Beyond Facebook: Deeper Online Cultural Exchange
Sumia Eid has never traveled out of Egypt a day in her life. But she still feels she has experienced being in an international classroom for four years.
Because of her involvement with an online exchange program offered by Soliya, a U.S. based non-profit group that seeks to improve dialogue between the West and the Muslim World,” Eid believes she has had profound interactions with others from the Arab world, Europe and the United States. “I came out of it feeling that it’s more important to understand why people in other parts of the world think the way they do,” Eid said, “rather than convincing them of my opinion.”
Eid was skeptical at first. Internet-based conversations she observed before being involved with Soliya in “chat rooms” seemed to be more about people trying to persuade other people of the correctness of their beliefs. Through Soliya, she engaged in more structured conversation. She did this, she says, while developing interpersonal skills one would only gain from extensive mingling with people from different backgrounds, something she wasn’t used to.
Soliya’s Connect Program is one of many attempts to harness the potential of the Internet to encourage cross-cultural exchange, although it is also one of the largest. Soliya has worked with over 4,400 students and 100 universities from the MENA region, South and South East Asia, Europe and North America.
Soliya tries to shape student communication in a facilitated, sustained and in-depth way. The interactions, Soliya administrators say, have the potential to transform online exchange so it leads to dialogue, understanding and acceptance, rather than simply reinforcing misconceptions.
In the Arab world, Soliya has reached students in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and others. Soliya administrators believe the programs have a strong impact on students. Among other indicators, a study scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did with Soliya showed that participating students’ brains reflected an increase in the acceptance of other people.
Reaching Arab students online isn’t always easy. The Middle East and North Africa have an average of 39 percent Internet penetration according to one study, though university students generally have more access. But Internet access does not always lead to greater levels of cultural understanding. “Online platforms, such as Facebook tend only to strengthen stereotypes, “said Osama Madany, the head of the English department at Egypt’s Menoufiya University, a Soliya partner. “The youth need to find new and more developed ways to use the Internet for learning about the world.”
Madany found that many of the students in Menoufiya University, a large provincial public university, have a very limited view of the world. The opportunities for foreign exchange programs are limited at Menoufiya, and he saw the online programs as the next best alternative. “It gave the students a chance to challenge their own perspectives,” he said. “They enhance their skills, while at the same time increasing their levels of self-awareness and awareness of ‘the other’.”
Soliya began as a reaction by its founders, Lucas Welsh and Lisa Chambers to the need for increased understanding between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds. “After the September 11 events, many Western media outlets painted a superficial picture of the Arab world to the West and on the other hand made many Arabs and Muslims feel defensive,” said Salma el-Beblawi, director of programs at Soliya.
The program Soliya developed attempted to change that. Soliya’s semester-long courses have facilitated two-hour video-conference sessions weekly between a group of students, half from Europe and the United States and half from Arab and Muslim countries.
“We offer a curriculum that encourages meaningful conversations on existential issues. They are the kinds of conversations you cannot even easily achieve when randomly meeting a person online or in person,” Beblawi said. The students engage in a round-table discussion with two facilitators, one for each group of students. “It is designed to make all students feel that they are free to speak on an equal footing with their peers,” she added. Soliya hopes to scale their program up by incorporating it within the curricula of English or cultural studies departments at universities.
Many students and administrators see Soliya as an unusual opportunity to learn new skills. “Higher education in the Arab world especially, is too pedantic and instructional,” said Soha Gad, Soliya’s MENA Partnerships Director. “Most of Soliya’s students find this as a way to feel more confident expressing themselves and that their opinion matters,”
According to Gad, many Soliya students report that the enhanced interpersonal skills and international awareness give them a leg-up in their job searches. “We followed many studies that said that communication and teamwork are at the top of skills required by most companies,” she said, “and found that these are skills that are really lacking in curricula in universities in the Arab world.” Between 35 percent and 50 percent of Soliya students in the MENA region want to become volunteer Soliya facilitators.
Gaining those skills is important for many students in Soliya. “Most importantly, I respected others and was respected by others, no matter how delicate the issue we were debating was,” said Camilia Mahjoub, a junior at Lebanon International University.
Most of Soliya’s partnerships come through individual academic departments and professors. However, the challenges, including imposing bureaucracies and weak infrastructure, are many.
Some public universities, such as the University of Jordan have been welcoming.
But in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, the government that has been skeptical of foreign contact and cooperation. Eid, who participated with Soliya outside of the university, found that getting approval from Al-Azhar, to work with Soliya Connect was “nearly impossible.” The fact that the organization originated in the United States was an insurmountable barrier, despite the fact that Soliya is also registered in Egypt. “It needed so many approvals from the university and security apparatus that made it very difficult to officially implement,” she said.
Madany faced some initial rejection when he tried to start up Soliya at Menoufiya, which has 70,000 students. He is now allowed to officially use virtual-exchange programs as part of his curriculum. But he has also run into the “digital divide.” “Initially we chose students based on their ability to access the high-speed Internet required for these kinds of sessions,” he said. Egypt’s roughly 2.5 million students in higher education are crammed into 27 public universities that are usually under-equipped technologically. Eventually Madany was able to get funding from the Ministry of Telecommunications, Soliya and the Ford Foundation to create a computer laboratory that could accommodate around 30 students/semester. This is still not nearly enough to make similar programs available to the entire English department, which has 290 students.
In some cases, the barriers are insurmountable. “In Afghanistan we just simply couldn’t get the program running adequately. It requires that the country completely overhaul its ability to access high-speed Internet,” Beblawi said.
Camilia felt like a changed person after the Soliya course. But she felt that the eight-week semester was just a start. She plans to keep the friendships going that began in the program. Similarly Eid, enrolled in Soliya’s facilitator program.
Both Eid and Camilia said they underwent major personal transformations. Eid, went in assuming she would be on the defensive. “As an Azhar student I felt like interactions like this with non-Muslims from abroad would always mean that I have to defend my faith. Instead I found myself discussing with interesting partners,” she said. Most students report that their expectations of the Soliya program, both about themselves and their peers differed widely from what they end up experiencing.
If the proliferation of other cross-cultural virtual exchange programs persists, the effect might be profound. It could be a hallmark of the current generation of students, which already has a tendency to experience a lot of their lives online. Reflecting on her Soliya experience Camilia writes, “the only way to know the power such program has is to experience it. Many voices from different countries meet as they beg to be heard, to break stereotypes and express reality.”