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Posted by on Oct 5, 2018

Digital education, Syrian displaced academics, and mushrooms: report from a recent workshop in Turkey

As part of my association with the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh (a version of this post appears there as well), I recently traveled with colleagues to deliver a three day workshop on digital education for Syrian academics who have been displaced by the conflict. The University has worked for a long time with the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), a great organisation providing urgently-needed help to academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and many who choose to work on in their home countries despite serious risks. Cara also supports higher education institutions whose work is at risk or compromised. The requests for help CARA now receives comes from at-risk academics from conflict heavy countries including Syria, Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Iraq. CARA supports staff and academics, regardless of gender, political orientation, sexual orientation or country of origin. The University of Edinburgh has a bit of a tradition here as well: “when academics from Nazi Germany sought to relocate, they turned to the newly founded Academic Assistance Council (AAC). With help from scientists including Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger, the founder of AAC, William Beveridge, and his academic colleagues saved the lives of over two thousand academics and their families. The University of Edinburgh is proud to have been amongst the founding members”

So we were called to Istanbul to support that partnership with the expertise we had at our disposal around digital education. The goal was largely to walk through the process of learning design in one sweep of activity: learning objectives, identifying the learners themselves, research behind effective online education, drafting online content, recording and editing it, then deploying it, along with associated learning activities and assessments into a Moodle instance graciously provided by Cara designed to host their content and let them build out courses and programmes. Quite a bit of work for three days.

We were extremely fortunate to have, among the workshop participants, Dr Shaher Abdullateef, an agricultural scientist who briefed the group about his successful online course on mushroom production aimed at building capacity in areas of Syria that have been hard-hit by protein shortages and showed what an impact online education can make in Syria. So the newly found mushroom expertise helps these communities stay healthy and supplement an income (as the mushrooms are then sold in local markets). Up to this point, he had developed online education that was essentially a direct conduit from him in Turkey to local communities in Syria through a community centre and a Skype connection. If there was ever any need of evidence that this sort of digital education can stimulate real development, this was it.

A key part of the workshop involved participants in learning the basics of recording video content, using the DIY Filmmaking School approach championed by Stephen Donnelley at the University of Edinburgh, and using smartphones and a handheld rig. Why smartphones? I think if you have ever read any of this blog, the answer to that is clear. Many, if not most, have a mobile device, and these devices are almost always on the person. Essentially we have a high-quality video camera and a means to record and broadcast content available at all times. It’s more immediate and more portable than a traditional camera. Users routinely carry out complicated tasks on mobile devices so filming on a smartphone removes barriers associated with having to learn a new technology. So we coupled participants’ smartphones with lights and external microphones and stabilised it on the rig in the picture above. Away the teams went to record their own content.

The Moodle training on Day 3 was critical to this effort as well (although they had some sophisticated WhatsApp groups and subgroups to support any number of efforts within their Cara community). Each academic received their own Moodle space which they can use to build and host their courses and programmes. I did a followup webinar this week on free audio and video editing tools they can use to refine their content and how to link this content to the best practices emerging from the research. Next week another webinar on open content and creative commons licenses and possibly more on programme and course design using methods we advance at the University.

More importantly I think overall is that this type of work allows, however nominally, these academics to re-engage with their academic identities: as teachers, as subject matter experts, as community leaders. They can connect and stimulate education in Syria through their work online, registering impact like Dr Shaher Abdullateef in the most profound ways. I will be working closely with them over the coming months and hopefully help stimulate further learning design, drawing on the considerable resources and networks emerging in these spaces like the International Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE).

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