Online Program Connects Students Across Cultural and National Borders

A nonprofit group with a focus on the Middle East runs an affordable, Web-based exchange

Dana Smillie for The Chronicle

At Al Azhar U., in Cairo, an English-language instructor chats with other participants in an online international-exchange program. About 3,000 students in 25 countries have taken part.
December 05, 2010

Universities around the world are looking for ways to give their students a more international outlook to prepare them for a future that will increasingly involve global problems and partnerships. But exchange programs are expensive and time-consuming to manage; fewer than 2 percent of Americans and Europeans enrolled in higher education participate in one.

The creators of Connect, a 10-week program of facilitated online discussions among students from Western and Muslim countries, believe they've found a solution.

"We offer the benefits of a traditional exchange but on a much more affordable and sustainable basis," says Michelle Cousland, senior development coordinator of Soliya, the nonprofit organization behind the program.

Since its inception in the fall of 2003, about 3,000 students from 80 universities and 25 countries have participated in the Connect program. "At this stage, we have developed a good model," says Lucas Welch, the co-founder of Soliya, which has offices in New York and Cairo. "We feel it works; it could and should be scaled."

Soliya hopes to do this by forming partnerships with large-scale providers of international exchanges and cross-cultural education to advise them on how to develop similar Web-based exchange programs.

"There is a real opportunity, with the explosion of new and social media, for expansion," says Ms. Cousland.

On a recent afternoon in Cairo, The Chronicle met with former and current Connect program participants.

Marwa Elsayed, a political-science major at the private Future University. says the online discussion was "the first time I talked to a Jewish person about Israel-Palestine. It was a very decent conversation."

She says she has always enjoyed debating, but the moderated discussions taught her to be more thoughtful and deliberate in expressing her views. "I looked forward to it every week," she recalls. "I had a perfect attendance."

Being in the program "was the first time I met real people" from Western countries, says Mohamed Othman Abo Taleb, a junior faculty member in the historic Al Azhar University's science department, who is participating in Soliya as part of an English-language class.

He had assumed that most people in the West supported all aspects of their government's foreign policy, but through the online exchange he has "understood the difference between people and governments," he says.

Sun and Light

Soliya—whose name is mash-up of the Latin word for "sun" and the Arabic word for "light"—charges universities $1,000 to join the program and $300 per student. But it waives those fees during initial trial periods and for universities with limited financial resources.

In fact, it has so far largely relied on institutional grants to run Connect. Supporters include the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ford Foundation, the Al Waleed bin Talal Foundation, and the Qatar Foundation. In October it was awarded a $1.25-million grant from the U.S. State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative.

When a students logs in to the Connect program, he or she enters a videoconference with seven other students in different countries around the world.

"The multipolar discussion, in our opinion, is a very compelling part of the program," says Mr. Welch. This way, he says, students witness differences of opinion within the West and the Muslim world, rather than being divided, as they might in a more traditional videoconferencing model, between one group in the West and one in the East.

The Connect program, which has it own extensive curriculum, including a final project, is intended to integrate into traditional classes in fields such as international relations or mass communications. It is designed for both graduate and undergraduate students. Participants discuss topics such as terrorism, Islamophobia, religion, current events, homosexuality, social customs, and the veil.

Western students "don't know anything about the Middle East. They really imagine we live in the desert," says Esraa Ahmed Abdel Azim, an economics major at Future University. For their part, Arab and Muslim students are exposed to views they don't usually hear.

"People reach understanding rather than agreement," says Mustafa Marwan, one of the Connect program's volunteer facilitators. "There are some very heated discussions, but no one is angry."

Surveys Soliya carries out show that about 90 percent of participants are happy they participated in the program and would recommend it to a peer. The surveys also show double-digit increases in the number of participants who rate their "knowledge of the relationship between the West and the Arab and Muslim world" as high.

Dozens of Western universities have used the Soliya Connect program, including Georgetown University, Western Kentucky University, and the University of Amsterdam. The program's participants from the Muslim world include universities in Indonesia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the Palestinian territories, among others.

The English-Only Problem

The biggest challenges to the program have been language and technology barriers. The students in Cairo lamented the fact that only English speakers could participate. Ms. Elsayed, of Future University, says that the program "only targets an elite."

In several non-Western countries, participants also face infrastructure problems. "There are always technical problems," says Ms. Elsayed. "Connection problems, or someone who is missing."

The situation is particularly difficult for students in places like the Palestinian territories or Afghanistan. But even at Menofia University, a regional national Egyptian university that is participating in the program this year, students have on several occasions adjourned to a cybercafe near campus to get a better connection.

Then there is the challenge of setting up classes among students in widely different time zones. "The logistics of the scheduling can be overwhelming," says Mr. Welch.

Integrating the Connect program into a class curriculum also requires a significant investment of time on the part of the professor. Still, faculty who have used the program seem as enthusiastic as their students.

"I feel students get both academic and personal benefits," says Salwa Thabet, Ms. Elsayed's professor at Future University. "They learn to respect the views of others, to listen, to negotiate, to present their own views."

Amy Finnegan teaches an "Encounters With the Middle East" course in the political-science department at Tufts University. The course was designed specifically around the Connect program, Ms. Finnegan said in an e-mail. Students enjoy the online exchange because "it makes the issues more real, and they definitely seem to engage perspectives that they don't hear in our classroom."

"I think the Connect program is a model for the future because it's so replicable," Ms. Finnegan said. "I do a lot of work in Africa myself, and I have hopes of modeling something similar there—building dialogue between African and American university students about global health issues."

For his part, Mr. Welch, a former journalist with ABC News who once taught at Birzeit University, in the West Bank, is a fervent believer in the transformative power of cross-cultural experience. "Some form of cross-cultural exchange should be a fundamental part of higher education," he argues.

Mr. Welch hopes the Institute of International Education, the British Council, the European Union's Erasmus Programme, and university networks will be interested in hiring Soliya to help develop more online cross-cultural exchange programs.

"We don't have any illusions of cornering that market," says Mr. Welch. "We're a small organization. Even if we grow at an extraordinary rate, we'll only be a drop in a bucket. But if we can partner with these institutions, together we can have a more powerful impact."