Despite the tension and anxiety caused by the Israeli response to the demonstrations; despite the ‘normal’ power cuts and logistic difficulties; despite having to experiment with different tools and new materials; despite everything, the pilot lessons for the Online Palestinian Arabic Course have now started. Finding the right online platform and the right digital tools to do justice to the materials is proving more challenging than anticipated. As an online course with multimedia material, designed and developed with very modest financial resources, elaborate and costly solutions are not an option. However, technicians at IUG are doing wonders with the software they have available and, although not without glitches and setbacks, the word documents we designed are slowly but surely transforming into an innovative, engaging, creative, multimedia online course.
Managing a team of course developers, technicians, filmmakers, teachers, photographers requires constant presence and coordination. As we write this, Dr Nazmi Al-Masri, our wonderful colleague and project partner, is managing the Gaza team while sleeping rough at the border crossing. He has a UK visa (and this already meant several hurdles) and invitations from a number of British universities. However, the queue of people waiting to leave the Gaza Strip from Rafah, in the few days during which the crossing is open, is incredibly long. Having to camp just to get a chance to leave the Gaza Strip does not stop Nazmi from working to ensure that the technicians at IUG upload the materials, and the piloting course can continue. This is just the latest example of the Gaza teams’ wonderful commitment to our common project.
As the pilot lessons take place, we are asking the volunteer learners and teachers for open-ended feedback. While we will be assessing more formally the pilot at the end of six lessons, for now we ask them just to let us know what they liked (so we can do more of it) and what they did not like or found tricky (so that we can redress this in preparation of the final version of the course). Unsurprisingly, all learners agree that the main positive element of the course are the Arabic Center teachers. Their pleasant and capable attitude is regularly remarked upon, and this does not surprise us: all of IUG’s Arabic Center teaches are trained and experienced, and while the materials are new to them, working online is not a new experience. Several of the teachers in the pilot have already worked in online collaborations with colleagues at the University of Glasgow: with team members Giovanna and Grazia in the context of the RM Borders project, and/or in Grazia’s doctoral study.
The materials themselves are praised by the volunteer learners, including our videos (that are our pride and joy). The biggest challenge is making sure that the different platforms we are using for the self-study and the face-to-screen parts of the course work well together. As we are aware, successful e-learning depends heavily on the technical resources or tools used to deliver the course. The tools need to be easy to use, reliable and up-to-date if the lesson is to work. As the financial resources available to the team to design, develop and deliver the course do not allow us to buy sophisticated, state-of-the-art digital tools, all of IUG’s technicians’ creativity and knowledge are needed to make the course work for both teachers and learners using as much as possible free software. This is not without some serious issues, but we are confident that we will have soon a course that is ground-breaking in approach and content, as well as one that is sustainable in the long term by not relying too heavily on expensive software to function.