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Jordan’s High-Stakes Educational Testing Challenges During COVID-19

By Guest Writer on May 7, 2020

jordan educatiuon covid19

Since the first COVID-19 coronavirus cases were reported in December 2019 the virus has spread to over 210 countries and territories around the world and 2 international conveyances. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, one of the smallest countries in the Arabian Peninsula, reacted vigorously after just sixteen cases appeared around the country.

Jordan’s COVID-19 Context

Despite its limited resources and its dependency on tourism, the kingdom immediately enforced one of the most extensive lockdowns in the world. Jordan’s containment measures included banning all commercial passenger flights, closing land and sea borders, halting prayers in mosques and churches, closing businesses, suspending trading in the Amman Stock Exchange–after it plunged to levels not seen since 2003–and enforcing strict curfews and emergency laws.

While these containment measures were praised domestically, they have put Jordan’s recovery from the months of protests over tax increases and rolled back subsidies in 2018 in jeopardy and have deepened an economic downturn. Jordan’s economy which has been significantly challenged by regional instability, is not expected to recover before 2021.

Jordan, which has shouldered some of the impact of the 9-year-old Syrian civil war, is now home to the second largest refugee camp in the world, El Zaatari, and the country’s 4th largest “city”. While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the registered refugees to this day, humanitarian experts fear that an outbreak among refugees is likely to happen. Such an outbreak would place an extraordinary strain on the medical care system and further unsettle an already struggling economy.

King Abdullah II affirmed in a royal decree that while these measures might seem drastic, the health of Jordanians and the residents is sacred and comes above anything else. The Kingdom’s 10 million population, including Syrian refugees have been on an indefinite lockdown since March 21.

COVID-19 Digital Education Response

The government’s drastic measures to mitigate the effects of the virus also included closing all schools for in-person instruction. To ensure that Jordanian students’ studies are not disrupted by this crisis, the Ministry of Education collaborated with the Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship and a group of service providers, namely Mawdoo3, Edraak, Abwaab and JoAcademy platforms, to develop comprehensive remote education platforms and a smartphone application.

See Other COVId-19 Digital Responses

The official e-learning portal, “Darsak”, offers courses in basic subjects for all grades (one to 12), through a series of 15 to 45-minute-long video clips. According to the Jordan News Agency, Petra, as of April 9th Darsak has produced over 1,000 lessons at a rate of 350 lessons per week and generated more than 23 million views since the platform was launched on March 22, 2020.

Additionally, the ministry launched a 90-hour training program to train the less affluent and digitally savvy teachers on content development and student performance evaluation via the platform “Teachers”. The “NoorSpace” platform is an electronic system that was also launched to enable schools, teachers, students and parents to communicate, organize work and share best practices among themselves.

Similarly, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in collaboration with the Higher Council for Science and Technology, the Accreditation and Quality Assurance Commission for Higher Education Institutions and major Jordanian universities launched the online platform “Teach Yourself” for university students to enable them to continue learning at home.

Online Education Inequality Challenge

However, this sudden development of education technology in Jordan is occurring in a context of deep and persistent inequality. Despite the ministry’s numerous efforts to integrate technology into education in the past few years, effective deployment of ICT continues to be a major challenge. The problem is more exacerbated in rural areas where most refugees live.

With the benefits of ICTs not being spread evenly, the digital divide between the connected and under connected, the haves and have-nots in Jordan is only widening. Recognizing this digital gap, the ministry backed up the electronic content by televised classes broadcasted by two new television channels—Jo Darsak 1 and 2—and Jordan Sport TV where the content is televised twice a day.

In collaboration with the telecommunication companies in the kingdom, students are granted free access to Darsak platform between 6 am and 4 pm where the costs are fully borne by the government. The government has also provided additional frequencies to increase internet speeds.

Yet, there are still concerns over the potential impact the lockdown could have on the education of less affluent students. Critics say that these emerging approaches unfairly hurt refugee and low-income students, specially the Tawjihi students–the General Secondary Education Certificate Examination– who have limited access to the digital or televised content.

High Stakes Testing Challenge

Congressman Ibrahim Al-Badour pointed out in an interview that Tawjihi students are the most affected by the crisis as these exams make or break a student’s future and criticized the Ministry of Education for not having a clear plan for this year’s exams. However, the ministry stressed that it is “premature” to discuss the Tawjihi exams which are scheduled to be held on July 1st, 2020.

The Prime Minister and former Minister of Education and World Bank economist, Omar Al-Razzaz, on the other hand called on Tawjihi students to continue following up on their lessons through online platforms, including virtual classrooms through Microsoft Teams, and the TV channels. The Prime Minister, recognizing the importance of parental involvement, also urged parents to maintain a close follow-up of their children.

Pop Quiz: What’s the average tenure of Jordan’s Education Minister?

However, for parental involvement to play a part in the current effort, parents’ different literacy levels should have been taken into account and virtual training, workshops and resources should have been offered to help parents support and monitor their children’s progress during this unprecedented time.

Given that Tawjihi exams are high-stakes tests that can determine not only eligibility but also the majors students are permitted to study in universities, the ministry’s biggest challenge during this crisis is to guarantee the delivery of the educational materials to the largest possible number of students.

According to the results of a survey run by the Ministry, only 33 percent of students nationwide had access to the televised materials, while only 70 percent of students were able to access the educational materials online via the official platforms. This gap in access can be attributed in part to lack of ICT skills, access to the internet and the availability of ICTs and reliable electricity in camps and urban areas.

To cater for the new demand, UNHCR and Zaatari camp authorities have increased the provision of electricity to households from eight to more than 12 hours a day. However, with the majority of refugees residing in urban areas where over eighty five percent living below the poverty line, these emerging approaches are likely to exacerbate already existing inequalities. The electrical costs associated with the usage of these technologies could be significantly high for the less affluent families.

Given the resources available in Jordan, the benefits that flow from the deployment of mobile technologies in delivering educational content are meaningful for all, but can be especially beneficial for Tawjihi students. The high service penetration, the advances in the processing power, memory and connectivity and the low power consumption lay the groundwork for the deployment of mobile educational technologies in the under-resourced parts of the country. In fact, Jordan is a trailblazer in the use of mobile and fixed broadband services in the region according to the World Bank.

Three Choices for Tawjihi Exams

If the coronavirus crisis persists, the ministry will be left with three options: either to cancel the Tawjihi exams, postpone them or conduct them on time. It seems Jordan is leaning toward the latter where the exams will take place either online for the first time in its history or take a business-as-usual approach where the exams will be held at schools but with strict hygiene and distance regulations.

In fact, the ministry has already conducted some at-home education assessments for grades four to twelve from 18 to 23 April via Darsak platform. These at-home tests, however, suffered from some major limitations:

  1. The tests covered course materials from the start of the term until in-person instruction was mandatorily suspended. Students in different schools were moving through the material at different speeds before the suspension which made it rather difficult to decide on the content of these standardized tests in a fair and equal way;
  2. These tests excluded students with disabilities and those with no access to ICTs or/and internet;
  3. For at-home testing to be fair, massive amounts of digital proctoring, to monitor movement and sound, and locking down access to other sites on the internet during testing is required to prevent cheating.

Given the incredibly high stakes of such exams, it is thus highly unlikely for the ministry to run the Tawjihi exams online in the same fashion. It is not yet clear which approach the ministry will take and whether it is the right approach but as former Minister of Education, Fayez Al-Saudi, noted the ministry has limited options and might be forced to implement at-home online exams.

Whichever approach the ministry decides to adopt, underlying strategic issues would have to be addressed first. For instance:

  • If Tawjihi exams are to be cancelled, how will university spaces or scholarships be allocated? And how to ensure that it is done in an equitable and fair way?
  • If the exams are to be postponed, when will they take place? Will postponing them affect university admission and start dates?
  • If the exams are to take place in an online format:
    • How can the ministry ensure fair access for all students including students in remote, rural areas and students with disabilities?
    • What data protection laws does the ministry have in place to ensure that personal information and individual privacy preferences are protected?
    • What safeguards does the ministry have in place to prevent data theft? How will test security be maintained?
    • How will the ministry prevent test manipulation and/or item leakage?
    • What happens when students experience computer interruptions like a power outage or a PC crashes halfway through the exam?

Now that Jordan has partially relaxed the lockdown for the holy month of Ramadan, the hope is that by 1st of July the restrictive measures will be fully lifted and Tawjihi students would be able to take their exams at schools.

While at this point we don’t know the extent to which the move to remote teaching will affect the educational performance of these students, the rapid spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of bridging the digital gap between the connected and the under-connected in Jordan.

Now that the outbreak of coronavirus is speeding up, the previously slow-moving, digitization of the education sector in Jordan, the ministry has a real opportunity for innovative approaches to ensure equity and quality of education for all.

This is all the more true now that the public-private educational partnership in Jordan has proven to be an appropriate policy approach during this crisis which could pave the way for larger-scale and cross-industry collaborations in the future.

By Ghaida Rwd, a doctoral researcher in Global Studies looking into how technology can be best leveraged to support education for refugees

Filed Under: Education
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