Sunday, August 5, 2018

Open education in Palestine

Bethlehem campus
Open universities all over the world aim to offer higher education to non-traditional students, often in rural and underprivileged areas of the country. The challenge is to create learning communities where students are spread all over the country and seldom, if ever, get the chance to meet physically at one location. This challenge is particularly acute at Al Quds Open University (QOU) in Palestine which I visited last week as a guest speaker at their conference Digital Transformation in Continuing Education (30 July). The university offers education throughout the West Bank and Gaza where travel between towns is either difficult or, in the case of Gaza, virtually impossible. The multiple campus university is united digitally and all courses combine online studies with on-site meetings and support.

Al Quds Open University was founded in 1991 and today has around 55,000 students, 8 faculties and 19 campuses/study centres (14 in the West Bank and 5 in Gaza). All courses mix online learning with classroom teaching at the local study centres. The courses are delivered through a variety of platforms: the learning management system Moodle, the academic portal, a media platform, QTube, with a wide range of lectures and information films, a portal for sharing slideshows, the open repository OSOL for scientific journals and other publications and various mobile applications. The university is committed to open educational resources and the vast majority of material has a Creative Commons license and they publish five open access scientific journals. Fees are kept as low as possible (around $350 per term) but are the major source of funding together with donations. As well as the standard e-learning platforms the university also has its own satellite TV channel, Al Quds Educational Channel, broadcasting both academic content as well as educational documentaries for general interest as part of their outreach strategy. The channel is free and reaches households all over Palestine and the programmes are also freely accessible worldwide via the website. I visited their studios where a dedicated team of media professionals produce an impressive range of programmes with many live discussions and lectures from their studio as well as documentaries.

Map showing the study centre areas
I was particularly interested in the study centres (branches) and how they support the students. The study centres host lectures, seminars and examinations but are also places where students can come to use computers, get academic and technical support as well as meet each other. Each study centre has academic staff who can teach on-site and there is also a network of part-time teachers who teach and work with course development. Blended learning is default since students need a social context for their learning and the regular meetings at the study centres helps to keep them on track even though most of the course work is online. They also offer courses on learning how to learn with a focus on learning online.

I visited the centre in Bethlehem which hosts around 4,000 students (78% female) and has 24 full-time teaching staff plus administration, a library and educational technologists. Last year 400 students graduated in Bethlehem and this year’s ceremony say 450 graduate. As well as these centres the university has two mobile educational centres; lorries equipped with laptops, generator, satellite wifi and teachers that drive to outlying rural areas and offer ICT training to remote schools. This is part of the university's commitment to continuing education, coordinated by the Continuing Education and Community Service Centre and offering lifelong learning, digital literacy and professional training all over Palestine via the study centres. At present there are even plans to start a study centre in Syria to serve Palestinians there.
Poster advertising the mobile educational centres

A particularly interesting new development is the range of non-credit self-learning open online SMART courses that are specially adapted for mobile delivery and are available via Google Play and similar platforms. These courses offer basic training in subjects like English, Arabic, digital skills and now the first Arabic open course on OER (Open Educational Resources). These courses are available to anyone for free and interaction between students takes place on Facebook groups. QOU are also active contributors to the pan-Arabic OER community, ALECSO OER.

Combining online learning with on-site support in every region offers students both the flexibility they need to study and the sense of community that will support them through their studies. With travel between many of the regions challenging and time-consuming the digital spaces provide a common meeting place for all.

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