We discussed some very thought provoking questions at the Digital Arab break-out session this morning. The basic questions posed were:
- To what futures do Arab youth aspire?
- What do you see at the intersection of the Internet, Arab culture and technology?
- Will the lag in technology adoption between the teachers and the students restrict the success of technology use in the classroom? Where will Arab youth get the teachers they need to thrive in the digital global economy?
- What can be done to retain successful young Arab minds to work inside the region (possibly creating new industries) instead of outside of the region (thus contributing to the increasing brain-drain)?
The panel attempted to answer these questions each within his or her own sphere of experience and contributed informative answers which naturally raise even more thought provoking questions. It was clear to me right from the start that the single hour dedicated to this session (in fact to any session within the conference) will not be enough. If audience participation is factored in too, then each theme does illicit a complete dedicated conference due to the time each session would occupy. However, we have to respect the imposed constraints for obvious reasons.
The common answer to all of the posed questions above was predictably education. This is the common denominator through which progress is enabled and futures get drawn. It was agreed that modern education is the missing catalyst in the Arab world, a situation which must be corrected at all levels and completely overhauled should we wish to be part of this technologically advanced era. Moreover, we should look at education from the student’s points of view and empower the teachers to be more like mentors rather than the assumed fonts of knowledge, a position traditionally given to them which is no longer appropriate.
Young people are at the forefront of the technology curve, most of the time way ahead of their own teachers; hence, a serious investment should be applied to the teachers to get them retrained in new technologies not as “rote learning providers” or ones who teach how to use simple computer operations, but be mentors and enthusiastic educators who can explain the new trends and technologies which in turn will allow their charges to easily absorb and apply that information.
The political situation in many parts of the Arab world coupled with the dearth of opportunities for young minds provide a fertile ground for frustration, one that possibly leads to that young mind to prefer foreign lands for furthering their education or indeed to emigrate to in the hope of more respect, remuneration and a wealth of other opportunities. The “brain-drain”; however, is not that simple. The panel suggested that for enterprising minds the world over, geographical limits are immaterial, and in a lot of cases this migration is actually beneficial to the person’s country of origin or community as when the resources are provided, then the result of that migration will cross the physical geographical border and have a positive impact on the community as a whole. This, the panel decided, is not a bad thing at all. At the very least it provides a real cultural interchange that is sorely missing and creates a basis of understanding between cultures.
There are a lot of excellent initiatives in the region to propagate learning in innovative ways. The RI-SOL, Relief International, Schools OnLine is one that should definitely be supported. They have solid ICT training programs and have given thousands of PCs to schools in the region and are directly engaged in providing teacher professional development training through teacher centres in Jordan and Palestine and have been integral in providing design and implementation ICT education initiative in tens of countries around the world. Marry this to the 9,000 computers being equally provided by Intel and the Arab Thought Foundation in which an initiative is undertaken to install them in countries most in need of them in the Middle East and provide the required teacher and student training to use them and you will probably agree that it is a necessary first step in reforming traditional education.
There is more to be done of course, but steps as these which have been proposed – an enacted – at the conference is a good start.