Online Higher Medical Education Program for Displaced Students
The most extensive program that the founders of the IIHE have created so far was the Syrian Education Program.
Due to the years of war and conflict in the country, over six million civilians have been internally displaced, and of that number an estimated 200,000 qualify for higher education. The right to education is one of the core commitments of the founders of the IIHE and so they created the Syrian Education Program, described by one participant as resulting from a “phenomenal” effort, bringing “challenging courses from Albany to Aleppo".
This program targeted internally displaced Syrian medical students in non-government-controlled areas. The reality of conflict creates a very constrained backdrop to such study. As one report noted: “[a] dozen or more students huddled around a laptop screen in a darkened basement, where they took cover from bombings. When alarms sounded, a few excused themselves to treat the wounded.”
These students are registered through the Free Aleppo University, an online college within Syria set up by physicians in the area. The program is offered to these students free of charge.
This education program has three parts. The first is its Online Academic Courses and the other its Intensive English Learning Program (IELP). With the academic courses, professors from various universities including those from Yale, the University at Albany and Syrian academics of medicine volunteer to record their lectures (which include subjects such as anatomy, biology, genetics and physiology). These lectures are then transcribed and translated into Arabic. Courses are completed by the medical students for credit so that they can pursue their higher education in the future. These courses are provided through an online platform using a smartphone application. This is because, while the majority of these students do not have access to computers they do have cell phones.
In addition to medical courses, the second part is the teaching of English to students with lessons on reading, writing, listening and speaking. Volunteers with the IIHE act as teaching assistants and provide live language sessions with the students in Syria. There are over 70 volunteers across the globe (from the US, Iraq, Scotland and elsewhere) directly contribute to this English program. In its first months over 300 students were enrolled. By mid-2018 that number increased to over 520. The Syrian Education program has been successfully implemented to hundreds of students throughout the country.
The third aspect of this education program has been the “SHABAN” smartphone application which allows students to have access to live academic sessions in Arabic and English. This was developed by the IIHE founders in collaboration with the University at Albany computer science department. Currently, the program uses various applications such as Blackboard, so students can access lectures, submit homework and participate in live sessions. This, however, is difficult for many of the students because they are using android phones which are not as compatible with these platforms, and the connection is often unreliable. SHABAN streamlines the education process for students by providing them with universal and immediate access to their TAs and other students, as well as course lectures, and a place to submit assignments, all with the limited amount of Wi-Fi required.
The Syrian Education Program has made significant strides towards furthering the instruction of Syrian medical students, but there is still much potential for its expansion and improvement. Through direct communication with the students, the founders of the IIHE have become aware that mental health and mental health education need to be addressed to help these students just as much as training courses on English, biology, and anatomy. By implementing programs in these fields, the founders of the IIHE would enable Syrian students to both serve their community in profound ways as well as being mindful of their own mental health. The IIHE is currently seeking funding for this work.