Laura Jardine Paterson is the head of communications at Codi in Lebanon
The challenges faced by Lebanon in the past year have been immense. Against a backdrop of an economic crisis and political unrest, 2020 has seen repeated national lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic as well as the Beirut Port explosion, one of the largest and most devastating in recent history. In these turbulent times, it has been increasingly necessary for many institutions, among them educational NGOs, to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape and to react to growing inequality.
Codi is one of the many organisations that has had to adapt this year to stay ahead of the curve. Founded in 2017 in response to the demands of a growing ICT and software sector in Lebanon, Codi is half coding bootcamp, half leadership course, teaching full-stack web development, alongside English, and life and leadership skills. We place a strong emphasis on inclusion and diversity and primarily target unemployed and marginalised youth with little academic background.
Recently, Codi has been beset by huge challenges. The immense explosion that tore through Beirut this August gutted our office, but despite the destruction of all our glass and a lot of hardware, we managed to clean up and return to class one month later. Lebanon persists, and so does Codi. If anything, it became clear in the aftermath of the explosion that Codi’s primary mission, to help those who would not otherwise have an opportunity to get a quality digital education and enter the tech sector thereafter, had become even more important. Beirut’s tragedy only exacerbated its existing problems and inequalities, whether economic or social, and made it even more difficult for us to reach people because people have had to laser focus their energy in the urgent priorities of rebuilding their homes and providing for basic necessities for themselves and their families. Survival instincts kicked in, and education had to take the back-seat.
Another challenge we have faced this year came in a surprising form: remote work. During and after lockdown we have been working online intermittently in order to stay open as an educational organisation. Despite the reputation it often enjoys for being a democratising force in education, we have seen firsthand at Codi the drawbacks of online education for those who are already socio-economically underprivileged and with less reliable access to the internet and home environments which can prove very challenging to learn.
The two main reasons that online education is often thought of as democratising are its convenience and its ease of access: ideally, it reaches people regardless of their geographical location. It means that people do not have to leave their jobs to make time for a course when they can access course material on a device at any time, and has been thought of as a blessing for people who want to retrain or return to work after a break.
In reality, online education requires, at a minimum, access to reliable internet and a laptop, phone or device. In Lebanon, almost no-one has constant electricity or internet. In poor or rural areas, this inequality of infrastructure means people miss out far more than people in more developed areas, because the strength of internet access depends on location and means. At Codi we have sadly seen how some students have more internet access because of where they live. This only cements an existing inequality – residents of Beirut, with comparatively good internet connection, are much more likely to enroll in online courses than people in rural areas.
Another barrier is the distribution of resources, people without money to afford a laptop will have difficulties. Thankfully at Codi we solve this problem by providing a laptop to every one of our students, on loan until the end of the course, and often gifted to them thereafter.
A harmful effect of online work, and one of the hardest to fight, is that people can face more societal or familial pressure when they work from home, especially since those homes can be quite crowded. Those who face pressure not to enroll in educational courses, especially women, find it even more difficult to enroll in an online course. Attending a course physically gives people the chance to interact with others outside of that pressure and obligation that they might not otherwise have: conversely working from home means they may be constantly pressured while trying to study, often with their families unable to understand why they cannot fulfill their familial expectations. It is particularly frustrating to an organisation like Codi, which places emphasis on gender equality, to be unable to help or even be aware of potential risk faced by vulnerable students in the home.
This has been undoubtedly a year of tough challenges, but it is important not to lose sight of the opportunities they also present. At Codi we have been striving to overcome the challenges of online education and use it as the equaliser that it could be, and at the same time it is preparing our students for a remote work environment all the more common in the age of Covid. Due to our improved blended learning model, over 35 per cent of our alumni base work as freelancers remotely and a further 12 per cent are fully employed remotely by international businesses across eight different countries.
Remote working does ostensibly set up a level playing field, but it is important for the whole learning community to recognise that it can still result in inequalities due to location and infrastructure. Through our blended learning model at Codi we are trying to eliminate the hurdles that online-only learning presents and continuing our mission: to reach those who would otherwise be distanced from education opportunities and help them thrive in the tech sector.