"Massive Online Open Courses," abbreviated "MOOCs," are being hailed as a potentially revolutionary development in education. Is the Arab World about to miss out? So far, there's only one such course offered in Arabic -- and it's taught by Israel's Technion.
"Nanotechnology and Nanosensors" is taught by Professor Hossam Haick, who's had to deal with far more than he originally bargained for when he talked the head of his department into letting him develop the material for a very technical course in English and in Arabic. "We have to be democratic about choices and education. Education shouldn't be limited to institutions," Haick told me. "It should be open to all." As things stand today, the course in English has over 20,000 students signed up, while the version in Arabic boasts over 4,800 students from across the region and beyond.
To pull it off, Haick had to recreate the course material from the Hebrew-language version of the class he teaches at the Technion. The challenge was not just squeezing everything into the online lecture format (which is shorter, more compact, and lacks the key teacher-student interaction), but also translating it all into English and Arabic. I made a point of asking him about the latter: "I'm from the Arab minority in Israel," he says. "So I have the power of Arabic. I wanted to deliver this course largely to people who don't speak English." As he developed the Arabic material, he was cognizant of the variations of Arab dialects and attempted to adapt his speech to all listeners.
The political undertones of an Israeli institution offering the only university-level online open course in Arabic in the world are not lost on him. Haick isn't a political activist -- though he could perhaps be described as a scientific one. We discussed the politics of his class at the outset, almost so we could get it out of the way.
"I want to send a message to everyone in the Arab World and Israel that there are no boundaries when it comes to science," Haick says. "I'm in a situation of conflict: I'm an Arab living in Israel, and the Arab world is in conflict with Israel. So does that mean that I'm in conflict, too? My message is that we can disseminate science without politics. It's unfortunately hard for me to go to other countries. I've delivered a few lectures and conferences, but their impact is limited in terms of audience. With the power of the Internet we can disseminate knowledge across the world."
But his effort hasn't always met with the recognition he's been hoping for: "Honestly, I've been frustrated by the fact that people in the Arab world didn't appreciate our effort. Some people emailed to tell me that they had withdrawn the registration after realizing I'm from Israel." Some online reactions, too, have been less than supportive. Haick tells me about a few of his online exchanges. In one of them, a man offers his assistance to Haick, only to follow up his earlier message with this remark: "Not anymore. Turns out you're Israeli. No to normalization".
But politics aside: Why aren't there more Arabic MOOCs out there? In some ways it's not at all a surprise that a well-funded university, albeit a non-Arab one, should be the first to develop a MOOC in Arabic. The process requires funding and equipment -- two resources often sorely lacking in developing countries, a category to which most of the Arab world belongs. Most public universities in the Arab world likely don't even have the soundproof studios to record such lectures.
The financials can be discouraging for professors in the Arab countries, too. Chronically underpaid public university professors, who often have to work extra jobs in private schools in order to make ends meet, will probably find little value in spending their remaining free time on developing a web-based course. This is less of an issue in the Gulf, where academic salaries are comparatively higher. Even there, though, salary discrimination means that foreign professors are paid less than locals, and foreign Arab professors less than Western ones -- hence leading to the same financial disincentive.
Seif Abou Zeid, who founded Tahrir Academy, an education platform for 13-18 year olds (the pre-MOOC age, if you will), believes a technological gap is halting the growth of online Arabic educational content. But that isn't the only problem, he says: he also stresses the crucial role of research institutions as knowledge creators. "We lack research engines; and furthermore, knowledge creation is not a concept" in these Arab-speaking countries, he says.
In any event, a large new resource will soon be entering the Arabic market. "Edraak," which translates into "Cognition" or "Understanding," is a new MOOC platform developed by Jordan's Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development in cooperation with edX, the renowned Harvard-MIT online education consortium. Nafez Dakkak, who manages the Edraak project for the Queen Rania Foundation, tells me that while some edX courses will be translated into Arabic, "a big part of what we'll be doing is producing our own content." As he explains, the group is already working with several Arab professors across the region and in the diaspora. "Most of the instructors are completely volunteering their time. As for us, we're covering the cost of MOOC creation: video production, technology platform, TA costs, etc."
Dr. Islam Hussein, a Research Scientist at MIT, is passionate about MOOCs, which is why he accepted to volunteer his time and effort to develop a bilingual MOOC on edX on the topic of virology. "Language represents a barrier for many people," Dr. Hussein says. "Communicating the MOOCs content in Arabic will make it more accessible to non-English speakers." He says, though, that he fully appreciates the inherent difficulty of Arabizing the content: "English has become science's first language. Translating the scientific content of a one-hour lecture can take days!"
The challenge will be steep. The demand is there, but the means often are not. "We need increased awareness of the available courses," says Haick, "hence more funding to create courses. Unfortunately awareness is weak in the Arab world." Perhaps Edraak will contribute to the solution.
But are MOOCs harmful to local institutions in the development world? Will students flock away from their physical professors, towards the famous professor in the computer monitor?
"I understand the argument", said Haick, "but you want to ensure that MOOCs are high quality. It might be a loss to some universities but a gain for the students, and they're the ones we ultimately care about. In fact, getting some of the teaching online might take some of the pressure off big universities, which would be able to devote more time to research."
MIT's Hussein puts it simply: "MOOCs are the future of education." The poor quality of schools and universities in many Arab countries demands a solution, he says. "This is a way of coming up with a realistic, workable, and fast solution to fix our crumbling education system."
Dakkak personally believes the market for online and offline education is different -- and as such, they are not competing for students' attention. "MOOCs in the region will primarily be used in the following two cases: First, they can serve as a supplement to existing university education when it's inadequate or certain courses aren't available, and second, they can reach people who aren't in university for one reason or another, whether it be qualifications, time, or funds."
The digital education future is already here, Hussein says, and it's being led by students, not institutions. "You'll be surprised to know that Egyptians, for example, are avid followers of some of the major MOOCs platforms on social media. This is a clear indication that they are aspiring to a decent education, which they will find in MOOCs offered by some of the best educators from elite universities.... MOOCs speak at the same wavelength of the digital natives, for whom Internet is like the air they breathe, and soon it will become a major source of their education. In Egypt alone, we have more than 30 million Internet users. With the widespread availability of Internet and Arabic MOOCs, online education will grow more popular." (The photo above shows students crowding around computers in Cairo in 1999, when fewer than 200,000 Egyptians were connected to the Internet.)
Haick believes that the future might look like this: "Most universities in the world -- save for the top 50 -- will use online courses from top universities, and will focus more on research. MOOCs could give universities the ability to devote more time and quality to produce better research."
And both Haick and Hussein hope that their efforts will motivate others to follow suit and encourage professors in the Arab world to create courses of their own.
Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Read the rest of his posts here.
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