Category Archives: Globalization

Face to Face with Stereotypes: Virtual exchange pairs students across cultures

The following is the content of an article appearing in San Jose State University‘s Connie L Lurie College of Education’s Newsletter:

Americans think people in the Muslim Middle East are violent, conservative and close-minded.

Middle Easterners think Americans are violent, permissive and lacking rules that govern their conduct.

These stereotypes intrigued Nadia Sorkhabi, an associate professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development, and Nael Alami, a visiting professor in ChAD.

How could they challenge those stereotypes, especially among young people pursuing education degrees that would lead to professional careers as educators or human service professionals where those stereotypes might influence how they serve students and families from different cultural backgrounds?

Those questions led to a virtual exchange program between students at Lurie College in San José and students at Modern University for Business and Science in Beirut, Lebanon. Over two semesters students in ChAD’s Senior Seminar course have been paired with students of the same course in Beirut, listening to the same lectures and cooperating on the same projects.

According to Sorkhabi, who teaches the ChAD Senior Seminar, it’s all a technology-boosted experiment in testing cultural attitudes while building bridges between two groups at odds.

“We knew that we were dealing with two cultural groups that have very negative views of one another,” says Sorkhabi, who is of Iranian descent. “There really is mutual antipathy, where Middle Easterners see Americans as violent, given their experiences of war, and similarly Americans believe that Middle Easterners are violent.”

Alami, who is Lebanese and vice president for research and innovation at Modern University for Business and Science in Beirut, said one of the most meaningful aspects of the project has been the face-to-face interaction, via Skype or other conferencing technology, that has allowed paired students from Lebanon and San José to learn about parenting styles through weekly hour-long guided conversations.

“The virtual exchange allows students to easily communicate, understand and explore individuals from this culture that they wouldn’t interact with otherwise,” Alami said. “There’s so much value in that.”

Students explored parenting practices in their countries through long interviews about their own experiences from the ages of 13 through 18. What was discipline like? Did parents have rules about homework or dating? How did they enforce them?

Before the exchanges, both sets of students believed that the stereotypes they had about the other group also applied to their parenting practices. Americans believed Middle Eastern parents were conservative, rigidly authoritarian and biased against daughters.

The Lebanese students believed American parents were too permissive, allowing their children to do whatever they want.

Those stereotypes, if left unchallenged, can cause harm in the workplace, Sorkhabi said.

“These assumptions that service professionals and teachers make about parenting and home life [and] children’s experiences growing up, really do affect children, their access to education, how they are treated and the kinds of services and quality of education that they get,” she said.

“That’s where the value of the virtual student exchange comes in,” Alami said. “To tackle and overcome these stereotypes you can use a theoretical framework and literature that states how these negative stereotypes are not necessarily based on factual evidence, or you can allow the students to undergo an exchange program face to face.”

After the virtual exchange semester, students reported different views of their counterparts’ culture and parenting. And many expressed an interest in continuing the friendships they had made online.

The students will soon be joining the workforce, and Alami and Sorkhabi hope the exchange semester will prepare them for meeting people of different backgrounds and cultures.

“It will broaden their horizons,” Alami said. “It might trigger a sense of curiosity in them and they might explore other preconceptions that they’ve had.”

Sorkhabi and Alami have collected and are analyzing the data and plan to publish the results. They are also working on a documentary about the project.

A Groundbreaking Virtual Exchange Program with Stanford and other American Universities at MUBS

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.