BBC Syria
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Article initialement publié sur BBC

Mariam Hammad, despite every adversity of war and hardship, is trying to be a student in Aleppo in the dark heart of Syria's civil war.

"My city has turned to ruins," she says.

Despite being in constant danger, forced out of her home twice by shelling and living without regular supplies of electricity or water, this 22-year-old has refused to give up being a student.

Her reaction has been to stubbornly carry on and to use her studies as a way of honouring those who have died.

She became an online student in a warzone, following a degree course run by the US-based University of the People, making a conscious decision to be "optimistic" and to make plans to "rebuild.”

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Ashoka Opinion

The Internet’s great potential lies in its connectivity, and its ability to shrink the world, and to deliver goods, services, and information globally and nearly instantaneously. With increasing scale and spread has come a decreasing cost for Internet and wireless technologies. Ashoka Fellow Shai Reshef took note of the Internet’s growing reach and its relative affordability. Then, using his own academic and professional experiences as grist, he strung together a series of known but—together—revolutionary ideas to create his most daring, large-scale, and above all, practical, innovation yet: The world’s first free online university.

Shai’s University of the People (UoPeople) draws on a number of recent trends in e-learning and e-commerce and links them in a way not previously considered. The university is built around three pillars: (1) access to education as a human right (2) the freedom of information (3) the natural willingness of people to help one another.

The first pillar is made clear in the university’s mission statement: “Our fundamental belief is that all people, worldwide, should have the opportunity to change their lives and contribute to their communities, as well as understanding that the path to societal and individual prosperity is through education.” The second pillar is manifested within the university through the use of open source software and other non-copyright materials such as curricula and lectures, while the third pillar is seen in the university’s extensive use of professionals as volunteer teachers, best-practice peer-learning procedures, and current social networking systems.

Although the key ideas are not original in themselves, the combination of tuition- free university, education online, and peer-to-peer engagement is original. It took both resourcefulness and courage to create this platform for providing tuition free educational services to people who could probably not access it otherwise. Shai connects those with a surplus of time and expertise to those with a dearth of educational opportunity and access to universities, and he does so via a sophisticated yet simple-to-use platform and on a global scale.

The Open University is probably the most familiar long-standing model of distance mass learning which popularized higher education, which comes to mind when discussing the popularization and mass-dissemination of academia and academic knowledge. Yet despite its success in the West, and after more than fifty years of existence, its disadvantages are obvious: Not enough such universities were established in the developing countries, where such models are needed the most; these universities offer limited online possibilities; and, of course, enrolment in academic studies with them requires tuition fees.

Just like Ashoka Fellow Monica Vasconez of Ecuador, who created a virtual high school—an important and practical idea that is quite likely to spread well across the Andean region and the Spanish-speaking world—Shai’s tuition free virtual university, which is now run in English, could well become a global and multilingual solution for a growing and pressing international need.

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