly pivot other programming to fit the current and ever-changing needs of the current worldwide crisis.

Digital resources have played a pivotal role in QFI’s programming since its founding in 2009. In fact, QFI built its core objectives around the use of digital resources to reach a diverse community through the bedrocks of Open Education Resources (OER) and virtual exchange.

From the beginning, approximately 40 percent of QFI’s program work has involved an online component, whether it be online professional development, digital resources, or virtual exchanges.

Access to quality education is a basic human right. At QFI, we believe a quality education is one that includes giving all students an opportunity to study a new language and a new part of the world. In our case, the language is Arabic, and the new part is the Arab world. These should be a ‘must have’, and not a ‘nice to have’, in any curriculum.

Over the years, we have experimented with various models to bring the teaching of Arabic to students who may not otherwise have access to it. Online learning, be it synchronous or asynchronous, was an instrumental delivery mechanism. With partners like Simon Fraser University in Canada and Brigham Young University in Utah, QFI supported a variety of models that allowed students to learn Arabic, from anywhere, even if their school did not have an on-site Arabic teacher.

Building on these early programs and the lessons learned from them, in early 2019 – long before COVID-19 was on anyone’s mind – QFI began working with Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT) and e-Sgoil on a hybrid virtual Arabic learning program for primary and secondary students across Scotland. Pairing e-Sgoil’s strength in online teaching to reach remote populations across the country with QFI and SCILT’s missions to bring quality language teaching to schools, we are able to bring Arabic teaching to schools who would not otherwise have access to learning the language. As of fall 2019, 24 schools from across Scotland had already signed up to include Arabic in their school days, and teachers were being trained to teach remotely. In the post-COVID-19 era, more schools are sure to take advantage of such a model.

Al-Masdar is another example of programming that we created in QFI’s nascency that is still very much in demand today, especially in light of COVID-19. In 2012, educators working with QFI kept raising the age-old need: “There are not enough good resources for us to use! We need more, more, more.” And although there is validity to that, there are also wonderful quality resources that already exist, but are not easy to find.

As a result, QFI developed Al-Masdar, an Open Education Resource database that houses a collection of searchable, vetted resources for teachers, parents and students to learn Arabic, and also learn about the Arab world. Al-Masdar’s user interface and design were updated in 2019 and are aligned with UNESCO’s renewed focus on OER “as an innovative tool for meeting the challenges of providing lifelong learning opportunities for learners from diverse levels and modes of education worldwide.” It’s a tool that also demonstrates QFI’s reflexivity in its work; anything we develop never remains stagnant or simply remains as it is. It is continuously revisited to ensure that it meets the needs it set out to address at the start. And if it does not, changes are made. In an immediate response to COVID-19, Al-Masdar now houses collections of online resources for educators that are available for immediate use in their virtual schools and classrooms.

As COVID-19 became our new reality, educators’ needs not only changed overnight, but continue to ebb and flow, much like the crisis itself. QFI strives to remain agile and flexible to respond to these changing needs as they arise. For this reason, grant opportunities that previously had set deadlines are now running on a rolling basis for educators who need urgent access to new online resources or professional development.

QFI is also hosting an ongoing series of webinars with key partners like SIMA Classroom, Culturingua, and NaTakallam. Physical resources that we had in our arsenal for educators, and that we would mail out, are now proving to be quite useful in an online format in this age of remote learning. Existing infographics that were meant to be complementary visual aids in a classroom have now shifted to being used virtually and a new series of these is being designed to broaden the subject coverage of interesting facets of the Arab world. The physical Q-Wheel (Al Madar Al Huruf) that helps demystify and gives learners a small taste of the Arabic alphabet used to be requested to be mailed out in thousands worldwide; it is also available in app format and can still be used by anyone, anywhere.

Building a strong community around its work, QFI’s mission from the start is to give all students opportunities to learn a new language and about the “other”, even if they never leave their own neighborhood. After all, today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. QFI’s inclusion of digital learning was one way we tried to ensure we reached students who would otherwise not have these opportunities.

It still remains unclear what the world will look like in the next few months and years. What is clear is that the impact of the pandemic will be visible in every facet of society. This crisis is exposing existing fissures that were around long before COVID-19. QFI depends on its strong and large network of educators to identify the assistance that is required and to help brainstorm ways to plug some of those gaps. Once again, educators show us that they are endlessly resilient, rising to the momentous change that the COVID-19 crisis has presented. And although our work in digital resources and virtual platforms has proven to be vital in this time of school closures, the one constant in our work is that we must support the educators who are so often on the frontline, and who are our lifeline to a world of students beyond the physical walls of schools.

Dr. Carine Allaf is QFI’s Senior Programs Advisor. She has been working with QFI for nine years and has 19 years of experience working as a teacher, scholar, and practitioner across the U.S. and much of the Arab world, including Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Sudan.