Algeria: distance learning for students

Djamila Khiar has been president of the Fédération nationale des associations de parents d’élèves, for nearly five years. Her association was founded in 1990 and is one of the three national parents associations in Algeria. During the coronavirus pandemic, the parents’ associations have been actively involved in organising distance learning for all students as well as expressing their concern and offering suggestions to the Ministry of National Education. On May 10, the Ministry announced that schools in Algeria, which closed on March 12, would not reopen until October 2020. This decision reflects suggestions proposed by the parents associations, as well as teachers unions. The baccalaureate exams scheduled for June will take place in September 2020. As part of our #learningconnects campaign, Djamila Khiar spoke to us about the growing importance and acceptance of VET learning in Algeria and the challenges of distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Can you give a brief overview of the educational system in general in Algeria?

We have a free public system which is obligatory for all children until age 16. With the political opening of the country in 1989 parents became active and parents associations were created. Close to 99% of our nearly 10 million students attend public schools. Private schools were only founded over the past ten years. At 16, children pass the “brevet de l’enseignement moyen” (BEM), a certificate of general education, and either continue in general education, go on to vocational training, or leave school.

How important is vocational training in Algeria?

VET is very important in Algeria. There’s been a rush towards VET and this is happening even with students who went to university, because they are not finding work, and they come to VET to reorient in order to align themselves with the needs of the market.

It used to be that VET wasn’t accepted by parents. It was due to a certain mentality, that a family’s status was tied to the children getting their baccalaureate.  All parents would push their children to study medicine or engineering. Today there’s a growing awareness that the market demand is what matters and that courses have become diversified.

There are also technical lycées (technical high schools) and schools that specialise in maths and physics. There are four schools that specialise in maths and they consistently have the best results at the BEM exam. We are advocating to have these schools present in every region in Algeria.   

What has been the situation for students in Algeria since schools were closed? Did distance learning exist before the pandemic?

Distance learning didn’t really exist, other than correspondence courses. There had been a few initiatives previously, there was a television station that had classes to help study for the baccalaureate. Twenty years ago, there was a TV station that focussed only on distance learning but during the “black decade” [the civil war during which 200,000 Algerians lost their lives] the station disappeared. Two years ago, some programs resumed, but not on one particular station.

With the coronavirus we had to move quickly and implement distance learning. There are some courses online but not everyone is lucky enough to have a computer or an internet connection. We have a lot of large families and it’s difficult for the children to find a quiet spot in the house. So in our situation distance learning with television is more democratic.

It used to be that we always focused on the baccalaureate, but this time we saw that all classes were affected. It’s a good thing that we realized this, the coronavirus educated us and made us realise that we need to train teachers in distance learning, and how to be able to engage with children. There was great solidarity and our teachers tried their best, but they don’t have the methodology required for distance learning.  But the classes that were organised ran on the six national television stations and we have asked for a special station that will run classes as long as the school are closed. 

Did you correspond frequently with the Ministry of Education during this period of time?

We met with the Ministry on March 27. We suggested that the teachers get training as quickly as possible. We talked about reorganising the school year; this year we were lucky that the first two trimesters were stable compared to other years when there were strikes, for example. The children completed 80% of the programme. Our lockdown began one week before the school holidays following the second trimester, which is the longest. We asked the Ministry to end the school year now. The Ministry consulted with 16 or 17 unions and the three parents associations and we all agreed that schools should not reopen. The third trimester is only three to four weeks long, sometimes there are more than 40 children per class so it’s impossible to put in place the necessary sanitary measures. We also proposed that the baccalaureate exam that usually takes place in June be postponed until September. We gave the Ministry a roadmap so that teachers can prepare and children can get back to learning without endangering their health and that of their families. The virus can contaminate many people in our way of life which includes many family members; aunts, uncles, and grandparents. *

How are you planning to continue distance learning and implement a system for the future?

In the years to come we’ll be better equipped; everyone agrees that there are many possibilities if we are able to have a special television station and train our teachers. We can get organised, but nothing replaces the classroom, even for a child psychologically, they have their friends, a place to be silly, an environment that is their own. At home things aren’t always easy.

We know better what to expect now, and we’ve learned that families have an important role to play. Before, we relied entirely on the national education system and didn’t fully play our role. But the coronavirus showed us the importance of being present and following up on what the children are doing with distance learning. Children aren’t used to distance learning, on television they can’t react, or ask questions. 

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