Jordan Education Initiative

Rana MadaniI knew that I was going to get along with Rana Madani, the Deputy CEO of the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI), when we initially spoke on Skype whilst I was in London scoping out the visit to Jordan. She wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t coming to Jordan to make comparisons with westernised implementations of technology in schools and that I would understand the context in which the JEI were working.


As it turned out Rana had nothing to worry about and our visit was one of the most enlightening yet with genuinely forward thinking and well implemented digital strategies that were entirely relevant to the context and cultural aspects of the nation. The passion for positive change and improvement of the Jordanian education system was palpable amongst Rana and the JEI team as well as all of the teaching staff, principals and learners whom we met.


The JEI was established as a public-private partnership involving both local as well as international partners aiming to improve education in Jordan through effective use of ICT that would create a model of education reform for other countries particularly in the Arab world. The initiative was launched at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2003 at the Dead Sea attracting 17 global corporations, 17 Jordanian businesses and 11 governmental and NGOs working together with the Jordanian government and with the support of their Majesties King Abdullah and Queen Rania.


Rana explained that the whole idea was to bring innovative ideas to change the education system in Jordan that ran in parallel with two other programmes running at the same time, the Education Reform for Knowledge Economy (ERFKE) programme and the roll-out of national broadband that was initiated by the Ministry of ICT. Involving local businesses in the JEI was an intrinsic aspect of the initiative to ensure local knowledge as well as enterprise creation.


The work from 2003-2007 resulted in 3 main pillars, the first being infrastructure to enable a number of “Discovery Schools” to pilot working practices that embedded digital platforms where 100 schools were chosen in Ammam, the capital city of Jordan, to discover what worked and what didn’t. The concept from the start was to learn important lessons about implementation so that successful practices could be scaled up to all of the schools in Jordan. Rana emphasised that it was not the mandate of JEI to roll out to every school in Jordan which would be the function of Jordan’s Ministry of Education. The role of JEI has been to act as an innovation lab or think tank that explores, tests and evidences new ideas for learning for the Ministry to inform their education reform process.


class in jordanThe 100 Discovery Schools were chosen in Ammam based around their location to the data centre and broadband provision at that time. That said there are 2 distinct areas of Ammam being the more affluent districts in the west of Ammam and more densely populated, more socially diverse districts to the east. Upon our visits this seemed somewhat similar to the split between West and East London in the UK perhaps comparing the Borough of Kensington with Newham or Hampstead with Peckham. This was an important aspect of the initiative to judge impact within different social conditions. In practice most of the schools were in the east in areas more in need of change in their education provision with the result that the 100 schools (55 boys schools, 45 girls schools, across primary and secondary) were a good representation of what was happening in Jordan as a whole. 


Wireless and broadband connectivity was a core aspect of the JEI programme and whilst prior to JEI technology was being used in schools in the form of computer labs etc., it was JEI who were pioneering the use of digital platforms across the curriculum and within each classroom and each student. The focus was to explore how digital and connected technologies could be integrated within the curricula and not limited to a computer lab where ICT was a subject in itself. Thus 1:1 access for each student and ability to access wireless networks wherever they are within the school was key.


The 2nd pillar was the creation of digital content. Rana explained that simply introducing infrastructure and devices into the classroom would not mean that teachers would be ready to create their own content. This is a particular challenge when there have not been many resources in the Arabic language. There is plenty of material on the internet on all subjects, there are lesson plans galore but these are not in Arabic. So an important part of JEI’s work has been to create digital content rather than using content that has been made overseas and then simply translating and customising it. The idea has been to bootstrap a local industry of digital learning materials and content that can be used in the region. As part of the partnership with international corporations, for example Cisco, it would be the case that this partner would support digital content development by working with a local partner in Jordan such as Rubicon Studios.


child laptopThe 6 areas of digital development were around Maths, Arabic, Science, ICT, EFL and Civics (citizenship) deployed via the EduWave learning management system where every teacher, student and parent is provided with a login.


The 3rd pillar of activity was the professional development training of teachers that was initially provided by the projects commercial partners and content developers before a train the trainer approach was adopted to ensure local expertise that would provide ongoing CPD.


In 2007 USAID funded a comprehensive impact assessment to measure the impact of JEI. The study found that JEI was an effective catalyst in growing the work and activities under the partnership able to facilitate sharing of global expertise of innovation with local expertise of Jordanian schools, culture, values and needs. It also identified areas for improvement that lead to the next phase of JEI that would lead to an expanded team (between 2003-2007 there were just 7 people) and methods of monitoring and evaluation that would provide diagnostics to identify where improvements were occurring or where additional focus was required.


Capacity building and change management have become important activities within JEI where ongoing CPD for teachers has become vital but also CPD programmes and workshops that they have developed themselves rather than brought in. Rana tells me that relevance is everything, “if teachers can’t see the benefit of using technology they won’t use it” she explains.


I will report in more detail the activities, challenges and successes of the JEI in the Learning {RE}imagined book that will be accompanied with a filmed interview with Rana when it’s published in 2014.


Rolling forward to our visit JEI invited us to visit 3 schools. The Princess Rahma School, one their leading innovative schools in West Ammam, Shefaa Bint Awf School also in the West and described as a “mentor school” and finally Balqees School situated in East Ammam that featured a laptop per child approach.


Enthusiastic TeacherPrincess Rahma School is an elementary that was buzzing with activity and full of enthusiastic learners in every class we visited. In one 2nd grade class I witnessed one of the most energetic and enthusiastic teachers that I have encountered in a while practically jumping around the room engaging her young pupils in a geography lesson about the Arabic countries using a blended combination of her own physical theatre combined with a physical globe, poster map and driving an interactive white board in way that wasn’t exclusive to herself – frequently young pupils were encouraged to join in and use the board. A 4th grade science class about atomic structure where each child had their own Classmate laptop featured an acted out play by some of the students in costume explaining by showing the different characteristics of atomic particles. It was quite obvious that the children here were enjoying their lesson and learning by participation and doing. In another class a group of grade 6 children are debating (in English) the relative merits of using technology for learning, no doubt for our benefit but never-the-less very impressive, with well reasoned arguments although the motion for the use of technology was upheld!


Our visit to Sheefa Bint Awf School was equally inspiring. An IWB was used in one science class as a multi-touch collaborative surface by the students. I have often had my doubts about the benefits of IWB’s in classrooms but here the device was used skilfully by the teacher as a device for the students to use rather than to simply project Powerpoint slides in a preset lesson plan. In all cases there was an abundance of locally created Arabic content as had been described by Rana in our pre-visit conversations. Once again students were involved in a theatrical performance as part of a maths class discussing the concept of volume via play-acting involving a popcorn seller filling cones. This struck me as an engaging way to learn whilst at the same time students were creating their own digital content about the subject, digital animations using Oracle’s Alice, to share on the maths groups Facebook page.


Yes, that’s right every teacher and student is encouraged to use Facebook as a place to share learning. Indeed the Principal was very keen to show me the YouTube channel that she had created and maintains for the school.


Digital ContentI asked one of the students, a 13 year old, how she’s learned to create such interesting digital content. Well, she gave me the same look as my own 12 year old daughter does when I ask a dumb question, a look like I’m an idiot which, of course, I am 🙂


It was at this school where we also met the annual intake of interns that join JEI to spend an entire year mentoring and assisting schools that are participating in the JEI programme. Most of these interns are from an IT background and join the programme to both gain working experience whilst at the same time provide vital support and encouragement to the teaching faculty in the schools.


Our last visit was to Balquees School, located in the district of Jabal Al-kalaa on the eastern side of Ammam. The school is nestled between the dense conurbation of buildings that are perched on the side of a large hill. The school building is, in fact, a converted house, providing education for local children from less affluent homes. Despite its size and very small classrooms the school is bright and positive. This school isn’t one of JEI’s “Discovery Schools” but one of Jordan’s Madrasati’s (meaning “my school”) which is an initiative to repair and rebuild schools with community support to make them better places for learning.


The students at this school and others like it lack access to the kind of digital platforms for learning made possible by broadband internet and so JEI in collaboration with Qualcomm are supporting a pilot that provides every child in the school with a 3G connected laptop computer that they use both in the school and take home to their families.


TeachersDespite a reduction of space and resources there is nothing to suggest that the children in this school are receiving less of an education. The atmosphere is positive, the children clearing enjoying the freedom and access they have via their laptops supported by hard-working, commitment team of teachers. I ask a pupil what they plan to do when they are older and she tells me that she’s going to be a heart surgeon. There is a sense that anything is possible for these children regardless of background.


I came away from my 2 days with JEI genuinely impressed by the determination, ambition and the ongoing learning that is happening within the team and the participating schools. They have truly grasped the understanding that innovation is messy, that it is risky, that mistakes will be made and that you must have courage. 


In short, I believe that JEI has nurtured an environment that encourages innovation, a place where teachers can explore new ideas and new approaches without fear and that is something I think we can all learn from.