Towards the (educational) liberation of Palestine

“Education is the unfinished business of the revolution.”
Malak Zaalouk, Director of the Middle East Institute of Higher Education

On my recent trip to Cairo I spent a week at the American University of Cairo participating in a week-long professional development conference for Palestinian educators. The conference included educators from five different Palestinian universities—many of whom were meeting for the first time in Cairo, despite working and living in the same city.

The experience brought me back to last summer’s visit to Palestine, which I wrote about here. Interacting with my Palestinian colleagues in a (relatively) free country was stimulating and engaging, but I was haunted by thoughts of the oppressive conditions back home they would soon return to.

The conference was organized around establishing centers for academic excellence with a focus on the role of new media in supporting teaching and learning. My Columbia cohorts and I presented a keynote on Media Analysis and Social Pedagogy (Frank’s intro, Part 1, Part 2), and throughout the week we discussed the interplay between technical and pedagogical innovation.

The elephant in the room was the desperate condition of basic telecommunications infrastructure in Palestineit’s difficult building a curriculum around blogs or wikis when Palestinian connectivity in the West Bank is notoriously unreliableeven when it works, it’s slower than dial-up. The real tragedy is this digital divide is artificially manufactured and brutally enforced. Last summer I had a better connection over complementary wifi on an Israeli Egged bus than at the Palestinian University PTUK.

When I visited Palestine I experienced the reality of the occupation first hand. I have written about how so many aspects of lifefuel, electricity, food, water, mobility, connectivityare regulated and controlled. As I learned last summer, the Israeli government forbids Palestinian telecom from developing 3G networks, prevents the Palestinian Authority from laying fiber between cities or connecting directly to the Mediterranean backbone, and businesses have a very difficult time importing routers. At the same time, the Palestinian activists who are trying to develop free municipal wifi in Ramallah are being thwarted, but not by the Israeli government. They are facing staunch opposition from Palestinian Telecom corporations.

I have come to realize that the forces of the Occupation are on a collision course with Capitalism. There is simply too much damn money to be made on data plans and broadband. I also believe the Israeli government has read The Net Delusion, and are arrogant enough to think that they can control the situation by surveilling it. The IDF is agressively targeting media networks. Ultimately, I think they will allow this infrastructure to be built, making it all-but-inevitable that better ICT infrastructure is coming to Palestine. The questions are: What will the Palestinians do with it when it arrives? Can government surviellance contain the power redistribution that networked organizing tantalizingly promises?

One of the key themes of our keynote at AUC was the importance of developing meaningful superstructures on top of technical infrastructure. At the conference we explored ways in which educational technology could be combined with teaching strategies to support peer-to-peer learning,  the flattening of traditional classroom hierarchies, the displacement of conventional teacher-student power relations, and authentic learning activities. Of course, educational technology alone won’t bring these outcomes. In many situations educational technology serves to perpetuate and reinforce the status quo.

These cultures of practice could spread further and faster if the Palestinians learn from our blunders, and create Freedom in their Cloud.  As this infrastructure is imagined and built , there is an opportunity to leap-frog over our mistakes and develop an distributed network architecture, instead of the centralized architecture we have fallen for. Imagine a Palestinian mesh-based cloud, running peer-to-peer social networking services. Such a vision is not a pipe dream, in the age of the Freedom Box, Mondonet, and Diaspora.

Short of fulfilling this dream entirely, it would be tremendous for Palestinian educators to develop their own, local, free/libre, educational software services instead of relying exclusively on free-of-charge centralized corporate solutions—like Google, Facebook, and Twitter—that render their students into products.

Over the week of the conference, as I learned more about the situation at my colleague’s universities, I realized that few of the eleven universities in the West Bank would have the necessary resources to adequately support a new-media teaching and learning center. A well functioning center needs to staff systems administrators, programmers, designers, and video specialists to support the needs of the educational technologists, and in turn, the faculty and students. However, while no single university could support a center like this, I began to wonder how the Palestinian universities might coordinate and pool their resources. Establishing an single independent institution (likely a technical NGO) that services all of the Universities in Palestine, and perhaps even all of the schools in Palestine, might be the next obvious step in the educational capacity-building project that I have been involved with.

I have encountered a similar model elsewhere. Groundwire (formerly One NorthWest) is a US non-profit that  was launched with the intention of exclusively servicing environmental organizations in the Pacific North-West. A similar kind of organization could be established in Palestine to service the educational sector with educational technology solutions. An institution like this could function of a hub, mediating interactions between different Palestinian Universities, sharing successes and failures, while continually building local institutional knowledge.

Unlike the One Laptop Per Child project, this effort would be conceived from the start with training, support, and local engagement. It’s all about developing cultures of practice, and sustainable models for the deployment of infrastructure and superstructure.

Will the immanent Palestinian networks lead to greater freedom?  Maybe. Perhaps with enough will, determination, and work. The iron is hot.

Jonah and the Cetacea

I recently returned from an amazing trip to Cairo, with a 36-hour stopover in Istanbul on the way home. While there, I learned something wonderful about the meaning of my name that continues to make me smile.

While I am not a strict Nominative Determinist, I do take Plato’s Cratylus dialogue more seriously than most. I love learning new names, and often ask people what their names mean. Perhaps this fascination stems from the fact that my ambivalent parents gave me 5 (!) names, not including my surname, and my godfather gave me one more after I injured my back.  I have spent a great deal of time contemplating names and attempting to integrate mine into a coherent identity.

Growing up I was always the only ‘Jonah’ I knew. In the 90’s the name gained popularity, but I still reflexively turn everytime I hear it (I can only imagine that Johns and Michaels learn to tune these out).

The Old Testament’s Book of Jonah is a fabulous story. I’ve studied it closely and continue to find gems of wisdom and mystical insights. I have always appreciated that Jonah was: 1) One of the few (only?) prophets in the Old Testament sent to help the gentiles. 2) One of the only prophets in the Old Testament that anyone ever listened to!  In the closing coda, a mysterious “gourd” casts a shadow over Jonah’s mind (what kind of plant was this magical qiyqayown?), leading him to a transcendental experience in the desert where he learned to appreciate the universal nature of humanity. Great stuff – succinct, but it packs a punch.

For a while I have known that Jonah the prophet was called Yunus (يونس) in the Qur’an. Jonah’s story in the Qur’an is quite similar to the Old Testament, though much shorter  (in the Qur’an Jonah is close friends with Jinns ;-)).  In Hebrew Jonah (יוֹנָה) means ‘dove’.  Noah sent out 3 Jonahs to see if the flood waters had receded. But, to the best of my knowledge, Yunus does not mean anything special in Arabic. In Istanbul I learned that in Turkish, Yunus means dolphin.

What a trip. In the past, in order to read the story of Jonah literally, I used to have to postulate UFOs or Yellow Submarines. I wasn’t quite as skeptical as this critic, but the story never added up on the plane of mundane reality.

What if Jonah was saved by a dolphin(s)? Instead of being swallowed by a ‘Big Fish’, he could have been engulfed by a pod of dolphins. Sailors being saved by dolphins was a common motif in the ancient world. For example, Telemachus, son of Ulysses, was saved by dolphins, and to this day, we continue to confirm reports of humans saved by dolphins.

Doves and Dolphins. What a name.

Dispatches from Cairo: The Raw Data

I just returned from a whirlwind eduventure at the American University of Cairo (AUC). My trip included a detour through Ancient Egypt and a 36-hour decompression-stop in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, but our main purpose was to participate in a week-long professional development conference for Palestinian Educators:

Challenges and Practices of Pedagogy and Instructional Technology: Professional Development Exchange for Palestinian Educators

The AUC conference was a continuation of the project that brought me to Palestine this past summer, and was creatively imagined and improvised by my mentor/advisor/boss, Frank Moretti.

I am still processing and synthesizing my experiences, and I plan for this to be the first in a series of posts detailing what I learned on this trip. For now, I will just capture the raw materials and highlights.

For starters, the conference was covered by both the AUC News and CCNMTL’s blog.

AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching hosted an incredible conference – the talks were provocative and well balanced, and the food was fabulous! They even captured the entire event and posted the video and slides here. Our hosts were hospitable and generous beyond words, and we are forever grateful to Aziza Ellozy and her staff for making us feel at home.

Our plenary keynote, featuring my colleague, Mark Phillipson, and my doctoral cohorts, Travis Mushett, Madiha Tahir, and Charles Berret is viewable here:

#celebrity #violence #resistance: Media Analysis and Social Pedagogies

Mark and I also presented two workshops:

In reply to Frank’s intro, the Palestinian educators we were working with sent him a warm get-well video.

Of course, there is more. There is always more. But, for now, I rather sift through these pictures (Mine and Madiha’s, Mark’s, CLT’s) than write.


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