Quality Education for All

In today’s society, more than 262 million children and youth are not in school. To combat this, the United Nation established Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in order ‘to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’ by 2030. One of these goals, SDG4, is on the importance of quality education, which inspired two art pieces created by Zarifa Dag and Martina Camilleri

Both artists took part in a design competition organised by the University of Malta’s Faculty of Education, asking participants to submit creative designs inspired by the theme of SDG4, which focuses on inclusive and equitable quality education. 

Zarifa has a background in graphic design and digital arts, and her submissions for the competition were heavily inspired by her dual cultural identity, as she has both European and Middle Eastern roots. She travelled to Lebanon in 2018 and volunteered in refugee camps, working with the children of immigrants who fled to Lebanon because of conflicts happening in countries like Syria. This experience allowed her to witness first hand the differences in quality of life and education between children in Malta and refugees. 

Zarifa’s piece is titled Halep’te, which is Turkish for “In Aleppo”, referencing one of the major cities in Syria. Her illustrations centre around an adolescent, representing the younger generation and their future, as well as the people that are at the centre of SDG4. She brings in multiple cultural references through the turban (the Middle and Far East) and crescent (Islam). While her narrative begins with a somewhat bleak representation of the current situation in children’s education, it ends with an element of hope that the situation may improve.

Halep’te by Zarifa Dag

Martina Camilleri, who is currently reading for a Masters of Art in Social Practice Art and Critical Education, presented her take on SDG4 and quality education through a piece titled En Root – a play on the term ‘en route’ – which explores the journey someone takes to get their education. For her first artwork, Seeds We Sow, she asked 40 participants about why they keep looking for education or teaching opportunities. She then photographed their hands and transferred the images onto wooden planks, writing their responses behind each individual plank. 

Seeds We Sow by Martina Camilleri

Her second artwork, titled One Piece, consists of five distinct pieces made from ceramic and mixed media. They represent the five objectives outlined in the Universal Agenda towards quality education: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership. The pieces do not embody any of the terms individually. Instead, the art views the terms as a unified whole. 

OnePiece by Martina Camilleri
One Piece by Martina Camilleri

Zarifa and Martina’s artworks can be viewed along the main staircase of the Faculty of Education in the Old Humanities Building at the University of Malta. Although the artists interpreted the SDG4 in different ways, they both emphasised the importance of human-centred design. In essence, if somebody is going to use the product, then they should help construct it. The same approach could help achieve quality education for all children, despite socio-economic factors.

#GetLearnD

Students tutoring students

According to MATSEC, two in every three 18-year-old students don’t make it from sixth form to university. Gail Sant speaks to the team behind LearnD to find out more about their take on student-centred education.

You love films, videos, and photos. You relax while watching Netflix, and learn new skills on platforms like Skillshare and YouTube. Me? I adore the written word. Books, magazines, blogs are all I need to live a happy life. People are unique. And we all learn things in a unique way. 

Different people require different teaching methods to learn. But most classroom set-ups involve one teacher, one lesson, and thirty-odd students. The lesson is interpreted in thirty different ways; a few absorb more than others, leaving some in need of extra help to ace their maths test. And how do they do that? With private lessons. 

In Malta, private lessons are the go-to solution for students struggling with a subject. However, these sessions tend to be a carbon copy of school classes: one tutor, one lesson, multiple students. This problem was the seed that gave rise to the education-focused startup LearnD.

The philosophy  

LearnD is a tutoring app invented by Luke Collins, Jake Xuereb, and Dr Jean-Paul Ebejer (Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking, University of Malta). The concept behind it is simple, Ebejer says; ‘it’s a bridge between students who can act as mentors and students who need the help.’ 

LearnD does away with the one-size-fits-all standard of teaching and offers students tailor-made tutoring. Individuals are treated as such, their problems tackled through dedicated sessions. As a student, you don’t need to sit through a whole syll

From left to right; Jake Xuereb, Dr Jean Paul Ebejer and Luke Collins. Photo by James Moffett

abus of private lessons. The idea is to identify your weak points and hone in on them in select sessions. This is both time and money-efficient. 

Xuereb believes ‘private lessons can make students lazy.’ They don’t need to evaluate their problems, or focus on where their issues lie. Not when they know they’ll just cover all the topics at various points during their weekly appointment with their second teacher on Tuesday night. LearnD focuses on dividing attention unequally. If you get an easy A in physical chemistry but struggle to pass organic chemistry, it only makes sense to give the latter some extra TLC. To get to this point, students need to take a step back from their desks and separate their strengths from their weaknesses. 

This is also a big plus for tutors who don’t want to (or can’t) commit to teaching a whole syllabus. They can simply prepare a lesson for the requested topic and leave it at that, earning some extra money to accompany their stipend while gaining teaching experience.

But LearnD isn’t just about academia. Some lecturers lose touch with ‘the student life’, distancing their relationship with students. Conversely, student-tutors know the struggles a peer would be going through and can provide support. ‘No one would have a better understanding of what a sixth former needs to do to get into medicine than a medicine student,’ says Xuereb. ‘Through LearnD you can find people who have been through the exact same thing and who can offer their best advice on anything from time management to de-stressing, and everything else.’

Making it happen

The original concept was more related to finding a way for academically inclined 6th form students to contribute productively to society,’ says Xuereb. When he spoke to Collins, a fellow University of Malta student and Xuereb’s former maths tutor, the idea went from ‘an online local network’ to ‘app’. At the time, there were no local tutoring apps.

Despite both being passionate about the idea, they soon realised that they needed someone with business experience, and that’s where Ebejer came in: the LearnD team was born!

The process that made this idea into reality was not a simple one. Xuereb and Collins spent over six months working on the app, learning about the tech behind app-making and coming up with a business plan.

They got their break when they won the Take-Off Seed Fund Award in 2018 and got the necessary funds to make the app a reality. They quickly got the ball rolling, hiring designers, app developers, and marketing agents. The team grew; the app was built. Then, during the KSU Freshers’ Week in 2018, the app was partially launched, inviting potential tutors to apply. The app is now fully launched and available for students.

Troubles

The app comes with features such as the ‘Location Filter’ that are there to make your life easier.

As with all big projects, the team ran into a few setbacks along the way. One prominent techy mishap didn’t allow them to launch the app on the Apple Store, making it difficult to keep up with the launch date. 

Since the app is used by underage students, there were also a lot of safety features which needed inclusion. Tutors upload their police conducts and ID cards. Also, to make sure LearnD’s service is reliable, the team not only analyses tutors’ qualifications, but they also try and test each applicant out themselves. And for accounts which belong to students under the age of 16, parents need to authorise any communication which goes on through the app.

The team persisted through the struggles they encountered and continue to work hard to solve any problems which crop up. Despite difficulties with time management, Collins and Xuereb, both undergraduate students, expressed how this app allowed them to dive into the working world. They gained entrepreneurial maturity, understanding the importance of a reliable team which shares the same ideas and work ethic, as well as dividing funds for the project’s overall benefit.

A LearnD future

The LearnD story doesn’t stop here. ‘We want to renovate the education space,’ says Ebejer, adding  that they wish to take the next step and make it internationally available. Malta’s size makes it the perfect test bed, but they think that the app shouldn’t be limited to its home.

According to MATSEC, in 2017 only 27% of 18-year-old students acquired the necessary qualifications to get into university. Collins expressed that students ‘shouldn’t get lost’ because of a bad exam result or because of a mismatched student-teacher scenario. Students deserve to be treated as individuals, and LearnD can offer them that. 

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Sustaining mobilisation: what will it take?

You can’t watch Blue Planet and not feel a pang of guilt for the plastic straw in your drink. But what does it truly take to mobilise people and encourage more sustainable behaviour? Kirsty Callan talks to Dr Vincent Caruana.

We’re finally living in a world where environmentalism is a sexy topic. Everywhere you look, it’s vegan-this, plastic-free-that. And it’s wonderful. Public awareness of the impact we are having on our planet is on the rise, and yet, according to Eurostat, Malta still registered the European Union’s highest increase in carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in 2017.Researcher Dr Vincent Caruana (Centre for Environmental Education and Research, University of Malta [UM]), believes the crises we are facing can be summed up in one double challenge: the eradication of poverty and the preservation of the environment. By simplifying the issue, it is turned into a single problem rather than many overwhelming issues, highlighting the interconnectedness of the challenges we face, be they social, economic, or environmental.

Taking Nepal and Bangladesh as examples, both have suffered devastating floods. Some point to large-scale deforestation by logging companies and agricultural businesses, as well as locals using the forests’ resources. Some environmentalists point to the population and blame them, saying that the increasing use of the forest by locals places burdens on the region’s resources, suggesting that their activities are the current major source of environmental problems. But that creates a scenario where the victims of poverty are blamed for trying to alleviate their own poverty. Meanwhile, the reality is that the wealthiest one-fifth of humanity consumes so much more than the rest of the world, leaving the rest hungry.

Dr Vincent Caruana

Who is most to blame for these problems? International institutions such as the United Nations, national governments, transnational corporations, or consumers?

In his classes, Caruana runs his students through a similar thought experiment. Who is most to blame for these problems? International institutions such as the United Nations, national governments, transnational corporations, or consumers? Some argue that it is greedy transnational corporations, out to make a quick buck while ignoring environmental impacts. Some retort, saying that corporations are bound by economy to maximise profits. Others would point their fingers at the consumers who choose to buy from dirty companies instead of the most ethically sourced. ‘Of course, there is no correct answer,’ Caruana states. ‘There is no single solution. We need thousands of solutions working in parallel. Literally. The interconnectedness of it all requires both governments and civil society to commit time and effort.’

  GETTING TO THE CRUX 

Caruana’s doctoral research identifies the influences that lead people to engage in responsible sustainable behaviour and hones in on ways to sensitise and mobilise sustained civic action.

Caruana is quick to note that there are a plethora of barriers—social, economic, and political—which prevent people moving towards sustainability. What surprised him was that more personal barriers, such as frustration, hopelessness, and dealing with disappointments, also pose a problem. ‘This is a significant point, considering that environmental circles are oft en concerned with reaching out towards the unconverted rather than supporting the converted,’ he explains. In other words, we have to continue to motivate those who are already on the right path to ensure they don’t become demoralised.

Looking to understand how people can take control of processes that affect their lives, Caruana conducted four case studies. Among them were an intentional community in Malta and a Fair-Trade network in Egypt. ‘The power of case studies lies in their ability to reframe and critically challenge core beliefs that are now taken for granted, like how a municipality, church organisation, and a trade organisation ought to act,’ he says.

Caruana believes that education on sustainable development (ESD) lies at the heart of it all—and he is not alone. In 2015, representatives from 193 countries gathered in New York to sign off on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the opening ceremony of the summit, Ban Ki-moon referred to the the Agenda outlined as ‘a to-do list for people and planet’. One goal focuses on education, which includes the aim to ‘ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development by 2030.’

In Malta, ESD is established as a cross-curricular theme within the National Curriculum Framework. However, ‘in practice, it is still in the process of being concretely translated across schools and within subjects,’ Caruana notes. He also highlights the need for adults to be educated too, so that this cultural shift can truly happen; however, he is quick to follow up the notion with its own weakness. For years, adult ESD has remained ‘locked within ideologies which have caused many of our contemporary environmental problems.’ We need a complete overhaul of our outlook. Increased emphasis on recycling is a positive; however, what would be better is if we could reduce the amount of waste we are creating in the first place. This is but one example. ‘As long as ESD remains stuck within the same thinking that is creating the double challenge, there can be little progress,’ says Caruana.

  CLEARING THE SLATE

Back in 2001, Caruana co-founded Malta’s Fair-Trade movement. ‘Faced with the continuous realisation of an unfair world trade system, and seeing first hand through my voluntary work how such a system creates poverty, my friends and I wanted to be proactive and part of a solution,’ he states. ‘The path forward was not chartered for us. We started off passionately, then with each step, we finally arrived to setting up a fair trade shop and an ongoing educational programme. Rather than complain, we have within us the power to create new solutions.’

This philosophy is at the core of what Caruana is doing now. ‘The current model needs to be challenged, and we do have the power within us to create new ways of thinking. We need a shift from thinking in terms of economic growth to growth in wellbeing,’ he says. Referring to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, Caruana says they had it right. ‘A country’s ability to develop more sustainably depends on the capacity of its people and institutions to understand complex environmental choices.’ We need real leaders, not token ones, who inspire, embrace and support citizens in their actions, and create new spaces for dialogue. ‘Both Civil Society Organisations and local institutions can be a positive force towards sustainable solutions at a local level.’

  GETTING TOUGH

This mission is a beastly mountain. The reality is that there are major hurdles standing in the way of a paradigm shift that would see Malta’s people acting more sustainably. Beyond personal barriers, Caruana’s research reveals the vulnerability of local processes: ‘In Malta, a change in government results in a change in priorities (and support).’ Every five years, the system is shaken by an election that brings with it new agendas and philosophies. ‘Stability in environmental issues and processes is essential,’ he notes. Caruana also points out the fragility of civil societies’ human resources.

The solution, Caruana suggests, is ‘to create stronger links between governments, politicians, organisations, and citizens, both for research and to build a network of adult educators.’ This was highlighted in his Fair Trade case study where success was highly dependent on the level and consistency of engagement at both a local level with producers and with their partners in the west.

It is clear that good leadership is key. To help address this issue, he has created an Erasmus+ project called PEERMENT with the aim of coming up with a new model of mentoring and peer-mentoring for ESD. It involves about 20 education specialists as teacher trainers and senior mentors and about 50 teacher mentees.

‘We have to invest in leadership,’ says Caruana. ‘We need to focus on social learning and empowering institutions and organisations to work together and become innovative co-creators of new ways of thinking. In an ever-changing world, this is a challenge for educators to embrace with passion and urgency.’

Circling back to the double challenge, it is clear that no one project will be able to comprehensively solve the issues we are facing as a global society. But ‘we have to stop waiting for permission,’ says Caruana. ‘The beauty of the emerging paradigm lies in the reality that we don’t need permission to change outmoded mind-sets that no longer serve us.’ And this will be crucial in the road ahead.

  Author: Kirsty Callan

Player 1: ready to learn

Can digital games form part of the answer to dwindling attention spans in the classroom? Sara Cameron attended the ‘Playful Learning in STEM’ Seminar at the MITA data centre in June to hear entrepreneur Dr Lauri Järvilehto’s thoughts on the matter.

Our attention is constantly bombarded by the likes of mobile games, social media, Netflix, and Google. Adults are having a tough enough time focusing, let alone children sitting at their desks trying to wrap their heads around algebra and particle physics. Textbook lessons are fighting a losing battle with personalised entertainment. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Dr Lauri Järvilehto, co-founder and chairman of Finnish startup Lighteneer, believes his team might have a solution. Games see kids experience progressive challenges. Children, as players, use diverse problem solving abilities, then receive instant feedback, satisfaction, and a sense of achievement. To ignite that same fire for games in learning, education needs to tap into that world and harness what makes it special. The feat, Järvilehto explains, is finding balance. We need games that contextualise mathematical or scientific concepts, allowing players to master these concepts, all while being engaged and having fun. A tall order.

Gamification has the potential to ease the introduction of subjects that are normally considered complex. It can make them more approachable, allowing students to grasp the basics before undertaking formal learning to further deepen their understanding.

‘Our thinking is that great learning games can work as the first spark for the love of learning in future generations. They can convey the awe and wonder you see shining in the eyes of our scientific experts as they tell us about the wonders of particle physics,’ says Järvilehto, speaking at a seminar called Playful Learning in STEM organised by the Science Centre (Ministry for Education and Employment) in collaboration with Malta Information Technology Agency and the Valletta 2018 Foundation.

But whilst digital learning is becoming all the craze, Järvilehto warns that educators should be wary of jumping on this trendy bandwagon. Technology is not a cure-all; there is no magic wand. Lighteneer aims to develop games that complement, rather than compete with, formal learning. He also believes that, even with an abundance of tech-based tools, an engaging teacher is still the best way to improve education and inspire the next generation. Games should be used as an initial spark to reel students in at the outset. ‘Perhaps kids will soon grow to think about particle physics and atoms as something as cool as collecting Pokémon.’ Game learning can be the key to unlocking students’ potential, offering a more accessible route to developing an understanding of complex topics.

To keep up with a fast-changing digital world, we must acknowledge its challenges and adapt. Games can’t solve this puzzle alone, but used in the right way, they can be a tremendously useful addition to a teacher’s toolbox.

  Author: Sara Cameron

English for medicine: Bridging worlds

You come to Malta to attend Medical School, and you end up in an English class. Nicola Kirkpatrick talks to Dr Isabel Stabile, Omar N’Shea, and Edward Wilkinson about the often unappreciated value of the University of Malta’s Medical Foundation Programme and its impact on international medical students’ lives.

A sea of blank faces stared him down. Omar N’Shea had asked his students a question, but no reply came. None of them wanted to be there. The University of Malta’s Medical Foundation Programme (MFP) aims to equip high school graduates with less than 13 years of formal education with the skills they need to enter Medical or Dentistry school. But its focus on academic English is what receives the most ire. N’Shea, one of the programme coordinators, understands. ‘They don’t see the value initially. They think to themselves: ‘I didn’t travel thousands of miles away to sit in an English class. No, I want to study medicine.’ The frustration is understandable,’ he nods.

Omar N’Shea

But when so many international students were struggling with the medical course due to language and communication difficulties, something clearly had to be done.

Looking back at the challenges she was facing when the Medical School opened its doors to international students, Director of Studies Professor Isabel Stabile notes the discrepancy in language skills. What was expected was quite distinct from the reality of the situation. ‘What is interesting about our student body is that their spoken level of English is really high,’ says N’Shea, ‘but their written level of English needs work to keep up with the demands of an academic course.’

English Programme Coordinator and tutor Edward Wilkinson agrees, highlighting that ‘resources were lacking. Teaching exercises and materials were sourced online and everyone did the best they could. But a gap quickly emerged as far as Medical English was concerned.’ Stabile further clarifies, ‘Most books available were aimed at teaching doctors and nurses bedside manner and care for patients, but there was little to none out there that focused on academic medical English.’

Prof. Isabel Stabile

With this philosophy in mind, Stabile, N’Shea, and Wilkinson joined forces to develop a series of books called Academic Medical English for Pathway/Foundation Programmes. These books provided a framework for students to deal with the language in which scientific subjects are taught. The material improves their academic literacy in ways important to medical students, equipping them with skills such as reviewing research papers, writing reflective essays, and answering essay questions.

The book was ‘born out of the needs of these students and the medical program,’ says N’Shea. ‘The concept is to present to the students the core skills required by the medicine and surgery degrees, so that students become aware of the differences between using English as a lingua franca and using English within the framework of academic literacy.’ To enable this, the team included topics to reflect those covered in the science classes that students attend throughout the course. ‘So if they’re doing pulmonary topics in science classes,’ N’Shea says, ‘then they’re discussing them in English classes too. We used the science as a framework for our English lessons, and that was essential. Rather than teaching two disciplines with no dialogue, we created a bridge.’

This approach saw immediate shifts in perception. Dr Hussein Alibrahim, now a house officer in Kuwait, says his primary and secondary education was all in Arabic, and the foundation course, where English and science stood side by side, ‘was an advantage and a necessity. Skimming carefully through an article, identifying keywords, summarising, criticising, asking questions, and looking for the right answers are all skills that I learned for the first time in the foundation course and are skills I still use today,’ he added.

Edward Wilkinson

But the programme was not only useful for medical school. Alibrahim noted how it changed his day-to-day life as well. It taught him important lessons on punctuality and work ethic. ‘If you don’t learn [these things in foundation school] then maybe you’re in the wrong place,’ he notes.

With time, the team refined the course. After looking into the discrepancy between spoken and written levels of English, N’Shea and Wilkinson determined that the most probable reason behind it was a lack of reading by the students. Due to this, reading is now a core element of the course and is based on science topics to keep students’ interest piqued.

Now that the coursework has been implemented, positive results can already be seen. Students are so ready and raring to go that ‘sometimes they even want to take over the sessions,’ says N’Shea. ‘A student came up to me in class one time and asked to explain a concept to the others. It was such a dramatic shift.’ This has made it a joy to be in class, he adds, saying that ‘it became an active classroom. Students are totally immersed now.’ He feels that, through this course, the students are empowered ‘because they feel they can bring into the classroom all the things they know from science, but explore them through language.’ This way, ‘English is presented as a skill set to enable them to better achieve their goal in the career path of choice. It makes English less of an extra subject and more of a tool,’ he adds.

N’Shea, Wilkinson, and Stabile all agree that they will continue to perfect the programme. Currently in the works is a coursebook dedicated to developing listening skills. It will concentrate on areas such as note writing and identifying and differentiating words even when people speak with different accents. However, before the ‘listening book’ (as they fondly call it) is released, we will see the ‘reading book’, which will provide scientific passages for the students to read and be assessed on. All editions of this book will have the added bonus of a teacher’s book, meaning that the coursework can be taught by any teacher around the world, even if their knowledge of science is lacking.

With students communicating more, isolation is less of an issue and this is immensely beneficial. ‘We have to remember the dramatic shift that these students are going through,’ Stabile says. ‘They’re moving country, dealing with culture shock, all while fending for themselves for the first time in their lives, an adjustment local students do not need to make.’ This, along with the pressure that comes with a course you only get one chance to pass, is significant.

With students communicating more, isolation is less of an issue and this is immensely beneficial.

The fruit of their hard work is evident. According to research conducted by the team, between 2008 and 2015, 86% of MFP graduates progressed through Medical School. Moreover, the proportion of MFP students who repeat Year 1 of their medical degree is only 8.2% compared with 8.8% for EU (mostly British) students between 2014 and 2017. They also found that MFP students who started in 2010 and graduated medical school in 2015 achieved the same average grade over the whole five years as did local students in that cohort.

That said, all this work is not just about grades. Stabile says the team’s intentions go beyond seeing students pass exams. What they want to do is to ‘place them on a trajectory for success.’ And that is definitely a goal they are achieving, one year at a time.

  Author: Nicola Kirkpatrick