14 - 20 November 2002
Issue No. 612
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

Students without borders

Nyier Abdou finds an old idea polished up for the electronic age no worse for the wear

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Launching the "Friendship through Education" project enables students from the USA and the Middle East to learn the common language of understanding through exchange of ideas
Few youthful friendships can claim to have the blessing of the US State Department. But despite the fanfare about cross-cultural understanding, the children who take part in the State Department's new BRIDGE (Building Respect through Internet Dialogue and Global Education) programme will probably be more concerned about the business of being a teenager than the business of being cultural ambassadors for their country.

A collaboration between the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN), a non-profit organisation that stretches to some 4,000 schools around the globe, and the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, BRIDGE is an outgrowth of ongoing iEARN projects that partner schools in different countries and link students around the world through online discussions and collaborative projects.

Thanks to a generous grant from the State Department and the support of private organisations, the new BRIDGE programme will concentrate on the Islamic world, joining high-school students from the US with their counterparts in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia. With 48 schools to take part in the programme, some 3,500 students and teachers will constitute a cyber-community dedicated to breaking cultural barriers through e-collaboration in educational projects. Though iEARN has been active in the West Bank and Gaza, equipping 10 schools with the means to set up computer labs, these schools have seen their Internet access cut off due to ongoing conflict, and their participation in BRIDGE has been postponed indefinitely.

The Ministry of Education, which has championed iEARN's "Friendship through Education" project, of which Egypt is the largest component, has embraced the technology of the Internet as a fast track to global understanding. Suitably, the ministry's Suzanne Mubarak Hall was a cyber-community unto itself on 24 October, when the BRIDGE project was launched by Education Minister Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin, US Ambassador David Welch and Programme Director Rory Phimister. Students from schools in Alexandria, Assiut and Kafr Al-Sheikh were beamed into the hall by digital video conferencing to offer their well- scripted greetings.

No one was more impressed than Welch, who invoked his days as a student in Morocco, when there were no computers and no videos, only a radio. "I'm amazed I'm looking at you on a video screen," the ambassador said.

Looking serious and composed, the students had to make an effort to relax and wave back when Welch hailed them with a friendly wave. Praising the students' English, the ambassador let out an affable jibe at his own children, saying he wished their Arabic was nearly as good.

Welch described USAID as a "gift" from the people of America that is helping build education and learning. But later, while taking questions from the press, Welch made it clear that he thought BRIDGE was important for Americans as well. "I think there's a great deal of interest in the US about the Arab and Muslim world," he said. Noting that this interest has obviously "accelerated" since the attacks of 11 September, Welch said that he receives many letters and e-mails expressing an interest in Egypt, joking that he's consequently become an unofficial spokesman for the Egyptian tourism industry. Still, nothing, Welch suggested, could match the effective simplicity of kids getting to know other kids. "I think the best spokesman for Egypt will be these children."

The work of iEARN and, consequently, BRIDGE, is a spruced up version of an old idea, that of setting up cross-cultural pen pals. Some may shed a tear for the forgotten art of putting pen to paper, licking a stamp and sending a missive airmail, but just a glimpse of the vast potential of the iEARN network is eye-opening in the extreme. Granted a peep at the iEARN discussions and postings by Programme Director Rory Phimister, I found kids talking about everything from the international renown of Sharm El-Sheikh, to the Bali bombing, to racial profiling in the US. Postings can be accessed by kids on the network anywhere in the world. And users can chat in nine languages, Arabic included.

Unlike the old days of pen pals, a student is not matched up with another student in another country. "We tried that in the early days," says Phimister. "We found that when you try and force a relationship, one-on-one, you'll have that relationship for a short period of time. But once the project is finished, it collapses. Our success has been that within a project you'll have four or five or six schools participating from any number of countries, all working on the same topic."

Phimister notes that although participants in discussions are encouraged to speak their mind, teachers and administrators are vigilant to ensure that the network is a safe environment for young people. The network is essentially self-policing. He recalls that at one point a whole country bloc was summarily cut off from the network when inappropriate material was found to be leaking in.

Soft-spoken and better at Arabic than he lets on, Phimister first came in contact with iEARN as a teacher in the West Bank. On the point of why Palestine is not included in the BRIDGE programme, Phimister says, "they've got other concerns, I think." Asked if the main problem was lack of Internet access, he fires back, "I think it's the tanks on the streets." Students and teachers can still participate, however, as he and his students once did, if they have the facility.

Phimister is quick to stress the independence of iEARN programmes from its sponsors, in this case the US State Department. Setting up BRIDGE with the State Department, he explains, is simply a case of mutual benefit. "iEARN objectives are not US government objectives," he says. "The fact that the US government wants US kids talking to Arab kids is great, as far as we're concerned. Because that's where we do agree."

The crowning accomplishment of the BRIDGE programme highlighted at the launch is a US exchange programme, in which students and teachers taking part in the programme will travel to the US and stay with students and teachers there for three weeks. Though there are plans to set up a reciprocal programme for American students to travel to Islamic countries, Al-Ahram Weekly was told at the launch that as yet, there is no budget for this. Asked whether students will be travelling to Egypt and other countries taking part in the programme, Phimister says he thinks they will. But he admits that it's a misnomer to call it an "exchange" when kids are only going to the US. The point has been raised repeatedly by Egyptian students and teachers, as well as administrators and participants in the US, and Phimister believes it will soon be addressed.

When iEARN launched its "Friendship through Education" project last year, the proximity to 11 September overshadowed the programme's basic goal: to tap into the open minds of young students and use their unmitigated sense of curiosity to create a well-informed, mutually built community without the politics of nations. But when US President George W Bush told students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Washington, DC, last October that the US was "fighting evil people" and that "one way of fighting evil through good is through you," the lofty ideals of education without borders were suddenly tainted. Sceptics sneered that children were being used as unwitting pawns in the US propaganda war.

Communication in the programme is predominantly in English, which means that students selected to participate are likely to come from the country's western-friendly elite. This, and the BRIDGE's one-sided travel arrangements, raise certain questions. Asked if the programme doesn't have a whiff of cultural imperialism about it, Welch was adamant that there is "no intention to spread any idea, the intention is to spread everyone's ideas". This dissemination of information is already a reality, he added, with the pervasiveness of the Internet. What BRIDGE hopes to do is help students in parts of the world to harness that power and be a part of that global community. "I would like more Americans, and not just students, to visit Egypt," Welch told the Weekly, adding that he thought the programme would help broaden the minds of people in the US.

Education Minister Bahaaeddin is equally emphatic on this point. "Don't underestimate the abilities of our students," he says. "They are not inferior; they are not weak. They can explain for themselves."

While Phimister acknowledges that BRIDGE must labour under a perceived shadow of cultural imperialism, he stresses the point that BRIDGE is just a way in to the larger iEARN community. It is important, he says, that children in the Muslim world are being given an opportunity to represent their own culture in their own way, and iEARN gives students the support they need to facilitate talking to their peers. Kids don't often get this opportunity, he notes, to communicate with their peers in Egypt, let alone across the Arab world and beyond. Once they are able to do so, says Phimister, where they go from there is up to them. "Our network is wide open," he states. "If we have a particularly hot discussion, you'll find kids from all over the place getting into it."

Next summer, iEARN-Egypt plans to host a conference for iEARN participants from across the region.

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