On the eve of their final Arabic language exam, thirteen students in their third and final year of thanaweya amma (secondary school) are huddled around a teacher at the dining table in a spacious apartment in the town of Dekernes in the Daqahlia governorate. As part of a set of restrictions put in place by the government in March to curb the coronavirus, tutoring centers were shut down in police raids, pushing students and teachers to hold surreptitious sessions like this one inside homes.
There’s a knock on the door. It’s the police. A neighbor had called to report on the private lesson. The group quickly scatters, with students rushing to different corners of the apartment pretending to be just classmates helping each other study. Meanwhile, the teacher joins the head of the household, posing as a regular house guest.
The scene, recounted by one of the students who was present, is just one example of what has become a widespread phenomenon in an exam season impacted by the pandemic: large student revision sessions on the eve of exam day have been replaced by smaller in-home gatherings or by internet-based sessions.
The students are risking police raids for a review session because their thanaweya amma exam results will determine much of their futures: placement in Egypt’s public university degree programs depend on students’ scores — and the more popular a degree program, the higher a student often must score to enroll.
Large revision sessions for finals have grown rapidly in recent years as the quality of public education has plummeted. “We don’t even have a classroom at school,” says Gehad*, a third year student at a public secondary school in Mansoura. Like her classmates, Gehad only went to school for administrative purposes. Her school doesn’t even assign a classroom for third year students, though it did allocate them a laboratory in case they showed up for any reason, she says. This has been the case at many public secondary schools, according to several students and teachers who spoke to Mada Masr, where third year students essentially do not attend school.
Around this time last year, videos circulated of a final revision session held on the morning of the exam by Sayyed al-Iraqi, a prominent Giza-based philosophy and psychology teacher. The footage shows Iraqi making a theatrical entrance into a hotel wedding hall, microphone in hand, as hundreds of students applaud and cheer. This was not the first time Iraqi had brought together a large crowd of students for a revision session. In 2018, he addressed thousands of students at the College of Physical Education Stadium in Giza, a move that sparked criticism and earned him the nickname “stadium teacher.”
Students typically attend regular lessons throughout the school year at tutoring centers in groups of 100 or more or at smaller venues in groups of around 50. Rates per session vary depending on the teacher and the region, starting at around LE100 in provincial areas and reaching LE400 in Cairo. Due to the steep costs, families often have their children attend sessions with teachers who offer affordable rates during the academic year and only sign them up for the more famous ones for final exam revisions, causing these sessions to be packed with students.
The review period for final exams is brief, so teachers often merge all of their study groups into one, sometimes numbering in the thousands of students. The exam review is typically conducted in one or two sessions at a special rate that can reach as high as LE800 per session. According to several teachers and students who spoke to Mada Masr, there are teachers who hold final review sessions free of charge, though they are small in number.
Meanwhile, Iraqi — the so-called stadium teacher — did let the pandemic cramp his style. He still taught thousands of students at a time this year, but through an educational television program broadcast on a privately owned channel, with the videos posted online garnering thousands of views. Meanwhile, his booklets of revision notes continued to be sold at dozens of outlets across the country.
There had been early attempts to provide educational content on YouTube well before the pandemic. Cairo Dar was the first significant initiative Mada Masr could identify. Seven years ago, it began publishing lessons on various subjects on its YouTube channel. Yet despite having garnered thousands of views, the project only lasted one year.
Some teachers ventured into cyberspace on their own initiative. Iraqi, for example, started a YouTube channel for finals revision in 2017, which helped grow his reputation. Teachers often compete for fame, relying not only on the quality of their teaching but also pageantry — promoting their brand by holding elaborate graduation celebrations for hundreds of their top-tier students and posting the slickly produced videos online.
When private lessons were banned this year, Omar Seif, a secondary school student from Cairo, scoured Facebook groups for good instructors who teach on YouTube. He eventually found a channel by Mohamed el-Sakhawy, an Arabic language instructor for the past 15 years. Sakhawy tours various governorates giving private lessons, or lectures, as he prefers to call them. In 2014, he launched his own YouTube channel.
Sakhawy’s videos have garnered millions of views. Monetized through the YouTube Partner Program, the videos have brought in decent revenue, Sakhawy told Mada Masr. At the onset of the curfew, the channel’s views soared, ranking sixth on YouTube’s trending list in Egypt on June 21, the day before the Arabic language exam.
This sudden and radical change in media was not immediately palatable to everyone. Gehad*, a third year student from Mansoura, says she and her classmates had difficulty adapting to the new format and making academic progress — either due to the tediousness of having to sit in front of a computer or mobile screen for a long time, or because of technical issues such as poor video or sound quality or slow internet connections.
Students instead began to connect with their teachers through apps. With the curfew and subsequent closure of tutoring centers, Gehad started following up with her teachers via Zoom and Webex. Students eventually grew accustomed to interacting with their instructors via phone. However, Gehad says, it never fully matched up to an in-person setting.
The integration of technology into the education process was not an easy adjustment for teachers either. They were new to the apps and didn’t initially grasp all the options and settings. Meanwhile, teaching large numbers of students, while manageable in a classroom, posed a greater challenge from behind a screen, according to Hussein al-Adl, an Arabic language teacher who works in Gharbiya governorate. Adl’s son helped him sign up for Skype and set up calls to communicate with students. Over time, teachers mastered the apps and developed better presentation styles.
Yet Adl says face-to-face instruction always allows for better interaction between student and teacher. Even something as small as being able to look at students’ faces to see if they are bored, engaged or falling behind enables him to run his sessions more effectively.
Sakhawy says the biggest challenge he faces when communicating with students through a screen is holding their attention throughout the duration of the lesson, which requires a captivating instruction style along with high-quality video and clear sound. To achieve this, Sakhawy enlisted the help of a crew to perfect lighting, filming and editing to make highly produced videos that would garner views.
The introduction of technology into academic instruction created opportunities for new actors to break into the education market. Private regional companies entered the Egyptian market with new applications, such as Darisni and Noon Academy, which launched in 2018. Similar apps, such as Mozakrety, were created by local companies. The app “Helm al-thanaweya,” launched last year, found little popularity initially, but the curfew helped grow their user base, according to Sakhawy, despite poor reviews.
Paid apps serve as a repository for instructional videos created by teachers through which students can take practice tests and have them corrected. Payments are made online, and prices vary from one app to another.
On the platform AlMentor, the Education Ministry set up a page where it offers content to secondary school students at cheaper rates than private service providers. It also made other platforms, such as Edmodo and the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, available to students free of charge following the suspension of in-school educational activities on March 15.
The increased demand for online educational platforms prompted software developers to approach famous teachers with proposals to create their own apps. A flood of new personalized teaching apps started popping up in online stores, Sakhawy told Mada Masr.
While a smooth transition to modern technology is possible, the disruption can also create uneven terrain. According to the Communications Ministry figures for 2019, only 52 percent of the population has access to the internet. Students like Karim* were unable to use paid apps or even watch free YouTube videos. Having lost his job due to the pandemic, his father could not afford to get him at-home private lessons. This left Karim to rely solely on his schoolbooks and the instruction he had already received before the curfew took effect.