In a one-room office in Fayoum, Egypt, Lamyaa Elbasel sat with 11 colleagues to discuss ways to bring technology into Egyptian classrooms. It was 2011 and the room had no Internet connection. Their situation was more expected than ironic: challenges like these were commonplace during a time when staying safe was more important than staying connected.
With the Egyptian revolution roiling around her, Lamyaa worked to coordinate the government’s role in the Technology for Improved Learning Outcomes project, a six-year effort led by Creative Associates International that used technology to create better learning environments, teaching styles and school administration for 245,000 students in more than 400 schools in nine Egyptian governorates.
As the team leader in Fayoum, an hour’s drive southwest of Cairo, she left the palaces and temples of the ancient city and drove into the desert, out to remote and rural areas to visit schools and collect data, lead training sessions, mobilize community engagement programs and set up incentive programs. Back at her base in Egypt’s oldest city, she navigated around strikes, demonstrations and explosions that blocked the Ministry of Education building during the revolution.
“I’m a persistent woman,” Lamyaa says. “I never give up.”
Making the case for technology
When the project ended in 2013, Lamyaa’s dedication to its objectives only increased.
Lamyaa and a colleague convinced the Egyptian Ministry of Education that getting computers and software into primary and preparatory schools was a goal worthy of their resources despite the ongoing distractions of the revolution.
She told the director of education in Fayoum how she had seen people’s attitudes shift after they received training, including how they became more responsive to using technology and other more modern methods of teaching. She explained the data on improved performance on exams and better teaching practices that supported critical thinking.
“We trained many people. We managed to change their attitudes toward the technology and the modern methods of teaching,” Lamyaa says. “What we’re trying to get the people to believe in is to have a sense of achievement that they are doing something for their schools.”
Lamyaa says she was “enthusiastic enough” to convince Fayoum’s education director that the Egyptian government should set up a new unit—one that would expand the program’s educational technology model to all the schools in Fayoum.
The education ministry set up the Unit of Technology Integration in Education to use technology as a tool to encourage student-centered learning, instill effective teaching methods and improve learning outcomes. At its helm: Lamyaa.
It would have been a victory for anyone, but it was especially notable for someone like her: a teacher of 25 years, a moderate and a woman.
Overcoming traditional views
During the unit’s first year under her leadership, more than 6,000 teachers were trained to teach more effectively using technology in their classrooms.
From an initial 40 schools that participated under the Technology for Improved Learning Outcomes program, Lamyaa’s team now works in more than 1,000.
“The people that we train throughout the project really are so grateful to us,” Lamyaa says, “because they know some new methods, they could have access to the Internet, they could have communication to the teachers all over the world. This is wonderful to them.”
Still, Lamyaa’s team has encountered a few barriers besides patchy Internet service and working in cramped quarters. They are battling entrenched traditions and attitudes about what teaching and learning should look like.
“Of course there are some problems,” Lamyaa admits. “Some people are rejecting or refusing the change and saying, ‘Why should we bother using new ways? Why should I be bothered to be trained to use the computer or to use any methods and get the students [to] work in groups or have some visual aids?’”
If Lamyaa had her way, the entire school curriculum in Egypt would be revised to reflect a greater emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and analysis. She still sees too much emphasis on rote memorization from books.
“Most of the tests depend on memorizing and recalling the information, so if students find a problem in the exam or a question that needs problem solving or that needs a good thinking, they panic, they say ‘Oh! The teacher didn’t give us this!’ ” she says.
The problem is economic and not just academic: students who can afford tutors pay to have the information drilled into them at home just before big tests. And it creates a larger issue: young people unequipped to apply their education to real life.
“They didn’t have the chance to perform, to practice, to apply, to test, to analyze, to think about the problems and find solutions to get the information by themselves,” Lamyaa says.
She says her dream is to change that by giving students the tools to seek out answers on their own and to build their knowledge.
“I think what helps is to give the students the tools to think and to get the information from wherever they can: the Internet, teacher, books, libraries. The most important thing is to give them the tools they can use to detect the information, test their hypothesis, experiment and find the information by themselves. I think if this happens in Egypt, it would be wonderful for us,” she says.
That is what she works toward every day, and she isn’t concerned about how long it will take or how hard it might be. She wants people to know that despite her country’s political and social problems, it is full of people like her: devoted, hopeful and on a mission.
“I believe you can achieve whatever you have faith in despite all the difficult situations. They will make a difference and the difference will grow, grow and grow,” Lamyaa says. “Nothing is impossible.”