Five years ago, Syrian universities were vibrant centres of teaching and central to a population that placed great value on education and learning. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, a new generation of university students have had their access to education severely impaired, leaving bright and highly motivated students wanting for more opportunities to learn.
Today, Syrian teachers are overstretched and 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. We wanted 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 and Cambridge system of Tutorials and Supervisions. We developed an online teaching platform for UK based educators to connect with Syrian medical students and provide free, personalised and focused teaching tailored to student needs. 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 composed of highly regarded authorities in the medical and scientific fields. The goal is to provide Syrian students with inspirational talks, while promoting engagement with subject matter by offering the unique opportunity to question world experts in real time.
We hope that the additional teaching provided from the UK will enhance the training of medical students in Syria and ultimately lead to better doctors. We also hope that the exposure of students to impassioned academics will act as a source of inspiration and motivation during the difficult times faced by the region.
The website has been specifically designed for scalability as we recognise that the ability to communicate complex ideas to remote audiences has many applications. The service can be expanded to involve other developing countries around the world, teach many subjects outside of medicine, and host academic conferences that could serve to bring the academic communities in Syria and Britain closer together.
We customised several open source platforms to meet our needs and create an online teaching service. Our system generates online classrooms that UK 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 any students also 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 utilise whiteboard features to draw on 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 the presenter questions by either using a microphone or a text based chat box. 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. The platform is scalable to other subjects and regions of the world that would benefit from a similar learning model.
Progress so far:
We are trying to establish a network of medical tutors from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and UCL who are willing to offer their teaching services to the project for free. We are also working directly with Syrian students to grow the service.
Since our official launch, SyriaScholar has successfully delivered more than 50 student hours of teaching in the form of interactive clinical tutorials. By the end of our 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 none of the students had mastered before hand. Qualitative performance on practice questions before and after each session was noticeably improved.
Our popularity has continued to grow and many students have asked to attend our sessions. SyriaScholar has also recently been awarded the University of Oxford OxTALENT innovation in education prize for public engagement and public outreach, 2015.
We collect formal written feedback at the end of each session, with students so far rating sessions as ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ in all categories, ranging from quality and relevance of tutorials to ease of use. We also provided 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”