Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, the Non-Formal Education program finds a solution
30 years ago, our partner Questscope was founded with a mission to put the last, first. Decades later, the organization has grown to serve thousands of young people in the Middle East and beyond. Working with individuals, communities, local organizations, and international partners to produce social, education, and entrepreneurial opportunities for marginalized youth, they’ve stayed true to their original vision – to lift up the most vulnerable.
One of Questscope’s hallmark initiatives is their Non-Formal Education Program, re-enrolling young people in school when they otherwise would not be able to continue their education. In Jordan, when a young person drops out of school for more than three years, they lose their option to return. But there are scores of reasons why a child might need to put their education on pause for a while. Some children drop out to work and support their families, some young women may be married early, and some parents can’t afford the school fees. Often they are refugees whose lives have been upended by crises.
So many of these young people also recognize the power of education and want to return. But they’ve been out of the classroom for years, and they need extra support. That’s why Questscope developed the Non-Formal Education program, which qualifies young people to receive a certificate of achievement, allowing them to be homed schooled and putting them on the same level as their peers. Graduates are also eligible to continue secondary education in the formal system for the eventual completion of the 12th grade, once they’re finished with their homeschooling.
Developed in partnership with the Jordanian Ministry of Education, this unique learning program is the first and only General Education Equivalence Degree Program (GED) in the Arab world. And since 2005, Questscope has enrolled more than 25,000 youth.
The Challenge of COVID
Questscope’s team has faced challenges over the decades. But this past spring, COVID-19 confronted the very core of their Non-Formal Education Program, begging several vital questions: How can you keep already vulnerable kids on track when they can’t meet in person? And, what happens when most of those kids don’t have access to reliable Wi-Fi? If Zoom isn’t available and online remote learning in the traditional sense isn’t an option with low-frequency internet, what’s the alternative?
With amazing speed and agility, the Questscope team scrambled to find the answers. They realized that what most kids did have is WhatsApp – already one of the most common forms of communication. So out of the chaos and uncertainty, the team built a solution…education over WhatsApp.
Adjusting to a New Reality
Right away, all of Questscope’s Non-Formal Education programs moved to WhatsApp. Students turned in their homework via chat, and facilitators taught classes over chat and video. With incredible enthusiasm, creativity, humor, and dedication, these facilitators overcame the head-spinning changes to bring all their students along.
Since this was uncharted territory for both the facilitators and the young people in their classes, it was also important to walk side by side with the Ministry of Education in follow-up and collaboration. Ministry officers were invited to take part in the WhatsApp learning groups for support, which also boosted the parents’ confidence in the program and validated the entire learning process.
As the lessons developed, facilitators had to go above and beyond to think creatively in their approach—which is exactly what Ms. Nowar did.
Ms. Nowar specializes in Educational Technologies. She worked hard in researching and designing creative E-lessons for these young people. She also used some educational games and quizzes, which kept the girls active throughout.
With her help, now the girls in Nowar’s class are given the chance to research and take the lead in designing their lessons, helping to explain it to the others. This peer-to-peer approach is known for its compounding positive effects in helping learning take hold.
“This experience developed our girls’ talents as well as our own,” says Ms. Nowar.
Students Step Up
Students sought out creative ways to stay engaged with learning, too. Sjoud, a Syrian refugee who lives in a refugee camp, couldn’t afford to purchase the internet for her phone so that she could participate in the WhatsApp groups. So, she struck a bargain with the owner of the local market who sells internet bundles – she would go out into the community and sell the internet, making a small profit of her own. She had such great success that soon she was back online and learning with her peers!
Adam and Mohamad are friends. They both have mobile phones but Adam doesn’t have access to the internet on his. So they decided to start their distance Non-Formal Educational journey together, using one device. They both learn together and share and submit their assignments using Mohamad’s phone – a unique experience for both.
A COVID-19 Silver Lining
For some of Questscope’s youth with special conditions like autism, learning can be challenging. But to the team’s surprise, distance learning was a great method that ended up suiting some of these students well.
Sulaf has mild autism. At one point, with no communication skills and poor academic achievement, she had to drop out of her formal education and ended up at home. Joining our Non-Formal Education program, her facilitators instantly started a customized plan for her that includes a lot of support and encouragement to get her more engaged with the rest of the class.
To everyone’s surprise, when learning became remote, Sulaf was the first one to participate and always submitted her homework. She even won an educational contest held during the month of Ramadan! Her facilitators were thrilled with these improvements and how much Sulaf embraced this method of learning.
“I felt I’m better in my studies,” says Sulaf. “I even started to like it.”
Adjustments Along the Way
It was such a sudden transition to distance learning; the program team needed to learn and adjust along the way. They soon realized that there were many students like Sjoud, students whose families simply didn’t have the funding to purchase their own, sustainable internet. So the Questscope team decided to distribute 3,750 internet bundles to those families who were particularly in need, about 1,250 youth and facilitators alike.
It was also apparent that, as the lockdown continued, there was a need to keep things fresh and keep kids engaged in distance learning. So the team put their heads together and decided to hold two competitions: a daily competition with education quizzes and a talent competition that encouraged both youth and their facilitators to stay active. The prize was a tablet! By the time the competition ended, around 130 tablets were delivered to the winners, which will help them immensely in the learning process.
“I’ve been through a lot of difficulties, and my only solace was writing poetry!” said Aya, one of the programs’ students, after winning the talent competition for poetry. “Winning the competition for the poetry category was the only happy event we had in our house.”
Learning through COVID was and continues to be a challenge, but Questscope’s teams have also met with great success. A number of students have graduated in the past few months, and their national exams were off the charts – far higher than the national averages. It’s a testament to the tenacity and talent of both students and educators, proving that COVID-19 didn’t mean a derailment for their futures.
If you’d like to learn more about Questscope, reach out to Sarah Maduri at Sarah.Maduri@questscope.org. Or you can help by giving support to teachers and students so they can continue to do incredible work.