This article explores how media education partnerships will help institutions in the MENA and the U.S. provide culturally-appropriate education to their students, and the positive impact of each partnerships’ faculty and students being exposed to media, journalism and communication students and practitioners from other cultures and nations.
Often the most fleeting contact with international visitors can have a far-reaching and unforeseen impact. Drawing from the authors’ media teaching,Guest Posting research, and practice in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the article addresses the inspiring and enriching cultural impact of media education partnerships between the U.S. and the MENA. The article outlines keys to creating and sustaining successful media, journalism and communication university partnerships, reporting specifically on an international media education collaboration in progress between l’Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l’Information (IPSI), University of Manouba, Tunis and Bowling Green State University. The article also explores how media education partnerships will help institutions in the MENA and the U.S. provide culturally-appropriate education to their students, and the positive impact of each partnerships’ faculty and students being exposed to media, journalism and communication students and practitioners from other cultures and nations. It gives evidence as to how media education partnerships can not only develop professional standards in media, but also build capacity to strengthen democratic practices, build civil society, increase critical thinking and awareness, minimize and manage conflicts, fight negative stereotypes that often emerge as a reaction to governmental and corporate media discourses.
An increased attention to the growth of civil society in the Middle East and North Africa (see, for instance, Amin & Gher, 2000; Bellin, 1995; Borowiec, 1998; Brand, 1998; Darwish, 2003) reveals that civic discourse functions best where there is free access to information and where unhindered discussions allow citizens to examine all sides of civic issues. Because information and communication technology (ICT), media, and journalism are some of the most important sites for civic debate, they are essential partners in any nation’s efforts towards enhancing civil society. As nations in the Middle East and North Africa MENA continue to enhance civil society, it is imperative that their journalists and media and communication professionals have the professional training and dedication to maintain the highest codes of conduct and practice that will make them integral components in the process of building civil society.
At present, however, media critics have shown that the professional activity of journalists in MENA countries is still very vulnerable (Amin, 2002, p. 125). As an expected consequence, MENA education programs in the communication discipline, most notably in news media, journalism, telecommunications and media technologies, have tended to support powerful institutions and individuals, rather than civic discourse and the voices of students as citizens (Amin, 2002; Rugh, 2004; Lowstedt, 2004). For example, investigation on media systems in eighteen nations in the MENA (Rugh, 2004) revealed that radio and television in all these countries, excepting Lebanon, are still subordinated to powerful institutions. There have been several recent international summits acknowledging these concerns. For example, the 2004 conference of the Institute of Professional Journalists in Beirut on “Media Ethics and Journalism in the Arab World: Theory, Practice and Challenges Ahead”, had as one of its main themes the pressures on Arab media and journalists from local governments and other powerful players inside the Arab world. During the Arab International Media Forum held at Doha, in March 2005, workshop discussions underlined that the Arab media’s independence have yet to be established within countries where the media have been strictly controlled. And, perhaps the most important summit thus far this millennium, the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (UN WSIS), held in Tunis, November 2005, addressed the immense challenges of the digital divide and other concerns in the MENA.
Investigating educational partnerships in the MENA
As evidenced by summits on Arab, MENA and related global media, there is an emergent body of research on MENA media (see, for instance, Amin, 2002; Cassara & Lengel, 2004; Darwish, 2003; George & Souvitz, 2003; Lowstedt, 2004) and of research on the potential for media technologies generally and, specifically, in efforts to democratize the region (see for instance, Alterman, 1998; Dunn, 2000; Hamada, 2003; Isis International, 2003; Lengel, 2002a; Lengel, 2002b; Lengel, 2004; Lengel, Ben Hamza, Cassara, & El Bour, 2005). However, there is very little research focusing on the benefits and challenges of media education partnerships between nations in the MENA and those outside it. A broad-scale evaluation of the current situation of MENA media education is needed to fully assess the financial, pedagogical and attitudinal constraints found across the region. Additionally, what is needed is an exploration of how cooperation and collaboration, partnerships between the MENA and other regions to develop educational partnerships which can enhance media education in the region, through shared online resources, shared experience, mutual commitment to MENA media students’ academic and professional development, and positive interaction between those within and outside the region.
This article addresses such research needs by investigating the potential for partnerships in the MENA. It presents key components for creating and sustaining successful university partnerships in media, journalism, and communication. It also explores how media education partnerships can help universities within and outside the MENA to provide culturally-appropriate education and training to their media, journalism, telecommunications, new media, and communication students, develop innovative online and distance learning initiatives, cultivate a community of practice, and foster a positive impact of each partnerships’ faculty and students being exposed to those media instructors, researchers, students, and practitioners from other cultures and nations. The article reports specifically on a media partnership in progress between l’Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l’Information (IPSI) at the University of Manouba in Tunis, Tunisia and Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, USA. It focuses on the experiences of the faculty co-directing the partnership in media, journalism and international communication, particularly the process of developing and sustaining the partnership. The article reflects on the future vision of media education in the MENA, particularly the challenges and the future of investment in the media education by governments, educational institutions, and civil society and media organizations within and outside the region. Finally, it analyzes how media education partnerships can not only develop professional standards in media, but also build capacity to strengthen democratic practices, build civil society, increase critical thinking and awareness, minimize and manage conflicts, fight negative stereotypes that emerge as a result of the often inattentive, insensitive and inaccurate nature of governmental and corporate media discourses.
Partnerships and civil society building
Citizens, scholars, practitioners and civil society organizations argue much needs to be done to democratize media, journalism and unrestricted access to information and communication technology in the MENA (see Camau & Geisser, 2003; Cassara & Lengel, 2004; Chouikha, 2002; Newsom & Lengel, 2003; Tetreault, 2000). An important place to begin this transformation is to foster educational collaboration within and outside the MENA that recognizes the role that a free and independent media plays in transition to building democracy and which understands that journalists can serve as models of participants in democratic processes.
As MENA nations engage in building civil society, it will be critical that journalists in the region have not only the skills they need to do their work well, but also the insights necessary to negotiate the challenges posed by democratization. These insights are enhanced by international exchange. The ever-growing presence of information and communication technology (ICT) and the additional resources and challenges that ICT offers journalists and citizens alike create even more opportunities for democratic dialogue and international exchange (Eickelman & Anderson, 1999).
Because democratic dialogue is a hallmark of civil societies, exchange and dialogue between two international partners is at the heart of the international collaborative program “Capacity Building for a Democratic Press: A Sustainable Partnership to Develop Media and Journalism Curricula in Tunisia.” The program, which was launched in 2004 with a two-year funding commitment from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI),1 highlights a hands-on practicum approach in which l’Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l’Information, University of Manouba, Tunis students benefit from practical professional journalism skills through internships with U.S. and MENA media organizations and engage in interactive and practical training in media and journalistic production and practice. This media educational partnership is creating sustainable core curriculum additions at the Tunisian partnership university including new program specializations in Women, Media and Democracy, as well as in Journalism and Human Rights. It is important to note that IPSI is the only press institute or program of study in Tunisia and, arguably, the only one in North Africa.
The partnership combines in-person and online contact between IPSI and BGSU faculty and the students with the cultural knowledge and both traditional university learning environments on the two campuses, and online through Blackboard, the BGSU online course delivery program. The project serves both undergraduate and graduate students at both partnership universities, enhances faculty instruction and online and face-to-face curriculum development, and creates sustainable and wide-reaching partnerships between academic institutions, civil society and NGOs, the private sector, and policy makers.
Developing a community of practice: Keys to successful media education partnerships
The most successful partnerships cooperate and collaborate as a community of practice. What brings members of a community of practice together is a shared vision and goals, and a passion for mutual dialogue (Preston & Lengel, 2004). Respect for human worth and dignity, individual voices, and wrestling with complex social issues are characteristics of democratic environments (Kubow & Fossum, 2003; Kubow & Kinney, 2000; Kubow, 1999).
Communities of practice are emerging as important bases for creating, sharing, and applying knowledge. These communities share ideas and innovations, collaborating across traditional hierarchical structures and geophysical boundaries. Part of the mission of the partnership discussed in this article is to maintain a sustainable community of practice in the area of media, journalism, communication and ICT. In this partnership a diverse and committed group of media, journalism, communication technology, comparative/international education and democratic education researchers, teachers, practitioners and students are engaging in the examination and creation of democratic media and online civic discourse. Through face-to-face meetings, online learning, several workshops in both the US and Tunisia, and participation in and reporting on the UN World Summit on the Information Society, the community of practice supports the concepts surrounding the development of a free and independent media and will internationalize and professionalize media institutions in the U.S. and Tunisia, and, more broadly across the MENA.
The partnership transcends traditional university course work and practice to become an actual community, sustainable beyond the 24-month schedule of grant-supported activities. Because of the commitment of the participating institutions, the community will sustain and grow through further curriculum development, research and related activities involving additional partners throughout the MENA. This will occur mainly due to the transformative nature of the interaction. Personal, direct contact with citizens from other culture and nations can break down stereotypical imagery and ideas, which often emerge the result of government and mainstream, corporate media discourses. The direct interaction, intensive collaboration and co-learning, and respectful dialogue of partnerships can create a level of compassionate interaction between the partnership participants who create the community of practice.
1) Commitment of institutions involved in the media partnership
Communities of practice cannot be created or sustained without commitment. Outlined hereafter are six keys to creating and sustaining successful online university education and training partnerships: 1) Commitment of partnership institutions; 2) Commitment and expertise of personnel; 3) Commitment to providing access to ICT and other facilities and resources to students and faculty at both partner institutions; 4) Commitment to engaging with professional media, journalism and civil society organizations; 5) Commitment to program development and enhancement; and 6) Commitment to sustainability.
First and foremost, partnerships can only be created and sustained if there is commitment on the parts of both participating institutions. In the case of the partnership described in this paper, several strong reasons attest to the importance of choice of university in a collaborative partnership. First, the Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l’Information (IPSI) at the University of Manouba, Tunisia is the only media and journalism university institute in the nation (MERST, 2002). Second, faculty and administration at IPSI are committed to the partnership at all levels. They have welcomed both face-to-face (F2F) and online participation between students and faculty and between students and students at both universities. Institutional commitment has also resulted in internal and external support for the program. While the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a U.S. State Department program, as provided a highly competitive grant of $100,000 US (See Appendix 2) A significant cost-share (220%, or $220,000) in support of the partnership program has been provided primarily by BGSU, with additional support from civil society and private sector partners. In adherence to the university’s commitment to international education and exchange, several BGSU units have articulated their support of the program. The University Provost, the Executive Vice President, and Deans of three different Colleges have expressed their commitment.
2) Commitment and expertise of personnel
Along with commitment at the institutional level, primarily by directors and key leadership of each institution, a second key to successful partnerships is the commitment and expertise of the faculty who will develop, implement, and sustain the partnership program. The IPSI-BGSU partnership, for example, emerged from the long-standing relationships originally developed by U.S. Partnership Co-Director when she was a Fulbright Researcher in women and media in Tunisia, 1993-1994.2 Ten years after her first in-country work in Tunisia, issues surrounding media, democracy and the information society remain a challenge for that nation and elsewhere in the MENA. Thus, the rationale for the partnership is that there is a great deal of mutual benefit of international educational exchange, of opportunities to learn first-hand about diverse practices in media and journalism from both partner institutions’ faculty and students, and to work together toward enhancing civil society in the MENA and abroad.
The partnership team members are widely published and nationally and internationally recognized. The partnership co-directors, coordinators and key administrators have each directed or co-directed international educational programs in China, Croatia, France, Great Britain, Austria, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the MENA. Finally, partnership co-directors’ expertise in women and the media, particularly in the MENA (see Azouz, 2005; Azouz, 1994; Lengel, 1998; Lengel, 2000; Lengel, 2002; Newsom & Lengel, 2003) was crucial to the success of the “Women, Media and Democracy” workshop, detailed below.
3. Commitment to providing access to resources
A third key to successful partnerships is the commitment to providing access to ICT and other facilities and resources to students and faculty at both partner institutions. IPSI students are exposed to the digital audiovisual equipment and the strong web development curriculum and tools available at the Institute. Of particular importance to the partnership, ISPI students have access to 150 computers with Internet access, which affords the opportunity to engage in the distance education component of the program with the U.S. Partner institution. BGSU faculty and students are benefitting by learning from the extensive international teaching, research, and media and journalism production experience of the IPSI faculty and administration. Also, there are several key strengths of the U.S. Partner for the MEPI exchange. The first strength is the cutting-edge journalism, multimedia, computing and production facilities housed in the BGSU School of Communication Studies, which houses the Departments of Journalism, Interpersonal Communication and Telecommunications. Further, as an Internet 2 campus, Bowling Green State University has an advanced technological infrastructure that fully supports all of the online and telecommunications activities cited within the programs of this grant. BGSU’s IDEAL unit (Interactive Distance Education for All Learners) oversees the development and implementation of distance (i.e., web-based) course work and communication on campus. Additionally, the University is part of the larger OhioLink library system, which allows MENA faculty and students participating in the partnership to access materials and holdings at all of the state universities and many of many of the private colleges and universities in Ohio, and also provides links to that other U.S. library systems. Finally, additional technology services are being provided by WBGU-TV PBS and the US Embassy in Tunis which are both providing digital videoconferencing services for the quarterly meetings between the two universities.
4) Commitment to engaging with professional media, journalism and civil society organizations
Because Tunisia is hosted the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, November 16 – 18, 2005, all eyes of the media, communication and technology world have been focused on Tunisia, its government, and its media organizations to assess how the Arab nation is addressing the challenges of overcoming the digital divide, and of developing civic discourse and equitable communication flow in the nation (Lengel, 2004). In this sense, IPSI students have been best positioned to report on the UN WSIS and related events in Tunisia this past year. IPSI faculty developed a program to focus reporting curricula around the WSIS (IPSI, 2004). The online component of the university partnership has also enhanced IPSI students’ efforts to share first hand observations about the preparation leading up to the UN WSIS, and to report directly during the actual event to their counterpart students in the U.S.
In addition to participating in this important media and technology event, partnership students and faculty are also interacting with media, communication, and civil society organizations. Online and face-to-face work with civil society organizations, such as the Center for Arab Women Training and Research (CAWTAR) and le Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines à Tunis (CEMAT), provides important insights into the impact of media and communication on civic discourse in the MENA. Media organizations such as BBC North Africa; Tunis Afrique Press (TAP); Mosaique – a new private Tunisian radio station; newspapers including La Presse, Essahafa, Le Renouveau, El Horia, Le Temps, Essabah, Echourouk, and Essarih; Magazines including Réalités, and L’Observateur; and private sector partners provide important professional development opportunities for students’ professional development.
A final strength for enhancing interaction with civil society results from the location of BGSU, one of just a few major research universities within close proximity to the largest and oldest Arab-American communities in the United States. The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, only 15 minutes from campus, is one of the largest mosques in the U.S. and houses one of the largest congregations. Interaction with the Arab-American community occurred while IPSI students and faculty were in residence at BGSU for a three-week workshop and internship program, through a welcome reception, a summit, and through interview opportunities for journalistic reporting assignments. Perhaps the most compelling interaction was with editors and journalists of Arab American media organizations, including the Arab American News, The Arab Gazette and, most notably, The Journal & Link, who engaged an outstanding, critical debates with the partnership students about the challenges of creating and sustaining free and independent media in both the MENA and the U.S.
5) Commitment to program development and enhancement
The mutual interests of BGSU and IPSI faculty and administration in the areas of international media and journalism; in the impact of ICT on journalistic practice; in the digital divide in the MENA; and shared interests in ethics and values, civil society and democracy through the media; and a common balance of media theory and practical skill-building stressed at both institutions create a solid foundation for the partnership’s program goals and serve to focus the broad goals of the partnership. These mutual goals and interests lay the groundwork for the fifth key to successful university partnerships: a shared commitment to similar program development and enhancement goals. Commitment to such program milestones such as new media, journalism, communication and ICT degree focus areas at IPSI include a Bachelor of Science in Journalism in International Media, and Masters of Science in International Media and in Environmental Journalism. During the academic year 2003-2004, IPSI has inaugurated the first Master’s degree in the entire MENA in specialty topics in the media. During the same year, specialty topic was sports reporting. The BGSU-IPSI partnership teams topics idea can be sustained in future years with such topics as “International Reporting on Technology Issues” and “International Reporting on Democracy”. The partnership faculty teams are also working to enhance the IPSI’s MSc (master’s of science) in new information and communication technologies (ICT) to include new online curricula through the Frontera program (see description of Frontera below). In addition, the partnership is developed and implemented an intensive U.S.-based workshop on “Women, Media, and Democracy”, internships for Tunisian students with area media organizations, and on-site professional development consultations with regional and national media executives. Below, several aspects and program milestones are discussed as evidence of successful implementation of the program.
Women, media and democracy
Enhancing the lives of women is one of the pillars of the Middle East Partnership Initiative. As mentioned above the most important program and curriculum development effort thus far in the partnership has been curriculum development in the area of women, media, and democracy. A key milestone if the IPSI-BGSU partnership has been the “Women, Media, and Democracy” workshop which brought a competitively selected group of Arab students and faculty to the BGSU campus for a three-week intensive workshop from July 17 – August 5, 2005. In this workshop 10 IPSI and 9 BGSU graduate and undergraduate students from the US, Russia, and China were brought together to collaborative explore about women, media and democracy and the points at which those topics overlap and interact. These large topics and those areas where they do interact are critical to the health of civil society in countries around the world. Thus a three-week workshop, no matter how intense, only offered the international group of students the chance to scrape the surface of the issues. Nevertheless, students from both institutions reported how much they learned and grew from the workshop. The curriculum involved each student engaging in individual research and journal assignments, group research and presentation assignments, outside-of-class group and individual work, a series of guest lectures, visits to Arab-American media organizations, and other extracurricular activities.
There were several scheduled online activities at regular intervals in throughout the workshop, each which used Blackboard, the BGSU online course delivery program.1 Each session’s online dialogue topic was developed in relation to particular readings, the presentations by guest lecturers, the documentaries viewed, class discussions, and other activities of the workshop. Students were expected to not only take part in the online discussions, by reacting to other people’s posts, but also by offering discussion points of their own. Participating in the online discussions not only added to IPSI and BGSU students’ learning about women, media and democracy, but it also made the workshop very enjoyable. In addition, it was the hope of the workshop organizers that they could learn from the students about these discussions that will help to develop effective communication between students at great distances, primarily between students on-site on their respective Tunis- and Bowling Green- based campuses during the academic year following with workshop.
All participating students, but in particular the IPSI students, stated that the online component of the “Women, Media and Democracy” workshop was one of the most enjoyable and valuable to them. Many felt more comfortable communicating online, rather than during class discussions, which took place in English, the third language for students from Tunisia and Russia, and the second language for the student from China. They could think and write at their own pace, read others’ postings, and thoughtfully respond. They were encouraged not to speak to their peers in the computer lab, but communicate only through computer mediated communication (CMC).
Online components of media education partnerships
Although education policymakers in the MENA acknowledge the fact that overall progress within their societies relies heavily on introducing new technology in training, very few practical steps have been taken in reaching that objective, such as fostering the implementation of e-learning technology in educational establishments. The severe digital divide between much of the MENA and Western, industrialized countries point to several factors. Social barriers, such as illiteracy and low educational access, and economic barriers fostered sometimes by regional political crises are two of them. Furthermore, there is a lack of an appropriate legislation acknowledge distance education degrees, and also financial, pedagogical and attitudinal constraint to technological enterprise in education: prohibitive Internet access prices, lack of Arabic content, fear that traditional educational system looses ground in favor of an unconventional pedagogical scheme that might have unexpected outcomes (Abouchedid, 2004).
These challenges have been addressed through an online component of the media education partnership, called Frontiers of New Technology Education, Research and Action (Frontera), a program that has linked over 1,000 students from 14 different universities worldwide since its inception in 1996, including BGSU, IPSI, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and the women’s campus of King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.3 Accessed through the Blackboard online learning environment housed at BGSU, Frontera allows students at both partnership institutions to connect online and focus a dialogue on topics including online civic discourse, the Digital Divide, media and journalistic ethics, and international affairs reporting. Students who have been teamed with others in the online international exchange forum have reported that their connection through Frontera has lasted long after their ‘official’ time with the program has ended (Lengel, 2002; Lengel & Murphy, 2000; Marin & Lengel, forthcoming).
Through Frontera, students are asked to both interrogate the Internet and encounter it as a discursive tool to explore critical issues in international and intercultural communication. The project affords students the opportunity to learn across borders and cultural differences. Through computer mediated communication (CMC), students work “to