Cyberspaces free from the constraints of theocracy

Event hears how online learning offers ‘alternative public realm’ for Iranians. Matthew Reisz reports

November 22, 2012

The continuing expansion of online higher education could help Iran to one day emerge from the shadows of theocracy and transform more seamlessly into a liberal democratic society, a conference has heard.

The Future of Iran: Education Reform, held in London on 12 November, heard that human rights education was blossoming online in response to constraints on free speech.

But Nazila Ghanea, university lecturer in international human rights law at the University of Oxford, told the event that “we need to ensure (such education) remains relevant for a changing Iran”. Her presentation focused on the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, set up in 1987 as “a self-help university” when followers of the Baha’i faith were excluded from public universities in Iran.

“It has now moved increasingly online and offers undergraduate degrees in 17 disciplines and seven master’s courses,” she explained, although faculty, administrators and students within Iran had suffered escalating persecution over the past 18 months.

Mariam Memarsadeghi, co-founder of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, which has taught about 1,000 students over the past two years, argued that it was creating “an alternative public realm” through such projects.

“We are not waiting for democratic change,” she continued, “but working to ensure that the transition is durable and likely to lead to a more liberal style of democracy.”

A more strictly academic initiative was described by Raha Bahreini, now studying for a PhD at the University of Essex and one of the founders of Iran Academia: The Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities. She said there was “a big appetite for a Farsi online university”, with all the preconditions in place to make it happen: accomplished Iranian scholars, organised diaspora networks and potential students with technological access.

If funding can be secured and all goes well, the institute should launch in September 2013, offering free three-year bachelor’s degrees on The Open University model.

The conference was the third in a series on the future of Iran hosted by the Legatum Institute, a non-partisan public policy organisation. It was introduced by Anne Applebaum, its director of political studies, as “not a revolutionary meeting designed to overthrow the regime, but a way of talking about the problems the country would face if it had a new kind of government”.

Other discussions examined the current state of education in Iran. Saeed Paivandi, professor of education at the University of Lorraine in France, considered what he called its “atypical educational system” - a product of reforms after the 1979 Revolution. Its three central goals were “to promote Islamic culture”, “to control the ‘influence’ of Western culture” and “to create a new kind of Muslim individual”.

Goli Rezai-Rashti, professor of education at the University of Western Ontario, noted that an initial period of “Islamicisation and gender segregation” in the 1980s had given way to an era of “liberalisation and reform” (1990-2005). This had been followed by a “conservative resurgence”, with 36 public universities in tandem recently limiting women’s access to fields of study linked with high levels of employability or otherwise deemed “unsuitable”.

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