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17 01 2009 -Azad-Hye Special: Education is one of the first examples where we can use modern technologies
. If we cannot secure the Armenian school physically, we can have it virtually.
On Friday 19th of December 2008, the Armenian Community Hall in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) hosted a presentation by Dr. Yervant Zorian, Member of Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Central Board of Directors and President of AGBU Virtual College, on the subject of "The Armenian Virtual College".

Azad-Hye took advantage of Dr. Zorian's visit to Sharjah and had the following interview with the distinguished guest.

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW (2.5 MB, 21 minutes)

The idea of the Armenian Virtual College started from the Silicon Valley Chapter (California) of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). Was it the result of a certain educational need that you experienced there or an idea based on your own personal convictions?

In the Silicon Valley we do not have a daily Armenian school. The nearest school from our location is in San Francisco, about an hour from our place. The number of Armenians in Silicon Valley is not big. It does not allow us to open a daily school. We have a weekly school on Friday evenings, in the premises of the Church. Since AGBU has a priority in educational issues, it was necessary to come up with a suggestion.

On a personal level, long before moving to the Silicon Valley, I used to think about the idea of virtual learning. At that time, I was working with AT&T and internet was in an expanding phase. As soon as we had a clear view about the capabilities of the internet, we came to see that it was actually invented for the Armenians. It is of course an exaggeration to say so, but we are probably one of the most distributed people globally and internet gives the best service we can benefit from. Globalization and the use of advanced technological means is a very positive thing for us. In the past when Armenian communities existed in places like Poland, the Netherlands and Singapore, I do not know how easy was for them to connect with each other. Modern day communication technology is the gift that suits us well, which we can use in the best possible way in education or other aspects. Education is one of the first examples where we can use the existing technologies.

Was it easy to involve Yerevan State University (YSU) in the process of developing the program?

As individuals, I and others from Silicon Valley had some contacts with Armenia through business. During the Soviet times, Armenia was an advanced country in technologies and it had the background, the human resources and the mentality for preparing people in this field. Many companies in Silicon Valley used to cooperate with Armenia for developing their projects or recruiting personnel, but we needed to see the feasibility of what we are planning to do.

We approached them and asked if it is possible to work together in e-learning. They had recently cooperated with Soros foundation and received funding to prepare certain courses in biology, chemistry etc, prepared on CD-ROM. We suggested to support that project by including an Armenian history course, which was accepted and became part of the package. This example encouraged us to work with YSU on our own project.

Although we work with the Technology Department in YSU, but keeping relations with the other departments is very important, because the experts of the different topics are in those departments (history, language, etc.). We started with YSU by developing a single course, but launching an educational institute for e-learning is something quite different. This was the subject of our more advanced phase of cooperation with YSU.

How did you find supporters inside AGBU for this project?

It was the 100th anniversary of AGBU (in 2006) and one of the biggest celebrations was taking place in Egypt, where AGBU was established in 1906. Amongst other events, there was a one-day workshop on education issues. During the workshop several experts pointed out to the need in introducing modern methods in our educational system. My presentation (about what was going to be the draft for the future Armenian Virtual College) created a wave of enthusiasm amongst the attendants, especially on the level of the AGBU leaders, including Mr. Berj Setrakian. I presented there several brief learning modules on Armenian history and architecture. In order to do a complete course it was necessary to find the experts who can prepare the material, which in this case was achieved through our agreement with YSU. Today, 2 years later, I can say that we are ready to launch the Armenian Virtual College in late January 2009. Each topic will be devised on 4 layers (sections or levels). As a start, it is not necessary to have all the sections ready in January. They will be added in due course. We have considered 26 January 2009 as a starting point for the first layer. Each layer will last four months.

What is the language of the study?

Anyone can start with one of the six languages that we are using for the studies: Eastern and Western Armenian, English, French, Spanish and Russian. There are Armenians who do not speak Armenian. We would like to see them involved in studying Armenian topics.

Why there is no Arabic language included?

The Arabic language actually would have been included because there is a great number of Armenians in Arab countries, but fortunately the Armenians there speak Armenian in their majority, so there is no big need for doing Armenian courses in Arabic language. In due course, if there is need to do courses in Arabic or Persian or any other language, we will be considering them.

How can we compare the Virtual College with the Armenian traditional school?

The Virtual College is not a competitor for our daily or weekly schools, rather it completes them, because the educational method used in the Virtual College is different. It depends on multimedia, involving text, sound, pictures, movies, etc. The student, who is usually in high school or University level, will get the information in a more attractive and interactive way. It could be considered as a supplementary educational source for our schools, where the teacher can recommend or the student himself / herself can undertake a long term homework or task.

The Virtual College is not an isolated resource. It is a sort of structured school. It is not a dictionary or encyclopedia that you can take any moment and read in it with your own pace. The Virtual College is structured on a certain time schedule with specific set of lessons to be taken during that time. Week after week, the student has to follow the lessons. It is more suitable for the individual than a school.

The Armenian Virtual College depends 50% on the learning element and the rest is networking and communication with the others. In a standard e-leaning course a student depends on CD-ROM and certain other resources, but in our case there would be no CD-ROM. The course is on the internet and you will need to check in, use video conferencing and be involved in discussions. A good part of earning your marks will be based on the level of your contribution to the teamwork.

Are the earned credits honored by large number of official educational institutions?

We have acquired an initial consent from several bodies regarding the credits that students can get, but approval for credits will be considered only when we actually start the College. Based on that, these bodies will do the necessary benchmarking and comparisons. Since the College is not open yet, we cannot demand any accrediting to take place. We have done the applications to the American and European accreditation bodies and to the Ministry of Education in Armenia for this purpose.

According to your estimation, where do you think this program could be popular? In Europe, USA or Middle East or other countries?

It can be popular in all places. For example, students in the Russian Diaspora do not have wide chances to follow Armenian topics in educational institutions. The same applies to students in the USA. In both locations, we believe we will have many students. The need is there. For example, my daughter who is going to Stanford University, informed me that several students in her University have asked the management to introduce Armenian language course. The management did not object the idea, provided that there is an accredited body that can officially cover the need, which in this case could be the Armenian Virtual College.

How can a person who is not Armenian benefit from the program?

Although our project is not aimed to the foreigners, but I have noticed in many occasions, that foreigners are showing big interest too. For example, a teacher in charge of the Armenian and non-Armenian students in the French University of Armenia asked me if it is possible to consider the Armenian history course to acquire the units required for the obligatory Armenian history subject in the University.

What will be the cost of the study? Are there differences according to the country of residence?

We were between two extremes: To make it completely free or to adopt internationally known pricing norms for such programs. We thought it would be better to do something in the middle. If we do it completely free, without whatsoever payment, it will not create the sort of commitment we need to see in the students. We had to put a price (which is not announced yet), but the encouraging thing is that we are ready to reimburse any student who is able to complete the course with A mark. Our target is not making money, it is to create a commitment inside the student. The fees might change from place to another. We will have a fix price list but also will give the opportunity for the students to ask scholarships up to 25-75% of the announced fee.

How far has AGBU school affected in your life?

Very much. It is in the Armenian school that you learn not only the history and language of your people, but also how to deal with the Armenians, work with them and above all how to form an Armenian family. Many of my friendships worldwide are based on my school years in Aleppo. This has given me a social network, which enriches my life. I have met my wife in the Armenian school. Actually, we were going to the same school. The Armenian school therefore is a mission. I want my children and grandchildren to have the chance to go to an Armenian school. If physically this is not possible then we can work on improving the concept of the virtual school.

What are your plans after accepting your new role in AGBU’s Central Board of Directors?

My new position is a great honor for me. I have always felt duty to work in our communities and to be useful to others. This comes also from my parents and even grandparents, who were all active in AGBU. AGBU is a body that can help any Armenian without discrimination. It does not have any closed or invisible activities. All the activities are open and are for the benefit of all the Armenians. It is a door in front of me to serve my nation and if this door is through the Central Board of Directors then it will be even more effective. This is why I am happy that a bigger door now has opened in front of me, but of course there are responsibilities that I need to undertake.

Can you name some of the factors that have enabled you to achieve success in your life?

The most important factor is the family. The education and the preparation that I have received in my family have proved to be indispensable and had a great effect on me. Until now, whatever I do I have the feeling that I am trying to achieve what my family expects from me. I have witnessed the same sense of responsibility in the older generation in my family. My grandfather was in the mission of starting schools. He was member of school boards in Aleppo. My other grandfather was a founder of the youth movement in the Armenian Community in Syria and until this date the permits for the union is on his name. I have felt the importance of his work even without having the chance to meet him, as I was born after his death. From what I was told, heard and read, I feel his spirit inside me, which means a lot to me and gives me the obligation to continue working on this direction. I believe that taking care of the children of my nation is equally important as taking care of my own children. This is the path, that I have adopted for my family and my nation.

The other element that has affected me enormously is the reality of being an Armenian. Since we belong to a small nation we have the mission - each one of us as an Armenian - to be successful and to somehow force ourselves to success. With our individual success, we bring success to our nation. If we do something good and we hear the praise form someone, we immediately link this to our Armenian essence. Each one of us is in a way or another an Ambassador of his country. This is the legacy of being a member of a small nation, which has historically gone through many hardships. To have the duty to succeed.

1) Portrait of Dr Yervant Zorian.
2) Dr. Zorian with a group of AGBU members and friends in the residence of Hratch Brunsuzian in Sharjah.
3) Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Ohanesian Weekly School in Sharjah Nishan Basmajian welcomes Dr. Yervant Zorian in the Armenian Community Hall in Sharjah (19 December 2008).


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