In recent years, so much has been made on the role of globalization in bridging cultural distances and educational disparities among countries and across borders. The tools for such lofty goals have mostly focused on online learning and the ability of faculty and students to communicate and benefit from each others’ expertise and research. In Lebanon, and despite the hype, we have generally lagged behind in utilizing all available routes to promote active exchange of knowledge and information. Institutions that have taken the lead in this exchange and movement towards globalization were either resorting to very limited face-to-face exchange, or passive online learning. The former method is complicated by the political instability in the country, and the former has been proven by research to be of limited long-term benefit as it lacks student engagement and face-to-face interaction.
At MUBS, we have always valued active, participatory, and interactive learning environments. We aspired to bring that same philosophy to our exchange programs. As a result, we have embarked on a pioneering program with Stanford University in California, USA to start the MUBS Virtual Exchange Program that allows MUBS and Stanford University students and faculty to study and work together on a daily basis in select courses and utilizing world-class educational platforms created by Harvard, MIT, and developed by Stanford (Stanford EdX Lagunita Platform).
The benefits of student exchange are vast and multi-layered. Beyond interactive learning in classrooms of 25 students or less, across borders to exchange information and discuss academic material that culminates in a common project presented by groups of four students (each group contains 2 American and 2 Lebanese working on a daily basis through videoconferencing and common course work), the benefits of this exchange are cultural and long-lasting.
Human beings tend to form positive stereotypes of those they resemble, and negative stereotypes of those who are different, creating in-groups and out-groups. Stereotypes are then used to explain behaviors not only of groups, but also of individuals. Such attitudes reduce complex realities, simplifying the multiple causes of human behavior to a single factor. Furthermore, stereotypes can be difficult to suspend because they are also typically linked to strong positive or negative emotions—depending on the nature of the stereotype. When such stereotypes are used to explain behavior, to evaluate performance, or to predict the potential of individuals and groups, conclusions that are reached using such flawed categories will also be flawed.
Unfortunately, we can detect the negative repercussions of stereotypes in our national and international communities. As educators and professionals from MUBS and Stanford, we will try to make our students cognizant of the explanatory frameworks used to judge others, especially out-group members, when working with individuals. Such cognizance is necessary for an objective and realistic understanding of specific communities.
For many decades, educational institutions have set up face-to-face student exchanges to help counter stereotypes and broaden perspectives. In spite of its benefits, though, face-to-face exchange is a difficult and expensive form of educational experience, one that is more often available to students from rich nations, and requires these students to have the means and flexibility to live far away from home for an extended period of time. As a result, we have developed this exchange because our experience suggests that cultural trait stereotypes held about life in the Middle East and the United States can be altered to become more differentiated and objective by engaging students at MUBS and American universities in a cooperative, group educational activity, mediated by technology.
In every field, today’s professionals routinely collaborate with counterparts across multiple borders and oceans, sometimes meeting face-to-face and sometimes meeting through the intermediary of technology. Ease and fluency in these settings is an important professional asset. As a foundation, the exchange will use a form of problem-based learning to help prepare students for this kind of professional collaboration. Developed by faculty and researchers in both the U.S. and Lebanon, the exchange will also emphasize cross-cultural learning, and through new media and technologies it will promote collaborative learning. Working in cross-national teams and empowered with digital tools, students will be tasked to solve the same kinds of problems that they will soon be tasked to solve as professionals, with counterparts they may continue to know long after their common course has ended.
As students at MUBS, the Virtual Exchange Program with Stanford will help prepare students to join this century’s global workforce. This innovative and pioneering program is a testament to our university’s impeccable record in academic circles on the international stage. We are currently planning on expanding our courses to include common courses with Georgetown and George Washington University, which sends a signal on what MUBS is striving to achieve and the standing we hope to realize among the top-ranking universities in the world.