Partnerships with Palestinians
by James Everett
December 2006 saw the end of European Community (EC) funding for the Mediterranean Virtual University Project: a two-year project led by the University of Strathclyde with partners from Denmark, Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories (for more information see: http://www.med-vu.org). While the final stages of the project are being completed, over €106000-worth of ICT equipment has been sitting in the supplier’s storage facility ready to be delivered to the Islamic University of Gaza. However, Gaza is "closed" and looks set to remain closed for some time to come.
The Mediterranean Virtual University Project was part of the EUMEDIS Programme (further information is available at: http://www.eumedis.net) which targeted countries on the shores of the Mediterranean and the south-eastern borders of the EC. The Programme was launched in 1999, with the explicit aim of reducing the regions’ information and technology gap; pilot projects were funded in five priority sectors of intervention:
- Information and communication technologies applied to Education;
- Electronic Commerce and Economic Cooperation;
- Health Care Networks;
- Multimedia Access to Cultural Heritage and Tourism;
- Information and communication technologies applied in industry and innovation.
The Mediterranean Virtual University Project (MVU) was one of the five projects funded under the education strand, beginning in 2004 and running to the end of 2006.
The MVU had two principal aims:
- to develop and deliver high quality, relevant online modules which meet the requirements of industry and individuals;
- to build a lasting international educational network where academic and technical expertise in e-learning can be exchanged between partners in Europe and the Mediterranean region.
The first step was to create a partnership of established and well-respected institutions in the field. The resulting consortium was made of up of nine universities and one Non-Government Organisation (NGO). Of the universities, the two from Northern Europe are known for their engagement with information technology to enhance education: the University of Strathclyde and Aalborg University (Denmark). A further two of the partners were the national universities of two countries in the Mediterranean region that joined the EC during the lifetime of the EUMEDIS Programme: the Universities of Cyprus and Malta. Another two were major, private institutions in their countries: the American University of Beirut and Sabanci University (Turkey). Two more state universities: the Jordanian University of Science and Technology, and Ain Shams University (Egypt) were also involved with the MVU with the remaining partners from the Palestinian Territories: Birzeit University (West Bank); the Islamic University of Gaza (Gaza) and the Welfare Association of Palestine which works throughout the region (see Figure 1).
Reflecting the disciplinary affiliation of the university departments that joined the MVU Project, the MVU set out to develop online courses in computer science and related fields. To support this activity, and in pursuit of the broader aim of capacity building, the MVU ran training programmes in the development of online learning materials and in "e-tutoring". The project also sought to address the question of access to online learning by procuring equipment for partner institutions in the Mediterranean basin.
Figure 1: The Mediterranean Virtual University Project website
The equipment procurement had two main elements; the creation of learning labs in all the beneficiary institutions and the establishment of two server clusters: one for the learning management system at the Jordanian University of Science and Technology and one for video services at the Islamic University of Gaza. Unfortunately, the procurement path did not run as smoothly as had been hoped and it was only in the latter stages of the project that contracts were awarded to suppliers to deliver equipment in Jordan, Lebanon, Malta and Palestine.
This brings us back to the situation at the end of 2006 - over €106000-worth of ICT equipment is sitting in the supplier’s storage facility and is ready to be delivered to the Islamic University of Gaza. Our supplier is a Palestinian company, as a result of our deliberate policy of targeting local suppliers as a way to finally move the procurement process to a successful conclusion. With their local knowledge and contacts, the supplier is looking for ways of delivering the equipment but this time it does not look as there is much scope for some of the more daring ruses that have apparently been used in the past. What shift in the geo-political environment will allow the opening of routes into Gaza? No one knows. Will this come during the useful life of equipment? We certainly hope so. Will the authorities allow such equipment to pass through? Again, we hope so, but in the past ICT equipment has been blocked or only allowed through after being rendered useless.
This is by no means an isolated phenomenon. The EUMEDIS Programme has included other projects which, like the Mediterranean Virtual University Project, have Palestinian partners. In at least one other case equipment procured by a project for partners in Palestine sat for months in a warehouse in Israel before being returned to the EC because permission was not granted to deliver it. On the other hand, two of our other two Palestinian partners, Birzeit University and the Welfare Association of Palestine, do have the equipment that was ordered. They both now have e-learning labs with laptops, desktop PCs and video conferencing equipment that would be welcomed in many institutions throughout the UK. The equipment was sourced and delivered by local suppliers.
The movement of goods is not the only thing that is restricted; the movement of people is part of daily life. While face-to-face meetings were not a common feature of the MVU Project, every time one was arranged the attendance of any of the Palestinian partners was always a matter of uncertainty. At only two, of the ten meetings and workshops held over the two years, were all the Palestinian partners represented by those who had originally intended to travel. In one case, early on in the project, this was partly because preparations were not begun early enough, but for other meetings the vagaries of the border policies meant that those travelling from Gaza were stopped while those exiting over the bridge to Jordan were allowed to pass, or vice versa. On at least one occasion, only some in the delegation were able to travel because the younger members of the party were not allowed to leave. Leaving the region was not the only problem. Two colleagues trying to return to Gaza during the recent Israeli offensive against militants in Gaza and Lebanon were faced with a closed border and forced to wait in Egypt. Fortunately, it was only two weeks, but at the time the political/military situation looked so bad that all of us feared a protracted wait.
However, as with the hardware, the picture is not unremittingly negative. It is also true that our Palestinian partners were able to join in the activities of the project. More often than not, there was someone there from at least one of the partner institutions and in most cases, all the institutions were represented in some way.
It is also important to remember that our Palestinian partners also played a full part in the project. The Mediterranean Virtual University Project had as its main aims to develop and deliver high quality, relevant online modules which meet the requirements of industry and individuals and to build a lasting international educational network where academic and technical expertise in e-learning can be exchanged between partners in Europe and the Mediterranean region. In pursuit of these aims, all our partners worked together. The deliverables required of the academics in Birzeit University and the Islamic University of Gaza were no different from those expected of the Jordanian University of Science and Technology, the University of Malta, the University of Strathclyde or any of the other partners, and nor should they have been. By the end of the project, forty online courses had been produced, at undergraduate level and worth between four and five ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) points. In general, the courses developed by the MVU Project would be equivalent to one semester's-worth of learning in most institutions (see Figure 2).
All the partners have faced challenges in completing the work required. We have all worked to the same timetables and the same requirements. Many of the courses have been piloted with students in the participating institutions, and it is hoped that the collaborating partners will continue developing online course using the same sort of approach employed in the MVU Project.
Figure 2: Screenshot of Palestinian MVU website.
At the end of this project and looking to the future, we are prompted to reflect on the trials that have affected our Palestinian partners and the project as a whole. Should the challenges facing Palestinian institutions make those of us in the UK think of them as a risk to our international projects? Should we, on the other hand, seek to include them as our statement on the current situation? From the experience of the MVU Project, I would answer ‘no’ to both. Our peers deserve to be invited on their own merits, just as every other potential partner. The project may face a degree of uncertainty, but which project does not? However, that uncertainty is rarely that closely linked to international politics. The main thing is that we can all drive any project forward together.
We have just heard (11/1/2007) that the equipment has finally been delivered to IUG. It is unclear how this has been achieved, but it is yet another example of how good news can creep through unexpectedly when working in this most difficult environment.
Mediterranean Virtual University Project
University of Strathclyde
The Mediterranean Virtual University Project: http://www.med-vu.org
EUMEDIS Programme: http://www.eumedis.net
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