The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) Beirut Branch hosted the seminar, “Digital Communication: Education, Legislation, and Surveillance in the Arab World”, on March 2-3, 2017. Specialists from Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon took part, as well as a number of Lebanese university professors and PhD students in the social sciences, media studies, education, and linguistics.
“Are we really equipped to confront these major challenges”? This was the underlying theme of the seminar which addressed the opportunities and challenges brought about by the digital world. In his introductory address, Fredric Maatouk, Professor and Researcher at the ACRPS, referred to the three loci of the seminar: education, looking at e-learning projects which have appeared in Arab schools and universities across the region; the law, looking into the legislation being developed to stem violations that have manifested in place to place; and politics, considering the issues of general surveillance of social media.
“In the virtual arena”, said the next speaker and seminar coordinator Nadim Mansour, “we face two key questions: first, is education in the Arab world today leading towards a knowledge society; and second, do our laws governing the Internet help preserve and protect users from the risks of security breaches, disclosure of private data, and surveillance?” Mansour reiterated the need to form a specialist committee charged with studying the emerging problems associated with a networked society in contemporary Arab reality.
Haidar Freihat (Jordan), Director of Technology for Development at ESCWA, Beirut, chaired the session on the first theme of the seminar, “E-learning Experiences and Virtual Learning in the Arab World”. He alluded to the sheer speed of the changes occurring in the area of digital communication, and affirmed the importance of linking the real world and virtual reality in research projects, drawing attention to the lack of interest in the latter and of the technological means to develop it.
Samar Zeitoun (Lebanon), Professor of Education and Technology at the Lebanese University, made the first contribution: “The Role of Digital Communication for Education Development in the Arab World”. She noted how the internet has improved communication in the Arab region, thus narrowing the digital gap. Conversely, she stated that a large gap in usage clearly existed between the sexes. She also noted that in terms of reception, the world’s number-one user of YouTube is Saudi Arabia. Regretfully, the major shortage in sources of electronic information in Arabic, she stressed, is an issue that is hindering the development of appropriate and original educational software.
Milad Saad (Lebanon), Professor of Education and Technology at the Lebanese University contributed with “Towards Interactive Curricula in Lebanon: Between the Possible and the Impossible.” He stated that many features of change today in social and economic behavior are due to the powerful influence of digital communications on the lives of people and students. He then went into detail about the experience of the Education Ministry in Lebanon with e-textbooks, which are largely ineffective because of their slowness. He concluded that “Lebanon remains a developing state when it comes to applying educational technology.
The third session was chaired by Nadim Mansouri (Lebanon) who emphasized the necessity of differentiating between e-learning and virtual learning, in that the latter is based on a completely different form of education than e-learning.
Said Benyamina (Algeria), professor at Mohamed Boudief University in Algeria presented “Algeria and the Experience of E-Learning” where he observed a youth brain-drain from Algeria, particularly following the adoption of the LMD system, and its electronic links. In his view, this system is still stumbling given its clash with the traditional academic system adopted in Algerian universities in general. Benyamina concluded that the Algerian government is trying to popularize e-learning, although it has not yet succeeded in achieving its plans for many reasons detailed by the speaker.
Ghassan Mourad (Lebanon), Professor of Computational Linguistics and Digital Media at the Lebanese University, contributed with “Digital Humanities: A Call for Scientific Humanities.” He noted how the digital revolution witnessed today is imposing huge changes on human thinking and opening new horizons. The wide dissemination of digital media over the past two decades is forcing academics to investigate new frameworks in education, to raise the human sciences to the level of the hard sciences, since the failure of the humanities (in psychology, literature, language, and philosophy) to keep up with the digital milieu will deprive them of a treasure trove of possibilities for academic enrichment. He held academics in the Arab world responsible for making this process to further knowledge a success.
“The digital revolution has brought us many benefits, but it is also accompanied by many problems” said Hassan Mudhafar al-Zarow (Iraq), chair of the third session. Former Head of the Communications Regulator in Lebanon and Lecturer at the American University in Dubai, spoke on “The Digital Situation in Lebanon within a Cyberworld subject to a Global Paradigm Shift”, noting how digital progress was nowadays manifest in most areas of life and with incredible speed on the global level, despite gaps still found between societies.
Ali Karimi (Morocco), professor at the College of Law, Hassan II University, Casablanca, and Professor at the Higher Institute for Media and Communication in Morocco, gave a lecture entitled “Legal Mechanisms to Protect Personal Data in Morocco.” Karimi said that developments in the digital space had produced many threats that have impacted and still impact human rights in Morocco. These include the Internet as a fifth estate helping to undermine the privacy of people’s lives and data. He added that the legal system has so far been unable to regulate or deter the intrusion of the fifth estate, given the speed of developments and the slowness of accompanying legal adjustment.
Frederic Maatouk (Lebanon) chaired the fourth session. Jawhar Jammoussi Professor of Sociology at Manouba University, Tunisia gave an emotive presentation about the effects of the Internet on the lives of Tunisians since 2011, the year of the revolution’s outbreak. The social media aspect of the Internet has been heavily exploited and was an integral part of the revolution. Today it is a fixed feature of the new knowledge structure, more so than in any other Arab country. Nonetheless, the authorities have polished their skills in this field, and have passed laws giving them powers to access citizens’ personal data when they see fit, which is a negative rebound of the digital invasion of social life, whose course is not always controlled by civil society.
This was followed by Hatem Jaafar, Appeal Court Judge and Head of the Technical Office of the Judicial Information Center at the Ministry of Justice in Egypt, who contributed with “The Right to Privacy Online between Legal Protection and National Security Considerations.” Based on a reading of legal texts, he explained that the authorities are finding it difficult to establish a balance between personal privacy and national security considerations, which are always a top priority given the weakness of civil society in protecting the right to privacy. He noted the discrepancies between the Arab countries in this respect.
A number of recommendations emerged from the seminar, mainly:
1. Planning a program of seminars to deal with issues related to the networked society. A seminar or conference on “A call to establish the pillars of the digital rights of Arab citizens in cyberspace” should be held.
2. Creating an environment for communication between researchers in this field, particularly in the Arab world.
3. Calling for greater interdisciplinary efforts in education and technology to exploit the educational and logistical capacity of information and communication technology with the aim of proposing an integrated understanding of the digital system and keeping abreast of educational formats in the knowledge society.
4. The need to continue research into the mechanisms for putting educational technology into effect and boosting computer studies in the humanities so that they take advantage of the huge benefits of digital formats in education.
5. Working to create a center for the documentation of MA and PhD theses in the Arab world, for the purpose of sharing expertise, preventing repetition of subjects, and preserving intellectual property rights.