Technology could mean conflict is no barrier to education
Five years ago, Syrian universities were vibrant hubs of teaching, central to a population that highly valued education. Since the start of the current conflict, a new generation of university students have had their access to education severely impaired, leaving bright, highly motivated students lacking opportunities to learn. Today, Syrian teachers are overstretched, valiantly trying to provide good quality education in extremely challenging circumstances. Students receive the bulk of their education from centralised university lectures, but there are insufficient resources for regular small group teaching, making it difficult for students to clarify problematic subjects and explore stimulating topics in more depth.
Kinan and Louwai Muhammed decided to address this issue by giving students in Syria the opportunity to receive high quality small group teaching similar in style to the University of Oxford system of tutorials and supervisions. The two brothers, both medical doctors, developed an online teaching platform (http://syriascholar.com/) for UK-based educators to connect with Syrian medical students and provide free, personalised and focused teaching tailored to student needs. It is hoped that the additional teaching provided from the UK will enhance the training of medical students in Syria and ultimately lead to better doctors; and that the exposure of students to impassioned academics from Oxford will act as a source of inspiration and motivation during the difficult times faced by the region.
Sharing the uniqueness of Oxford education through the use of an online platform
First, a network of medical tutors from the University of Oxford willing to offer their teaching services to the project for free was established. The brothers are also working directly with Syrian students to establish extra-curricular clubs at Syrian universities so that club members can gather larger groups of keen students into lecture theatres to receive live lectures on interesting topics from Oxford academics.
Several open source platforms were then customised to meet the project’s needs and create an online teaching service. Tutorials are designed to complement and supplement the teaching delivered by each student’s own indigenous university. In addition to regular tutorials, the website also features invited guest speakers including highly regarded authorities in the medical and scientific fields from the University of Oxford, which simultaneously aim to provide Syrian students with inspirational talks, while promoting engagement with subject matter by offering the unique opportunity to question Oxford experts in real time.
The system generates online classrooms that Oxford based tutors and multiple Syrian students can log into simultaneously. Students and tutors have separate login portals and hence different administration rights within the site. Tutors can upload PowerPoint or PDF files to display as lecture slides to the students who are logged into the classroom. They can then navigate the presentation using the simple and easy-to-use interface, zoom and pan across specific images to focus on key areas and use whiteboard features to annotate slides in order to enhance key points.
The voice of the presenter can be heard live by all participants and students have the option to ask questions through either a microphone or text chat. There is also a fully integrated multi-way videoconferencing function that allows students to see the lecturer and slideshow simultaneously. This has great value in enabling tutors to demonstrate practical skills such as clinical examinations, which can only be fully appreciated by observing visual demonstrations. Individual students can also share their webcams to allow tutors to examine practical skills and give feedback on technique. Even videos and other media can be shared through an integrated screen-sharing facility, making for a truly immersive and powerful learning environment. The site also features a recording function that allows students to revise from talks at a later date.
To tailor content further, students can suggest topics about which they would like specific teaching by using a built-in polling system, so that tutorials can be specifically targeted to the topics students find most important. Tutors themselves can also list presentation topics they would like to offer and the times they are free to deliver teaching. Students can then register interest in a topic and schedule a convenient time by signing up to the tutorials available. On completing a tutorial, students are invited to submit feedback on the session using an integrated survey, which helps to improve the service and generate progress reports.
The website has been specifically designed for scalability in recognition of the fact that the ability to communicate complex ideas to remote audiences has many applications. Furthermore, the service can be expanded to involve other developing countries around the world, teach subjects other than medicine, and host academic conferences that could serve to bring the academic communities in Syria, Britain and beyond closer together.
Initial feedback provides positive prognosis
In the first month after official launch, SyriaScholar has successfully delivered 16 hours of teaching in the form of interactive clinical tutorials. By the end of the first two sessions, all students were able to diagnose a basic heart attack from medical heart traces and had memorised a highly effective system for analysing chest x-rays. These were skills that none of the students had mastered beforehand. Qualitative performance on practice questions before and after each session improvednoticeably.
Formal written feedback collected at the end of each session shows students so far rating sessions as ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ in all categories, ranging from quality and relevance of tutorials to ease of use. There is also the opportunity for text feedback, which has generated many positive comments including:
‘Being able to interact with the tutor was excellent, I learned a lot of new things.’
‘The information we got would definitely help a junior doctor in his/her daily life. The online tutorials are much better and beneficial then a normal theory lecture.’
‘The site was really easy to use.’
‘The tutorials complement our teaching and are highly relevant to our studies in Syria.’
Popularity has also grown and many students have asked to attend the sessions. Over 150 ‘likes’ from interested people were generated within two days of the launch of a Facebook page and the website has received over 1000 session requests in the first month online. Several Syrian universities have been approached for further formal collaborations, thus spreading the expertise of Oxford University tutors.
Top tips for creating new learning spaces on the web
The brothers highlight the important of being adaptable and forward thinking:
‘When you recognise a problem and want to find a solution, the key is to plan. The first stage is to recognise that there is a demand for the service you can offer, and then to think of the best way to supply a solution… However, it is important to be flexible and willing to accept that, sometimes, your plans will change and you will have to contend with unexpected problems that will need to be dealt with as they arise.’
They also recommend that anyone trying a similar project should:
- Have a clear vision of where you want your idea to be in a few years’ time and work on a clear strategy for achieving this target.
- Set short term, realistic goals that take you closer to this objective.
- Try to predict obstacles that you may face along the way and plan for how you might overcome them.
- Play towards your strengths by working on areas that you are already familiar with initially. However, don’t design your venture in a way that limits potential future development.
- Always keep scalability in mind so that, if you are successful, you can branch out of your comfort zone and expand your project into something much bigger.
- The IT Learning Programme in IT Services offers a number of courses on designing and creating websites and in writing Web-based content.
Winner, OxTALENT 2015 award for support for Outreach and Engagement (General). This award recognises exceptional initiatives which use IT to reach a global audience and which have clear evidence of impact. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Kinan and Louwai Muhammed’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.