“As long as we have the faith, the desire and the resilience”: Interview with Tahani Al Dahdouh for the OLIVE Project (Part 2)

On May 22nd, 2024, Anaïs Duong-Pedica from the OLIVE project interviewed Tahani Al Dahdouh, an educator and postdoctoral research fellow at Tampere University. Originally from Gaza, Tahani’s research focuses innovativeness, digitalization and professional development in higher education. In Part 1 of this interview, published last week, Tahani talked about higher education in Palestine and the impact of Israeli colonialism and occupation on Palestinian education, online teaching and learning, and teachers’ resilience in Gaza. In Part 2, we talk about Tahani’s research on Palestinian teachers use of online teaching, transnational pedagogical development training in Palestinian higher education and her thoughts on resuming education in Gaza.

Tahani at the library at the Islamic University of Gaza. Photo: Tahani Al Dahdouh

Anaïs Duong-Pedica (ADP): What challenges and opportunities does online teaching pose for teachers in Palestinians universities? In part one of the interview, you already mentioned this lack of access to electricity, difficulty accessing the internet, and in terms of opportunity, the fact that online teaching allows to continue education in a situation of emergency. But are there any challenges and opportunities that you think about that you’ve not mentioned?

Tahani Al Dahdouh (TAD): All of these challenges were cited by participants in the article and some of them are also shared by teachers worldwide: suddenly moving to teach online and increasing the workload and the difficulty to achieve a work and life balance, because teachers were working mainly from home. But other challenges were specific to conflict areas, such as in Palestine, like the lack of resources, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of Internet and electricity connections, financial constraints, and so on.

But for me, I can see that the online teaching experience during the pandemic has brought several affordances to teachers there. As the proverb says, it was a blessing in disguise. This is also the case in the words of the teachers themselves: They said that without COVID, they would have perhaps never delved into online teaching, and people are the enemy of what they are ignorant of. During the COVID pandemic, they were forced to delve into online teaching, and they were also forced to collide with the reality, to explore different techniques and reflect on their practices to navigate what worked and did not work. For example, I can give you a quote from a teacher, when he said that “at the beginning, when we shifted to online teaching, I relied on the PowerPoint presentation that I already had prepared even before COVID.” When he started to teach using the Zoom, he discovered that this is not the right way to teach. He felt there were some issues related to student engagement and interaction. He didn’t know if the students are following him as he uses the Powerpoint slides. What happened with that teacher is that he started to reflect on the way he taught, and he started also to rebuild and re-develop the learning materials in order to make them more engaging for the students. This is how teachers also changed their behaviors, attitudes and perceptions when they experienced online teaching during COVID.

ADP: I wanted to move to another research project and article that you wrote and worked on collaboratively untitled “Preparing university teachers for times of uncertainty: the role of a transnational pedagogical-development training in Palestinian higher education” (2022). That’s because the Olive project is a transnational and collaborative project between universities in Finland, the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland, and universities in Palestine, Birzeit University in Ramallah and Al Azhar University in Gaza, to develop online teacher education in Palestine, with the objective to enhance access to knowledge for all. In this other paper that you wrote, you explore with other colleagues, the influence that transnational pedagogical development training in Palestinian higher education has on Palestinian teachers’ approach to teaching. I’m really interested to know more about what you found through surveying and interviewing Palestinian teachers and to what extent you can say that these transnational initiatives are constructive for Palestinian teachers. Is it something that is useful at all?

TAD: Yes, that’s a really good question. That article is related to a similar project that is a collaboration between Finnish universities and Palestinian universities. The project is called the Etraining FinPal: Online Training of Trainers. It was a three-year development cooperation to develop pedagogical practices in Palestinian higher education, between the Tampere University and the Islamic University of Gaza. I was one of the team members who applied for that project and then worked as a researcher and consultant.

In that article, we reported the findings from a questionnaire and interviews conducted with teachers who attended the training. The questionnaire measured some concepts and modality related to teaching and learning, for example, approaches to teaching, self-efficacy beliefs, professional culture… The questionnaire was administered twice: Once before the training and the other time, after the training. Then we compared the before and after data between the teachers. The findings indicated no significant change in teaching approaches, self-efficacy and professional culture, but this result was actually expected. This is because according to the literature, fundamental teaching conceptions are hard to change within a short-term perspective. The change takes time to happen. The teachers need time, not just to elaborate on the concept they have learned in the training, but also to practice and develop them through everyday workplace learning.

Statistical analysis session in the lab: Training Master’s students at IUG. Photo: Tahani Al Dahdouh

The interview data was then conducted with teachers who acted as trainee and then as trainer for their colleagues locally. The data revealed that teachers experienced pedagogical development as a process of increasing student engagement, and also as a way to improve their teaching practices, and as a community activity, through more engagement with colleagues via formal and informal conversations. Institutionally, this means that the institution should care about the development of pedagogical practices for teachers as a whole and make it sustainable, not only short term. For example, when there is a project and the funding ends, then that development also ends. One outcome from that FinPal project is that the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) built the Teaching and Learning Center: it is a local center that was built as an outcome from that project, which focuses on learning and the development of teaching and of local teachers there.

Another interesting point is that the pandemic started towards the end of the project: the last year of that project was in 2020, at the beginning of COVID. I remember in April 2020, when we collected data, the teachers mentioned that the training they gotten from the transnational education programme with Finland had very much helped them in adapting their pedagogical practices for the online teaching settings. This was because the teachers were mainly getting that training online. The training was online between Palestine and Finland because of the difficulty of teachers coming here to Finland, so most of the project was held online. So the teachers get the training online and that made them more aware and familiar with online teaching and learning. That helped them when the COVID pandemic started to adapt their own teaching for their students. So I can say that this transnational pedagogical training and project was very important and crucial for teachers, especially in the context of a conflict area.

ADP: To go back to Gaza, currently, there are no university buildings left, as they’ve been all bombed by the Israeli military. According to you, what are the priorities now in Gaza with regards to higher education? You were talking a little bit about it earlier and you said that the priority right now is the ceasefire given that currently the environment is obviously not conductive to education for students and staff, whether administrative or teaching staff. But after the ceasefire, what do you think the priorities will be?

TAD: Yes, I think that now, not only for higher education, but also for the other aspects, the priority is the immediate ceasefire. Then, short term and long-term plans should be set for educational recovery in Gaza. Also, paying attention to teachers and students well-being is a must to foster their resilience and persistence. I mean showing flexibility is important so that the student can navigate different ways of moving forwards. Let me give you some examples. At the moment, there are several initiatives launched by international universities like the UK, which host Gazan university students to continue their postgraduate studies. There are also other local initiatives, like the initiatives launched by An-Najah University and Birzeit University in the West Bank, which offer collaborations between universities in the West Bank and Gaza and invite students to attend the remaining courses in their study plan with some equivalent courses offered by the West Bank universities.  This is good.

So higher education institutions in Gaza now facilitate the possibility for students to access the academic services through the university webpages. For example, the student can issue a certificate, they can issue a registration document and transcripts of the study plan. The university can also exempt students from paying tuition fees, and allow other parties and funders to, for example, cover the tuition fees for these students.

For students who are about to graduate, administration should facilitate their thesis discussion and graduation as soon as possible so that they can, for example, find a job or continue to study abroad. Then, for teachers, I think that higher education institutions should open their doors for Palestinian and non-Palestinian university teachers to volunteer as visiting lecturers to fill the gap left by teachers who were killed by Israel. You know, we lost many, many academics in universities, and we should fill these gaps. Again, as I mentioned earlier, a combination of in-site and online learning would also be adopted.

Teaching in one of the seminars for bachelor degree students at IUG. Photo: Tahani Al Dahdouh

ADP: So this is the blended learning that you were referring to earlier that could play a big part in the reconstruction of the education system for at least the first two years as you were saying?

TAD: My thinking is that at least for the first two years, online teaching would play a crucial role in the reconstruction of higher education. We can also look at the COVID pandemic as a good trial period for teachers and students who experienced it already. We should also not forget that online teaching and learning needs essential infrastructure to take place. We don’t have buildings, but we can resume: In Zoom, in tents, and in caravans. The Islamic University of Gaza was established in 1978 and held its first classes in tents. So we can return back to tents again, and with whatever resources available to continue higher education. As long as we have the faith, the desire and the resilience, I believe that we can collectively manage to stand up again.

But of course, much support is needed in terms of funds to cover student fees and setting up large scale capacity building projects for teachers and students after the war. Especially since there is a large proportion of people with disabilities after a war, and we already have many people with disabilities who did not have the care they needed even before the war. So I hope that the collaboration between experts educators in all Finnish universities can be established with Gazan universities under the support of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Palestine.

ADP: Thank you so much for this Tahani. I was wondering what are some of the challenges that present themselves in relation to disability in higher education, in teaching and online teaching in Palestine?

TAD: Yes, that is a really good question. Let me talk about Gaza more specifically. In Gaza, prior to two years ago, there was no higher education institution which catered for the needs of disabled people, but the Islamic University of Gaza had taken care of disabled people by establishing the first academic program for them, especially for deaf people, people with hearing difficulties, as well as blind people and people with sight difficulties. So now, students with disabilities at the Islamic University of Gaza can continue their bachelor and even their master’s degree. This was the result of efforts from different academic staff who arranged that academic program and got external funding. But before that, disabled students could only study until secondary education level and they had no possibility to enter universities. But now at the Islamic University of Gaza, they can continue, but with limited resources.  I imagine that after the war, the number of disabled people will have increased so I’m very much thinking of them.

ADP: Yes, so that’s another aspect to think about.

TAD: I can share with you one of the projects in collaboration with UK universities, which sheds light on the difficulties of disabled students in Gaza: Disability under siege.

ADP: Do you have some final words as we reach the end of this interview?

TAD: I wanted to thank you very much for this opportunity to talk with you. It is also our academic responsibility towards Gaza and Palestine to make this knowledge visible and public for all people around the world. So I really appreciate your efforts and the efforts of the Olive project at the University of Helsinki. The future depends on our efforts and how we all contribute to help people, students and teachers to continue education.

Tahani in front of the sign with the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals at the Islamic University of Gaza Campus. Photo: Tahani Al Dahdouh

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