By Saumya Joseph

(Reuters Health) – Arabic-speaking medical students in war-torn Syria are providing translation services to an online educational company in exchange for free access to videos that teach clinical processes and procedures.

In a letter to The Lancet, Dr. Lamia Kouba of Damascus University and colleagues write that the eight-year-long war in Syria has prompted more than 50% of Syria’s physicians to leave the country. That’s left medical students more reliant on material available via the internet to supplement their education.

“The university cannot provide good, high-quality education we need and what future doctors deserve in a country that actually lacks physicians at the moment,” Kouba, who led a team of med students in translating e-learning materials into Arabic, said in a phone interview.

Online courses and educational material have become very popular among students looking to complement their university education.

However, due to the lack of reliable material in Arabic, the language in which medicine is taught in Syria, students have not been able to use these online resources, Kouba and her colleagues write.

Early last year, Kouba gathered a group of medical students from Damascus University, the University of Aleppo and Tishreen University and began translating medical videos uploaded onto YouTube by the U.S.-based learning platform Osmosis.

Osmosis, a for-profit provider of online courses that was started by two medical students at Johns Hopkins University, offers content on clinical processes and procedures.

In exchange for the translations, Osmosis granted the students of all nine medical schools in Syria free access to their content.

Within a year, more than three fourths of the videos uploaded on the Osmosis YouTube channel had Arabic subtitles and more than 3,000 Syrian medical students had become Osmosis members.

“Medical students who translate English content into Arabic are seniors and are very knowledgeable . . . It would be nice to have quality control to verify the accuracy of the translations, this is, however, hard to achieve,” noted Dr. Tareq Al Saadi, of the University of Illinois, Chicago, who was not part of the translation team.

“Having some imperfect, less-reliable translations is better than not having any translations at all,” he told Reuters Health by email.

However, Al Saadi believes online learning platforms should provide discounted subscriptions or make the content available for free to students who are not able to afford them, even without contributions in the form of translating content.

“Translation in exchange for free access is not always possible, and this will just limit student’s chances of benefiting from the content,” Al Saadi added.

Medical students who were part of the project in Syria say the real benefit lies in having the videos translated.

“Now, since most videos have been translated into Arabic, I think, for them (Osmosis) to offer these videos for free, without a quid pro quo would be easier,” Dr. Ahmad Al-Shihabi, a member of the Osmosis translation team at Damascus University, said in a phone interview.

Students in Syria are at risk of losing access to online educational material due to U.S. trade sanctions, which have already resulted in other prominent platforms, such as Coursera, restricting access to their content in Syria.

“The issue here is finding a free resource that is accessible . . . Education has a price, for sure. But at the same time, having it for free, a lot of students would benefit from it,” Al-Shihabi told Reuters Health in a phone interview.

As Osmosis expands its YouTube offerings, Kouba and her team continue to translate the videos.

SOURCE: The Lancet, November 16, 2019.