Building a Shared Vision: Developing and Sustaining Media Education Partnerships in the Middle East

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.

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