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Commentary: Breakfast before the MOOC

by on February 21, 2014 10:10 AM

Beginning March 2, Professor Hossam Haick will teach the first massive open online course, or MOOC, on nanotechnology in Arabic. What’s more interesting, though, he explained to me the other day over breakfast is some of the curious email he’s received from students registering for his MOOC from all over the Arab world. Their questions include: Are you a real person? Are you really an Arab, or are you an Israeli Jew speaking Arabic, pretending to be an Arab? That’s because Haick is an Israeli Arab from Nazareth and will be teaching this course from his home university, the Technion, Israel’s premier science and technology institute, and the place we were having breakfast was Tel Aviv.

His course is titled Nanotechnology and Nanosensors (www.coursera.org/course/nanosar) and is designed for anyone interested in learning about Haick’s specialty: “novel sensing tools that make use of nanotechnology to screen, detect, and monitor various events in either our personal or professional life.” The course includes 10 classes of three to four short lecture videos — in Arabic and English — and anyone with an Internet connection can tune in and participate for free in the weekly quizzes, forum activities and do a final project.

If you had any doubts about the hunger for education in the Middle East today, Haick’s MOOC will dispel them. So far, there are about 4,800 registrations for the Arabic version, including students from Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and the West Bank. Iranians are signing up for the English version. Because the registration is through the Coursera MOOC website, some registrants initially don’t realize the course is being taught by an Israeli Arab scientist at the Technion, said Haick, and when they do, some professors and students “unregister.” But most others are sticking with it. (MOOCs have just started to emerge in the Arab world via Coursera, edX, Edraak, Rwaq, SkillAcademy and MenaVersity — some with original content, much still translated.)

Asked why he thought the course was attracting so much interest in the neighborhood, Haick said: “Because nanotechnology and nanosensors are perceived as futuristic, and people are curious to understand what the future looks like.” And because nanotechnology “is so cross- and multi-disciplinary. It offers a large diversity of research opportunities.”

Haick, 38, whose Ph.D. is from the Technion, where his father also graduated, is a science prodigy. He and the Technion already have a startup together, developing what he calls “an electronic nose” — a sensory array that mimics the way a dog’s nose works to detect what Haick and his team have proved to be unique markers in exhaled breath that reveal different cancers in the body. In between that and teaching chemical engineering, the Technion’s president, Peretz Lavie, suggested that Haick lead the school into the land of MOOCs.

Lavie, Haick explained, “thinks there is a high need to bring science beyond the boundaries between countries. He told me there is something called a ‘MOOC.’ I did not know what is a MOOC. He said it is a course that can be given to thousands of people over the Web. And he asked if I can give the first MOOC from the Technion — in Arabic.”

The Technion is funding the project, which took nine months to prepare, and Haick is donating the lectures. Some 19 percent of the Technion’s students today are Israeli Arabs, up from 9 percent 12 years ago. Haick says he always tells people, “If the Middle East was like the Technion, we would already have peace. In the pure academy, you feel totally equal with every person. And you are appreciated based on your excellence.” He adds without meaning to boast, “I have young people who tell me from the Arab world: ‘You have become our role model. Please let us know the ingredients of how we become like you.’”

I know what some readers are thinking: nice bit of Israeli propaganda, now could you please go back to writing about Israel’s ugly West Bank occupation. No. This story is a useful reminder that Israel is a country, not just a conflict, and, as a country, it’s still a work in progress. It has its lows, like the occupation and economic discrimination against Israeli Arabs, and its highs, like the collaboration between Haick and the Technion, which is providing one on-ramp for those in the Arabic-speaking world eager to grasp the new technologies reshaping the global economy.

Those, like members of the BDS — boycott, divestiture, sanctions — movement who argue that Israel is only the sum of how it deals with the West Bank and therefore deserves to be delegitimized as a state, would do well to reflect on some of these complexities.

For me, though, Haick’s MOOC is also a reminder of what an utter waste of money and human talent has been the Arab-Israeli conflict. Look how eager all these young Arabs and Persians are for the tools and resources to realize their full potential, wherever they can find that learning. Arab dictators so underestimated their people for so long. That’s what fueled the Arab awakening. It makes you weep for the wasted generations and pray this will be the last of them.



Thomas Friedman writes a column for the New York Times.
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