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Support the Petition for a Mediterranean Erasmus Generation & the Manifesto for a new Mediterranean of knowledge

- January 8, 2018 in communication, developing-world, featured

Dear Open Education Fellows

UNIMED has launched its Petition for a Mediterranean Erasmus Generation. Your support, both as individuals and as institutions, is of crucial importance.

The Petition, which you can read and endorsed here, is aimed at increasing the mobility of students and university staff  in the Euro-Mediterranean region by strengthening the International Credit Mobility dimension of the Erasmus+ Programme, supporting South-South mobility, reinforcing Capacity Building and supporting the integration of refugee students and academics.

UNIMED would like to invite you to sign the Petition, both as individuals and, when possible, as institutions and, if you are interested, to disseminate it among your contacts

The European Commission is in the process of preparing the new Erasmus Programme for the 2021-2027 period . The result of the petition could be very important to invite the policy makers to pay more attention to Euro-Mediterranean cooperation and instruments.

On the 4th of December, UNIMED – Mediterranean Universities Union launched its Petition for a Mediterranean Generation and its Manifesto for a new Mediterranean of knowledge. By signing the Petition, you will support UNIMED in asking the European Commission for measures aimed at: strengthening mobility between Europe and the Southern Mediterranean, including South-South mobility, reinforcing Capacity Building and supporting the integration of refugee students and academics. The Manifesto, in turn, calls for giving Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts a more important role in the Euro-Mediterranean Education and Research cooperation programmes in order to foster the sustainable development of the Mediterranean basin through, among other things, strengthening dialogue with Southern Mediterranean countries.

To read and sign the Petition, click here.

To read the full Manifesto and to endorse it, click here.

The objective is to present the signed petition during the “UNIMED WEEK in Brussels”, which will be held from the 10 to the 12 of April 2018.

Open Education Brazil – a view from eMundus

- September 25, 2015 in communication, developing-world, featured, guestpost, mooc, oer

Our next post on Open Education from Around the World comes from Brazil. With over 204 million people, Brazil is the 5th most populous country in the world. Its territorial area covers 48% of the total area of South America and it has the 8th largest economy on the planet.

The post is authored by  Vera Queiroz and edited on to the blog by Paul Bacsich.


Vera holds a PhD in Education from USP (University of São Paulo). At present, she is  participating in the E-mundus Project – an international collaborative Project on Open Education, funded by the European Union. Brazil is a partner in the Project. The project’s main objectives are to map the state of art of  MOOCs in higher education and contribute towards the sharing of knowledge, tools and practices of MOOC and VM developed mainly by and in Brazilian universities

Read the rest of this entry →

OCR and OER – update

- September 25, 2015 in communication, developing-world, guestpost

We welcome this short posting from Subhashish Panigrahi which updates a 2014 posting of his –

Subhashish Panigrahi (@subhapa) is an educator, author, blogger, Wikimedian, language activist and free knowledge evangelist based in Bengaluru (often called Bangalore), India. After working for a while at the Wikimedia Foundation’s India Program he is currently at the Centre for Internet and Society‘s Access To Knowledge program. He works primarily in building partnership with universities, language research and GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archive and Museums) organizations for bringing more scholarly and encyclopedic content under free licenses, designs outreach programs for South Asian language Wikipedia/Wikimedia projects and communities. He wears many other hats: Editor for Global Voices Odia, Community Moderator of, and Ambassador for India in OpenGLAM Local. Subhashish is the author of a piece “Rising Voices: Indigenous language Digital Activism” in the book Digital Activism in Asia Reader.


Google’s OCR and its use by Wikimedians in South Asia

Some time back on the OCR project support network, Google had announced that the Google drive could be used for Optical Character Recognition (OCR). The software now works for over 248 world languages (including all the major South Asian languages). Though the exact pattern of development of the software is not clear, some of the Wikimedians reported that there is improvement over time in the recognition of their native languages Malayalam and Tamil. The recent encounter has been with a simple, easy to to use and robust software that can detect most languages with over 90% accuracy.

The OCR technology extracts text from images, scans of printed text, and even handwriting to some extent, which means that the text can be extracted pretty much from any old book, manuscript, or image. This certainly brings hope to most Indian languages as there is a lot to digitize. Most of the major Indian languages have plenty of non-digitized literature and the existing OCR systems are not as good as Google when so many languages are concerned as a whole.

Google’s OCR engine is probably using aspects of Tesseract, an OCR engine released as free software, or OCRopus, a free document analysis and optical character recognition (OCR) system that is primarily used in Google Books. Developed as a community project during 1995-2006 and later taken over by Google, Tesseract is considered one of the most accurate OCR engines and works for over 60 languages. The source code is available on GitHub.

The OCR project support page offers additional details on preserving character formatting for things like bold and italics after OCR in the output text.

When processing your document, we attempt to preserve basic text formatting such as bold and italic text, font size and type, and line breaks. However, detecting these elements is difficult and we may not always succeed. Other text formatting and structuring elements such as bulleted and numbered lists, tables, text columns, and footnotes or endnotes are likely to get lost.

The user-end interaction of the OCR software currently is rather simple. The user has to upload an image of the scan in any image format (.jpg, .png, .gif, etc.) or PDF to the Google Drive. Upon completion of the uploading, opening the file in Google Drive shows both the image and the converted text in the same document.

One of the most popular free and open digitization platforms, Wikisource currently hosts hundreds or thousands of free books which are either out of copyright or under Creative Commons licenses (CC-by or CC-by-SA) allowing users to digitize.

While OCR works quite well for Latin based languages, many other scripts do not get OCRed perfectly. So, the Wikisourcers (Wikisource contributors) often have to type the text.

Thus the new Google OCR might be useful both for the Wikisource community and many others who are in the mission of digitizing old text and archiving them.

The image below shows a screen from a tutorial to convert text in the Odia language from a scanned image using Google’s OCR.

Tutorial to use Google OCR August 2015 JPEG

 This was designed by Subhashish Panigrahi. Freely licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


- October 20, 2014 in developing-world, featured, mooc, oer

STAFF_vbalajiWe’ve all heard about MOOCs but are you aware of key concepts, methods and practices in the MOOC paradigm? So how about a MOOC on MOOCs?

Today we have a guest post from Balaji Venkataraman from the Commonwealth of Learning, based in Vancouver, Canada. He is associated with OER efforts and is currently involved in designing an offline device that can provide access to OER on large scale ( He served as the Course Manager for the MOOC on MOOCs mentioned below.


The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IITK) offered a MOOC on MOOC during 5 Sep-12 October 2014. We had 2342 participants from 92 countries, the top five being India, Nepal, Mauritius, South Africa and Canada. About 1900 participants were active in the course. From an exit survey, it emerged that most participants were teachers in the Higher Education sector while a small number were full time students.  Besides mentors and facilitators from the two collaborating institutions, there were other speakers, such as Sir John Daniel, Sanjay Sarma, Russell Beale, David Porter and key education sector leads from Google and Microsoft. We expect about 400 to qualify for participation. There was a significant demand from the participants for a space to continue the discussions. We have converted the course space into an online discussion space and will host it for about six more months. This will help us understand how MOOCs could lead to new communities of practice. Here is a news item about this course.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 08.52.18

One of the purposes in offering this MOOC was to demonstrate that there can be “generic” MOOCs as contrasted to “branded” ones and to explore the usefulness of MOOCs in a situation where most participants are from developing countries.  A purpose-built platform called MOOKIT was deployed and worked successfully. It will be released as an Open Source application after a few more trial runs. In a couple of weeks from now, we will make all the learning materials, available online as OER. The course analytic data, after carefully removing all kinds of personal identifiers, will also be posted online as an Open Data set for which there was a serious demand in the course.

This is the second time the collaborators have offered a MOOC. Back in 2013, they offered a MOOC on Mobiles for Development  which attracted 2286 participants from 116 countries (learning materials released as OER). A detailed analysis is available in the public domain.

Tertiary education in Rwanda to go the open way

- October 5, 2014 in developing-world, featured, languages, oer

Bernard NkuyubwatsiAdvisory Board member Bernard Nkuyubwatsi is following up his previous posts on A Multidimensional Migration for Social Inclusion: A Personal Account and Open Education Rwanda with some exciting news about the open education situation in Rwanda.


The Higher Education Council (HEC), a semi-autonomous institution in the Ministry of Education in Rwanda, has already expressed willingness to move towards an open and inclusive tertiary education in a call for consultation published in The New Times on 11 September 2014. The intention is to adopt Open, Distance and eLearning (ODeL) at the rate of 50 percent in conventional tertiary education, provide an opportunity to potential students who have not been included in the conventional higher education due to family and professional commitment as well as finding an alternative cost-effective academic pathway for students who may not afford expensive conventional academic programmes.

The HEC intends to support the development of a national ODeL policy and strategy which will underpin related practices. In a live Twitter session (#AskTheMinister) hosted on 30 September 2014, Professor Silas Lwakabamba; Rwanda’s Minister of Education, invited any contribution that may open up tertiary education via ODeL. If exploited at the fullest potential, this political investment and participatory approach may position Rwanda among global leaders in open and inclusive tertiary education. Rwanda may also lead in opening education with limited resources.

General view of northwestern Rwanda by Neil Palmer (CIAT), Flickr, CC-BY

General view of northwestern Rwanda by Neil Palmer (CIAT), Flickr, CC-BY

Many Rwandan learners have already been successful in self-determined learning (also referred to as heutagogical investment) when the national examinations administered at the end of secondary education were made open to anyone, and the results in the national exams were established as a benchmark for student loan from Student Financing Agency for Rwanda (the current Department of Higher Education Loan at Rwanda Education Board) for public higher education. Many learners who had not been previously included in higher education learned on their own, enrolled in the national exams as non-formal learners in a quest for student loan. These learners’ heutagogical practices were fostered by the value created by the change in student loan provision and the assurance that if they do very well in the national exams, student loan was guaranteed.

This student loan is very limited and has been available to only less than 5 percent top performers. Consequently some of the non-formal learners had to re-take national exams up to three times to secure student loan. Such dedication and perseverance is already a great asset that should not be wasted. Some of the learners who won student loan through this pathway have already completed post-graduate degrees and their income multiplied threefold or more. This transformation was enabled by open assessment and if the content and the national curricula were similarly open and easily available to the learners, more accomplishment would have accrued. Unfortunately, funds available for student loan for tertiary education have recently been shrinking due to financial constraints.

There is need for innovation in collaborative quality enhancement based on shared benefit to enable different stakeholders’ contribution of a diversity of resources rather than building quality education around only financial resources that lack in Rwanda. An overemphasis upon financial resources in building quality education has undermined the quality of education in Rwanda due to the shortage of these resources on the part of the Government and more importantly most of the population. Quality enhancement that overemphasizes financial resources cannot be accomplished in Rwanda and many other countries without excluding an overwhelming majority, which often catalyse other social problems. Opening up the tertiary education system to invite heutagogical investment has not been attempted although this approach has been transformative to many non-formal pre-university learners. This approach would however need more collaboration to develop independence and heutagogical practices among learners and open education expertise among all stakeholders. The open discussion started by the Minister of Education promises a collective uptake of open education and related practices in the country.

There have been scepticisms on the quality of open education systems. In such systems, quality can suffer if it is approached as a product made for students to consume. However, quality in open education systems can be very high if it is enhanced collaboratively and when all stakeholders develop ownership. Particularly, open education systems require transfer of some powers to learners so that they make their heutagogical investment and develop as independent learners. Current problems that are of local and global concerns call for responsible citizens who are independent thinkers and problem solvers who can transform their own lives and the lives of those around them (See An Avalanche is Coming). It is important to educate citizens who can live sustainably within limited resources they have access to rather than those who want to consume beyond their capability. These are values that come with an open and inclusive education system that create opportunities for heutagogical investment.

The open education initiative in Rwanda will require all stakeholders to learn new practices, and even learn together. However, given the social inclusion and transformation toward knowledge-based society Rwanda needs to achieve, such learning is worth undertaking. Transformation towards a knowledge-based economy cannot be accomplished with more than 90 percent of the population excluded from tertiary education. Enormous potential talents have already been lost. This is a ripe moment for Rwanda to add value to its human capital through open and inclusive tertiary education.

Slides and Videos from Making it Matter

- May 20, 2014 in data, developing-world, events, featured

Last week the the LinkedUp Project and the Commonwealth of Learning held the Making it Matter workshop (Supporting education in the developing world through open and linked data) in London. The aim was to bring together software developers, educators and individuals from the development community to see how they can work together by using open and linked data to support education in the developing world.


We hope the event was a success – though the true measure of that will be if we build on the connections we’ve made and ideas we’ve collected!

Over the next few days we will add information from the breakout sessions to the event etherpad and try and summarise some conclusions and actions in a blog post.

Advisory Board Member: Rayna Stamboliyska

- May 5, 2014 in advisoryboard, developing-world, featured

RaynaThe fourth of the blog posts from our new Open Education Working Group Advisory Board comes from Rayna Stamboliyska.

Rayna Stamboliyska is is currently serving on the board of the Open Knowledge Foundation France and founder of its Open/Citizen Science workgroup, she advises decision-makers on knowledge technologies in the Middle East and the Balkans. She is founder of RS Strategy and launched OpenMENA in early 2014 to promote open knowledge in the MENA region.


I was delighted and humbled to be invited to join the Advisory Board of Open Knowledge’s Open Education Workgroup. Led by Marieke Guy, the group aims “to initiate global cross-sector and cross-domain activity that encompasses the various facets of open education.” In addition – and what is also of particular interest for me, – the group also wishes to promote open educational practices.

What motivates me for being involved in opening up educational resources and practices is the basic idea that we need to transform infobesity into a structured knowledge transmission. Such a transformation is by design pluridisciplinary and collaborative. It encompasses not only the production and distribution of a wide range of resources but also changes in the way we reach out to learners.

There are thus two main points that I have focused on: how to innovate means of knowledge transmission and how to define learners.

Just like data, opening up information and putting it online is a means, not an aim. People need to actually care using it for open information to produce true and meaningful social good. The question we ask here is naturally the one of outreach: how do we bring all this wealth to the widest possible audience? And how does such an audience stop passively consuming and gets actively involved in knowledge construction and transmission?

We can think of a plethora of ways via which to channel collaborative energy: hackathons, editathons, games, websites, data/knowledge expeditions in schools, advocacy and policy-making efforts towards an increased integration of cross-domain productions in educational programs, etc. As an illustration, think of today’s scientific educational supports in high school: often, these encompass mock examples that were relevant 10 or 20 years ago. Yet we have witnessed an immense traction for citizen science projects worldover. You see me coming: why not integrating citizen science approaches in the classroom? We also witness an ever-growing number of scientists opening up their raw data and publications; how long should we wait for these to be adapted to the classroom, be it high school or in higher education curricula? If – or actually, when – this happens, we will have given a true educational value to the expert knowledge we produce.

When speaking of innovation and pluridisciplinarity in education, we cannot skip the complementary question of definition and impact on learners. Interestingly, the ‘learner’ category here has somewhat widened to include the (less and less) sacrosanct group of teachers. Regardless of whether these are primary, high school teachers or higher ed professors, they are increasingly recognized as learners. To cope with the ever-growing amount of information and changing forms of knowledge transmission, one must be able to learn – and unlearn. To me, teachers are invested with the task of kitting up students with the tools for how to think rather than what to think.

With these considerations in mind, I have been involved in a few initiatives and projects aiming at transforming education. The focal point is to preserve curiosity, a perpetuum mobile for creativity. In 2013, I organized the NightScience event in Paris. The goal of the event was to give a snapshot of state-of-the-art approaches and reflexions on educational practices through a one-day conference and then to give room, during a 2-day hackathon, to enthusiasts with diverse backgrounds to actually co-create tools and resources. The conference gathered t(h)inkers, researchers, hackers and teachers, among whom we were happy to host Prof. Alison Gopnik, Shannon Dosemagen (Public Lab), Dr. Stephen Friend (SAGE), Gerard Dummer (WikiKids), etc. The hackathon was also a quite amazing event where open hardware guru Mitch Altman taught 8-year-olds and (alleged) grown-ups to do magic with Arduino.


In addition to the NightScience event, I was also actively involved in structuring, managing and training the Savanturiers project. The latter is an ambitious innovative program whose aim is to bring learning through research in primary schools. A team of Master students and PhD candidates from different scientific fields have thus endeavoured to develop research projects with 10-12-year-olds in several primary schools in Paris.

Since February 2014, I have left academia in order to dedicate myself to creating and implementing different types of activity. I have thus partnered with Stephen Kovats’s r0g media agency and we are currently searching ways to transfer our joint experience to Mali, a country that faces complex post-conflict challenges whre open technologies and open educational resources could make a real difference. In addition, I am also involved with a brave and ambitious project, the Thirteen Youth Center, which the 14-year-old Vuk is founding in Belgrade, Serbia. Lastly, I endeavour to promote the Open Knowledge values in the Middle East and North Africa through both the OpenMENA initiative I founded and two ongoing projects I have bootstrapped which aim to introduce alternative and creative educational frameworks in Egypt and Tunisia.

Collaboration, peer-learning and opening up resources and practices are thus the common denominator of all the initiatives I have been involved into. I believe we are able to bring about a real change in knowledge transmission and co-creation; engaging with the Open Education Workgroup is one the ways to achieve it.

Making it Matter: Supporting education in the developing world through open and linked data

- April 8, 2014 in data, developing-world, events, featured

The Open Education Working Group would like to invite you to a free one-day workshop entitled Making it Matter: Supporting education in the developing world through open and linked data. The workshop will be jointly hosted by the LinkedUp Project and the Commonwealth of Learning and held in Bloomsbury Suite B at Friends House in London, UK on Friday 16th May, 2014.

computerloveComputer Love by Joyce S Lee on Flickr

Full details are provided on the workshop page.

The aim for the day is to bring together software developers, educators and individuals from the development community to see how they can work together by using open and linked data to support education in the developing world.

The day will have two main activities:

  • Firstly there will be focused discussion around real-world requirements in the developing world that could be aided through the releasing of data and/or the building of relevant applications and prototypes. This discussion will feed in to requirements for a focused track for LinkedUp Vici Competition that looks for educational applications that target developing countries, addressing context-specific problems, issues and needs, being technical, societal or environmental.
  • Secondly there will be the opportunity to look at tools developed through the LinkedUp Challenge (the Veni and Vidi Competitions) and see how they could be used in the developing world. Feedback from the session could lead to the opportunity for some of the LinkedUp Challenge tools being enrolled to a larger user base at one of the Commonwealth of Learning’s related organisations.

The day will also be a ‘first-step’ in bringing together communities interested in the technical issues related to open data and education in the developing world. There will be break-out sessions and plenty of opportunities to explore what the next steps would be in working together.

If you are interested in attending then register on the EventBrite form (embedded on the Workshop page).

Beyond MOOCs: The Future of Learning on the Future Internet

- March 26, 2014 in developing-world, events, featured

Last week I was able to attend a session at the Future Internet Assembly in Athens on The Future of Learning on the Future Internet. The session, although aimed at future Horizon2020 projects and not solely focussed on open education explored a number of different projects that may be of interest to the open education community. The session attempted to unpack the following ideas:

  • Following from MOOCs what are the future learning paradigms now emerging or currently on the horizon (from a pedagogical, educational and business perspective)?
  • What are the personal, social and economic benefits that these new learning forms will bring to Europe?
  • What requirements do these new learning frameworks impose on the next generation Internet (from a network, services/cloud, media, security, mobile perspective)?
  • How will we meet these requirements? To what extent will our current Future Internet activities meet the requirements? Is there anything we need to initiate?

John Domingue opens up the session

The session was facilitated by John Domingue from the Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, UK. John is involved in the Forging Online Education through FIRE (FORGE) Project. He began by pointing out that the education budget is currently being reduced in a number of EU regions, for example in Spain and Greece, and indicated that this is rationale for innovative solutions enabling the provisioning of cost-effective high quality learning, open education being one such solution. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) were offered as one possible path institutions and organisations could take but as the title suggest attendees were asked to think beyond MOOCs and consider alternative approaches.

To begin Rebecca Ferguson, Pedagogic Adviser at the Open University talked about her experience with the UK-based MOOC platform FutureLearn. FutureLearn ran its first course in September last year and now has more than a quarter of a million registered users. Rebecca raised some interesting discussion points on the challenges of online assessment at FutureLearn. For example how do you ensure the correct students take online exams? Approaches include watching students with webcams and check typing styles, though there is still more work to be done to ensure open and fair processes. Carmen Padrón-Nápoles also went on to talk about on how MOOCs can be used in work-based learning using ATOS and their Translectures programme as an example. Carmen explored some of the current trends followed in workbased learning including seamless learning and Micro-learning

One really exciting presentation was given by Natalia Arredondo from Newcastle University on the amazing School in the Cloud concept where there are no classrooms just rooms, a little like a cyber-café but only for children. The idea sprang from ‘Hole in the Wall’ computers in Indian slums enabling impoverished children to learn by themselves (an idea explored in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire). Prof Sugata Mitra is the lead behind the concept and in February this year was he awarded $1M from the TED organisation to continue his work, he has now focused on seven sites – five in India and two in the UK – where children from poor backgrounds use secure Skype connections to speak to a “cloud” of retired professionals (grannies) from a range of fields who have volunteered to share their expertise.

Natalia Arredondo talks about School in the Cloud

Natalia Arredondo talks about School in the Cloud

A clear area of focus for the session was services and cloud computing and how providers can give cheaper and easier access to large computational resources for learning purposes. I really enjoyed the talk given by Andrew Smith, Lecturer in Networking at The Open University. Andrew works as a Cisco trainer, Cisco Systems developed as part of their academy programme a simulator for teaching networking in 2007/8. In his talk he described how the simulator is used within the Open University and how the development of the multiuser tool may shape the future of teaching networking. Andrew also talked about issues such as low-bandwith in developing countries, and how we need to develop more with this in mind. Interesting in relation to recent discussions on the mailing list.

Other talks included: Dimitris Tsigos giving the SME perspective on learning, he demoed tools including TalentLMS and served up my favourite new word of the day – metanoia: “shift of mind” happening when a piece of information turns to knowledge. Dr. Afrodite Sevasti, CEO and co-Founder of Epignosis, Greece and President of the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs outlined how National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) support national education communities. Kuang-Ching Wang, Chief Business Development Officer at GRNET & Senior Project Manager in GÉANT talked about the NSF GENI Project, an innovative US infrastructure project.


Q&A session

Despite the technical focus of some of the later talks the Q&A session drifted on to the topic of open education with presenters arguing that it was a much needed approach. As one audience member commented – better infrastructure, is that really enough? What we actually need is a redesign of the learning experience.

A Multidimensional Migration for Social Inclusion: A Personal Account

- March 19, 2014 in developing-world, featured, guestpost, inclusion

Bernard NkuyubwatsiThis blog post [written by Bernard Nkuyubwatsi who has posted on Open Education Rwanda] was catalysed by the discussion undertaken by the Open Education Working Group online community under the thread How can Open Education help children in Syria?. In this discussion, a link to a TED talk on how a basic cell phone that has a superb battery serves as a radio, a smart card and a torch was shared. Good practices of the South African Siyavula initiative were also outlined. Megan Beckett from Siyavula has also written a blog post inspired by the discussion entitled Distributing OER in the developing world.

To bring in the aspect of social inclusion of learners who are hungry of education in developing settings, I would like to share a personal account of a multidimensional migration for my own social inclusion. This migration enabled different types of transformation: educational, modes of learning, technologies/media, learning location, profession, etc.

The dawn of higher education dream

My secondary education in a developing country was interrupted by one of the most horrible conflict the world ever experienced. After a relative stability was established, I was able to resume and completed my secondary education as a primary teacher trainee. With the domination of the native language and French as languages used in education, we skipped learning English for some semesters because teachers who could teach this language were hard to find in the country at the time. In addition, this language was not yet introduced in the country’s primary education system except for very few schools which were established for social inclusion of student who had repatriated from countries where English was the language used in education. School leaders had no concerns about the lack of English language teachers for teacher-trainees who were not expected to use this language in their future profession.

During my secondary education, I had never thought of undertaking undergraduate education because I was not connected to any influential figure who could safeguard my place at a higher education institution. This is how the system had been built, and this had previously been the same for access to secondary education until a few years before my completion of primary education.

A life changing enabler

The trigger has been major reforms undertaken by the post conflict government. One year after my graduation from secondary education a National Examination Centre was established with four major effects:

  1. Only national exams contributed to the award of secondary education certificate.
  2. All students had to take English among the national exams.
  3. Non-formal learners could enrol to take the national exams and the learning accomplishment of those who passed the exams was recognised and certified based on the same standards as formal students.
  4. The results from the national exams were the only benchmark for university admission and eligibility for students’ loan.

The impact of openness

Since the national exams were open to non-formal learners and results were publicly released, many people who had not been admitted at university were now motivated to learn and take the national exams to compete for university education. I understand that public release of the results in the national exams constitute an ethical issue in many western societies (privacy issue), but it was a very effective nepotism and bribery fighter and a strong enabler of a transparent social inclusion in the country’s higher education system. Social exclusion had been at the heart of the conflict that had claimed lives of more than a million of innocent people. It made sense for the post conflict government to include more people in the mainstream higher education on merit basis. The impact of this reform was more access to higher education for learners from low income families across the country because the system treated all learners equally, based on their performance.

Similar to the national exam results, the cut-point for university admission and student loan award was publicly announced on the national radio (the only broadcast in the country at the time). It is thanks to this relatively open and inclusive system that I started my engagement in self-guided learning. I was self-confident that if my results in the national exams were good, no one would unfairly take my place.

Reaping up benefits from openness

To prepare national exams, I re-learned all courses for which I had to take the national exams. I had to borrow hand-written notes from colleagues and compare with mine and transcribe by hand what I missed. Access to official syllabi was only the prerogative of secondary education teachers and most non-formal learners depended on notes from their previous teachers or colleagues, but they were not sure if everything on the syllabi had been covered in the notes they possessed. More importantly, I learned English which was being strengthened in the country and had recently been introduced in the national exams via self-guided readings and foreign radios (BBC and VOA were broadcasting on FM). My district had no access to electricity. From then on, remarkable efforts were made to expand access to electricity, but so far, only about 15% of the population have access to electricity. Neither had I access to a cell phone which was still a toy for the rich class. But I had a radio, which turned to be the most powerful technology in my educational migration. English, which I had learned mostly on the two foreign radio channels, was the only national exam in which I scored a perfect (A) grade. Overall, my Grade Point Average (GPA) was above the cut point for eligibility and student loan.

Barriers still stand on the way

Despite a satisfactory performance in the national exams, students were now automatically included in the higher education system. The government had already started to feel pressure caused by the increase of the number of students who had been included in the mainstream public higher education and were awarded student loans. There was an attempt to give up on a merit-based admission and student loan award for higher education. The intention was to stop admission and student loans for all people who had been trained to be primary teachers, nurses and other secondary education options which were called professional options. This delayed my admission and student loan award for a year because I was a teacher-trainee. The original justification was that people who completed such options were not well prepared for higher education and they could fail. But this justification was publicly dismissed as a fallacy. Then, a new decision was made to admit people who had completed the so-called professional options after two years in a job. I had already been teaching for three year but my applications were rejected. I was told that two years are counted from the time I got the new results from the national exams which made me eligible for admission in public higher education and student loan. After two years in ambiguity and contestation, the cut off point was made high and people who had scored above this raised cut off point were admitted. Luckily, I was one of the few, who were admitted and this is how I was included in the higher education system.

An intensive and multidimensional migration

After my undergraduate education, I was hired to teach in higher education and this marks my migration into digital technologies and online education. It sounds strange how one can teach in higher education with a bachelor’s degree, but this at least reveals the imbalance in terms of access to quality higher education globally. We were called tutorial assistants and all people in the centre in which I was appointed in were bachelor’s degree holders. We had a professor (the only professor and PhD holder in the entire institution at the time) and we rarely saw him because he had to provide support in other aspects of the institutional administration. I applied for awards for post graduate education which enabled me to learn with American and British universities. The fact that I had no access to the Internet and mobile phone during most of my previous education did not seem to have significant impact on my success in post graduate education. One year after my undergraduate graduation, I started my first postgraduate degree course which was completely online. My digital literacies and linguistic abilities were lower than my British counterparts’, but I compensated those deficiencies with more time commitment. Instead of 15 hours recommended per week, I ensured I invested 20-25 hours a week, and it worked.

Major challenges were rather linked to internet access difficulties and cultural inclusiveness issues. The Internet in the campus I was appointed in collapsed when I was taking my second module and this is the only place people could accessed the Internet in the city. On weekends, I had to take a three hour bus trip to the capital city where I could access the Internet in cyber cafés. While in a cyber café, I download or copied and pasted in Microsoft word files all weekly materials so that I could read them offline during the working days. After downloading the materials, I contributed to the forum discussion which was also required. Some video and audio materials could not be downloaded and used offline. I had to watch and listen to them on weekend when I was in a cyber café. This difficulty is what motivated me to seek a full time opportunity in a country where the Internet access is not an issue. This is what led to my physical migration to the USA after one year of a highly intense competition. On a cultural inclusiveness issue, class discussion could, for instance, base on a TV show with an assumption that everyone watches or had watched that show. Initially, this led to my self-blaming, thinking that I had missed a lot in my previous education, because I could not find a niche in which my contribution could be relevant to the topic under discussion. I spent hours trying to figure out where what was discussed in the class was located in the required and recommended readings but in vein. When I asked my classmates where what they were discussing was in the readings, that is when the Aha! moment occurred. ‘Haven’t you watched Sesame Street?’, that was their question with a wide surprise. “What is Sesame Street?”, my question, of course. After learning about the Sesame Street TV show, I realised that there was no reason for self-blaming.

In my digital migration that started only about seven years ago, I had to prioritise and skip some technologies. TV and landline phones were not included on my technology menu because they did not contribute directly to my educational and professional advancement. Despite a late migration into digital technologies, I am now very confident of what I have been able to learn. I migrated across education attainment levels, geographical locations, cultural perspectives and professional levels. In a period of only about twelve years, I was able to migrate from a self-guided learner who used hand written material through learning from radio to an online learner. I also migrated from a primary education teacher through secondary education teaching to being an academic, and more importantly, an etutor now. Equally importantly, I have been learning with institutions from all over the world, located on all the five continents, mainly thanks to online learning. It has been a cross-cultural educational, professional and socio-economic migration. I feel it is a ripe moment to support initiatives that are concerned by social inclusion and contribute to opening up education to learners who are eager to undertake a similar migration, regardless of the types of technologies they currently have access to. The job is now much easier since the content and even courses have been made open and more technologies have been made available at affordable prices. It is very important to take a human-centred approach rather than a techno-centric approach if social inclusion is at the heart of open education.

I hope this long blog post will provide some insight to providing a pathway for social inclusion of the Syrian learners and other learners in developing settings and across the world.