New teaching methods emphasise creative thinking and the role of the learner. In Gaza, the need for education, creativity and technology is dire, says Associate Professor Nazmi al-Masri

- Without education, we would be nothing, says Associate Professor of Education Nazmi al-Masri from the Islamic University of Gaza in Palestine.

- Our lands have been confiscated, we cannot export or import goods and we cannot build factories.

This is why children in Gaza are taught from birth that education is important, he says.

Gaza is a 41-kilometre-long and 6–12-kilometre-wide strip of land located in Palestine. It is currently under blockade and occupation by Israel, which both the UN and the EU consider illegal.

The Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) is the highest-quality university in Gaza, and according to al-Masri, the people at the university are highly motivated to learn about new technologies and engage in international cooperation.

- We want to break our isolation, he says.

He emphasises that the 2.3 million people living in Gaza do not approve of the occupation, nor have they gotten used to the blockade.

- Getting used to the occupation would be tantamount to accepting it. Instead of accepting it, we are fighting back with creative methods.

An international university with no prior connections to the Nordic countries

Many Palestinians travel abroad to study, and it was around 2010 that al-Masri recalls asking the university for a list of researchers who had graduated abroad. The list included dozens of people who had graduated in the UK, the US, Germany, Spain, Japan...

- But not one had graduated in the Nordic countries, he says. He himself obtained his doctoral degree in the UK in 1994.

Following this discovery, al-Masri received authorisation from the university management to establish relations with the Nordic countries and proceeded to carry out a series of visits to Finland, Sweden and Norway.

These visits ultimately led to a number of development projects. The projects with the Norwegians and Swedes are still in progress, while the one with Finland concluded in 2020.

- Or more specifically the funding ended, but I would say that the work continues, as we are still engaging in joint research on higher education with our Finnish colleagues, al-Masri says.

The cooperation started with IUG student Tahani Aldahdouh coming to Tampere University for postgraduate studies, which was followed by the launch of a joint project, in which Aldahdouh also served as a bridge between Finland and Palestine.

The project, entitled eLearning FinPal, was coordinated by the Finnish National Agency for Education and funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.

More modern teaching methods

The aim of the project was to modernise IUG’s teaching methods.

According to University Lecturer Vesa Korhonen from Tampere University, contemporary university pedagogy emphasises the role of the student, and it was this approach that the project aimed to export to Palestine.

- Deep and effective learning requires learners to think and process information themselves, says Korhonen.

Nowadays the approach to learning is more learner-oriented rather than teacher-oriented. What this means, for example, is that instead of having students attend mass lectures, lectures can be recorded and distributed to students in advance, after which the students attend a lecture hall session in which they get to ask questions and interact with other students and the lecturers.

Korhonen says that while there are still mass lectures even at Tampere University, especially on introductory courses, the aforementioned ‘flipped learning’ methods are also becoming increasingly common.

The project involved training a core group of teachers from the different faculties of IUG, who then went on to train their colleagues at IUG and another eight universities in Gaza. In addition to this, the project established remote learning labs, developed the collection of feedback from students and created an academic development unit that would take charge of pedagogic development going forward.

According to al-Masri, the unit is still in operation, and the colleagues who visited Finland during the project often reference the lessons that they learned in Finland during lectures and meetings.

- We are still trying to learn more about the success of the Finnish education system and import parts of it here, al-Masri says.

Mobility of both people and goods restricted

The project was envisioned from the very beginning as relying primarily on remote connections, as visiting Gaza is difficult. The staff at IUG had already grown familiar with videoconferencing applications, but the project also introduced them to the range of software used in Finland, from Moodle to Teams, Skype and Zoom.

When the pandemic hit in the middle of the project, the project participants in Gaza and Tampere were not nearly as confused as the rest, having already grown accustomed to remote work.

The cooperation was hindered in other ways by the blockade, however, says al-Masri. When it came time for the core group to go to Finland for their training, there was the issue of visas. Getting a visa required visiting the embassy in Tel Aviv or the liaison office in Ramallah, but travelling to these places from Gaza is not that simple. Eventually, some of the group members managed to get Schengen visas from other countries with the help of other projects, and the trips could proceed.

The labs intended for remote studies, meaning computer classrooms equipped for this purpose, also required carrying out procurements that ended up taking over one and a half years, as the transport and availability of goods is also restricted by the blockade.

Al-Masri has nothing but praise for the Finnish project participants for the flexibility and patience that they displayed when the project work called for creative solutions.

- This has been the best project that I have ever participated in.

Continued cooperation

The project also gave rise to ongoing research cooperation between Tampere University and IUG, leading to the publication of two joint articles, with a third currently awaiting publication.

In addition to this, the project resulted in new joint applications for upcoming projects and a decision by Tampere University to offer mobility funding for Palestinian students.

Tampere University is also the only university in Northern Europe to have joined the Unimed network, which primarily includes universities located in the Mediterranean.

Emphasising creativity

According to al-Masri, the work started in the project is still continuing in Gaza. Teaching is now more effectively planned and creative thinking is emphasised.

- And nowadays we also emphasise the importance of being on time, having become much stricter about it, he laughs.

Al-Masri himself recently used the computer classroom built during the project to teach a course on the use of technology in job-seeking. In his opinion, English language and technological skills are of vital importance to Palestinian young people, as are freelance skills.

- Unemployment is insanely high. I would wager that as many as 90% of graduates end up spending several years looking for employment, he says.

In recognition of this, he stressed the importance of independent thinking and information gathering to the course participants, and taught them how to use freelance platforms like Upwork, Freelancer and Fiverr. At the end of the course, 17 out of the 19 students had received work gigs: translation, proofreading, teaching Arabic and so on.

- You have to be creative here, so it is a good idea to follow Finnish teaching culture, which encourages it, al-Masri says.

- Our survival hinges on our excellence.


Text: Esa Salminen


Online Training of Trainers: Initiative to Develop Pedagogical Practices in Palestinian Higher Education (eTraining Finpal)

Project Budget: €475 549 with MFA funding (total budget €594 437)
Project Duration: 1.3.2017-31.8.2020
Coordinating Institution: Tampere University
Partners: Islamic University of Gaza, Palestinian Adm. Areas