Gaza gets connected

The future looked bleak for online study following the collapse of the UK's e-learning showpiece. But, reports Claire Smith, the Mediterranean Virtual University is looking more promising

For the students of the Islamic University of Gaza and Birzeit University, in the West Bank, just getting to class can be the most testing part of their education. Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks carve up the Palestinian territory, making it impossible for students to travel freely from their homes to campuses in Gaza City and Ramallah.

"The students have serious problems getting to their lectures, because the Israeli army can close the roads for up to three or four days at a time," says Ahmad Abu Dabowsa, of the Gaza university.

Fortunately, the Palestinians can now look further than the peace process for a solution. In fact, they can look all the way to Glasgow, where Strathclyde University's head of e-learning, Niall Sclater, is spearheading the setting up of the Mediterranean Virtual University (MVU). As its name suggests, it is an e-learning institution that will allow students to work towards their degree from their homes and local internet cafés, completing online modules and participating in tutorials through monitored discussion groups and chat sessions. If all goes according to plan, the university will switch on this September, initially offering a degree in computer science, with a development studies degree to follow shortly.

So well received is the project that the Welfare Association, Palestine's largest NGO, plans to build and run two MVU computer laboratories - one in Rafah refugee camp, in Gaza, and another, likely to be in Hebron, in the West Bank. The Institute for Development Studies, in Gaza City, is also independently financing the creation of the development studies curricula.

The university might also mean something extra for the men and women studying at the Islamic University of Gaza. At the moment there are separate campuses for men and women, the library has male and female opening hours, and the same lectures are given twice. But there is nothing in the Koran prohibiting men and women from having online discussions or meeting through video-conferencing. "The Islamic University of Gaza's philosophy is to separate male and female classes, but not to stop them from sharing ideas. The university actually encourages the interaction between men and women in scientific and academic discussions. MVU offers this chance,"says Abu Dabowsa.

But it's not just the Palestinians who are looking optimistically towards the potential of the new virtual university. Universities in Egypt (Ain Shams University), Turkey (Sabanci University), Lebanon (American University of Beirut), Jordan (Jordan University of Science & Technology), Malta (University of Malta) and Cyprus (University of Cyprus) are getting on board, seeing the MVU as a way to deal with some of their own educational challenges.

At Aim Shams University, in Cairo, there are 200,000 students with nowhere near enough resources and space to accommodate them all. Furthermore, 33 per cent of students have to leave their homes in other parts of Egypt to have any access to higher education. According to Professor Mohamed Said Abdel-Wahab, who is leading the virtual university project locally, distance learning will help them to bring education to more people, especially those living in the Upper Nile region.

Another eager participant is Turkey. To be accepted into the EU, Turkey has to put 10 million people now working on farms into jobs in factories or services within a decade, says Dr Kutluk Ozguven, the head of e-learning at Sabanci University. "This is the biggest social transformation project of our time," he says. "Similar transformations have been achieved twice in recent history - by Stalin in the 1930s and Mao in the 1950s, both with half the target populations starved or shot." The solution is to educate them, but with just over 70 universities for a population of 70 million, it's going to be a difficult task. "We need to do what Henry Ford did for the car," says Dr Ozguven. "The technology is there, with the new media, computer networks and software. Now the virtual university is giving us the opportunity to put our ideas into practice."

In Malta, the thirst for e-learning is less politically motivated, and born more of a desire to stay abreast of the times. "It's extremely rare to find people who do not own computers. Most people have broadband in their homes," says Ernest Cachia, of the University of Malta. "The virtual university is a very easy and appealing way to access knowledge packaged by other institutions. And it's also more flexible, allowing people to work at their own pace, which is great for someone who is trying to study while holding down a full-time job."

But, though the university might be bringing something much needed to this region, Sclater is quick to point out that it needs these universities to be involved as much as they need it. Although £2.8m of EU funding is allowing the project to get off the ground, Sclater acceptsthat this dream of delivering higher education to more people would not be possible without the teaching skills, reputations and current and potential students that are part of these already existing universities - or without a sound business model.

According to Sclater, it was the lack of a sound business model that saw the failure of the UKeUniversity, the British government's virtual university, which folded in February 2004 after spending £50m and attracting only 900 students - and 0.5 per cent of the private backing it needed.

"You cannot just invent a university and expect people to respect it. You need to create a quality brand," says Sclater. "And you need to make sure you've got enough students who want to sign up for it." His plan is to create a sustainable virtual university that will continue to thrive long after the grants have run out. For this, he needs the expertise of real universities, something he thinks he has with the consortium of 10 universities: the nine already mentioned plus Aalborg University, in Denmark, which make up the Mediterranean Virtual University. Each is developing four courses towards the computer science degree, and it's up to them to market it and to maintain the computer labs that will exist on every campus. Once the studying begins, the responsibility really becomes shared, because most students' online classmates will come from another country.

But does e-learning work? Can it be a quality alternative to traditional teaching? "There are mixed attitudes and mixed success stories," says Sclater. "The infrastructure is much better than it was five years ago, with better computers and internet connections." But he does not think e-learning ever will - or necessarily should - replace classroom methods. He notes that the trend, even in traditional universities, is more towards blended learning, where some of the courses are taken online.

"There's no substitute for face-to-face tutorials," says Sclater. "However, there tends to be a higher quality of discussion in online environments. People have longer to think about what they want to say. They tend to be more conscious about what they put online because their comments are there for all to see." He is determined to maintain quality, and is keen to have the courses independently assessed. But it will only be when this virtual university is up and running later this year that its real-life benefits can be evaluated.

education@independent.co.uk

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