The Reach of Online Learning to Ensure Continuing Access to Education

USC Viterbi Staff | November 17, 2023

USC Viterbi’s DEN program allows for continuity of engineering education for Astronautics Students in Ukraine and Women and Girls in Afghanistan

Website created by female students from Afghanistan as part of a DEN at USC Viterbi course.

With many students in the world today living under challenging circumstances, continuing access to educational opportunities can be nearly impossible. Recognizing these unforeseen challenges, USC Viterbi faculty turned to DEN@Viterbi, the Distance Education Network at USC Viterbi, with more than 50 years of experience in hybrid and remote learning, to help students whose education has been suddenly interrupted or curtailed.  As a result, over the last year, free access to USC Viterbi engineering classes and workshops were offered to students, living in two different regions in the world, war-torn Ukraine and Afghanistan, in order to ensure that students in such unique and volatile circumstances had the opportunity to continue their education.

Leveraging the DEN platform, established five decades ago (ahead of online learning common today), Astronautics Professor Mike Gruntman hosted a free online course on fundamentals of space systems for students and faculty in Ukraine. Gruntman emphasized that this humanitarian initiative by the Viterbi School “offered important opportunities for specialists in Ukraine to maintain academic excellence in a rapidly developing area of technology that would play an important role in the rebuilding of the country in the future.”

Simultaneously, a number of Afghan female students participated in two free educational opportunities:

Seventy-five women last year participated in the first such opportunity, a global course in innovation (“Principles and Practices of Innovation”) taught by Professor Stephen Lu through USC’s iPodia program. The more than decade-old iPodia program allows for students from different parts of the world to simultaneously attend the same class using the DEN platform. The Afghan students joined classmates from universities in Brazil, China, Germany, Greece, Israel, Mexico, Taiwan, Uganda and the United States.

The second such educational opportunity was the creation of a series of skills-based short courses at USC, that has become known as the Afghan Pathways Program (APP). Through USC Viterbi’s Information Technology Program (ITP) (which focuses on applied technology coursework), professors Trina Gregory and Nayeon Kim taught women (now permitted to study at home) how to create websites and to code in Python. For twelve weeks, these Afghan students met three times a week with their instructors. Forty certificates in web development and/or Python programming have been earned thus far by the female Afghan students who completed the courses. Both programs were coordinated in collaboration with the non-profit HerFutureAfghanistan.

A snapshot of the DEN at Viterbi dashboard.

Said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, “We are fortunate to have the ability to reach and provide engineering education to many students in many parts of the world, where such access is curtailed.

USC Vice Dean and Interim ITP Director, Erik A. Johnson, said about the courses for women and girls in Afghanistan, “We so easily take for granted to educational opportunities that we have here; these short courses are providing instruction and skills to women who have no other direct opportunity to continue their education.”

Trina Gregory who is an Associate Professor of Information Technology Practice and who taught the courses for Afghan women remarked,”The students inspired me to continue to fight for education for girls and women.”

One individual affiliated with HerFutureAfghanistan believes that this can be a model for other universities to follow. The virtual classroom is a “window of hope” for Afghan girls and women. Further, she believes engineering, computer science, and coding—these disciplines and skills are key to women’s independence. She believes it is imperative so that the generation “does not get lost.”

USC Viterbi continues to offer coursework to students, including introduction to web development to a second cohort of Afghan women this term. In addition, Afghan women are currently participating in a course, “Astronomy 101: The Universe through A Cultural Lens,”  being taught by USC Dornsife Professor Vahe Peroomian, an iPodia fellow.

Lu added, “iPodia enables USC Viterbi to extend our classrooms to hard-to-reach places across the globe so our students can learn together with peers of various backgrounds. The Afghan participants in iPodia classes are not just students but also teachers to our students.”

Published on November 17th, 2023

Last updated on December 31st, 2023

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