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Ask not what the Ministry of Higher Education can do for you

22 Jul 2023

It was during his inauguration speech on January 20, 1961, that the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy, uttered what would become one of the most memorable and defining quotations of the 20th century: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

These words reverberated in my head during an interview I agreed to give for a student project. The research question intrigued me, even though I normally decline interview requests from students: How much does globalisation affect the Omani higher educational sector? As I teach about globalisation in my Language in Society course at Sultan Qaboos University, the student sought my expertise on the topic.

Globalisation originally symbolised the exportation of ideas, trade, and technology from the west to other regions of the world. Given the diversity of local needs, two related processes later emerged, referred to as glocalisation and localisation. The former engages in local communities exporting their own goods in addition to importing global ones, while the latter translates products or services to meet the needs of a specific region. As a result of this dynamic interaction between the global and local markets, societies typically thrive.

By attempting to gauge the extent to which globalisation has impacted higher education in Oman, the student essentially hoped to determine the frequency by which Omanis sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education acquire cutting-edge frameworks and technologies while abroad in Western universities and implement them upon return in local institutions for the advancement of the Omani society.

I responded in a terse manner: “Not much.”

Shocked, the student inquired, “Dr What do you mean?” I elaborated, “I cannot speak for other disciplines, but I do know from my own academic experience in the social sciences that most Omanis, in fact most Arab academics, do not easily embrace new ideas, methods, or analytical frameworks while abroad; with rare exceptions, the majority of changes in social sciences brought about by technological advancement escapes them. Due to this, outdated curricula and research frameworks such as surveys remain the primary research methods among Arabs rather than adopting newer, more complex methods of teaching, research, and learning.”

“How should the Ministry of Higher Education address this issue?” The student inquired. “The ministry is not responsible for enforcing the learning of new technologies, because it cannot. It can fund educational initiatives but learning remains a personal responsibility,” I replied in haste.

As a way to emphasise the point, I provided the junior interviewer with information about a student research project I supervised at my Department of English Language and Literature: According to the Ministry of Education, in 2013-2014, Jolly Phonics was adopted to improve reading and writing among Omani elementary students.

Despite the ministry’s provision of training workshops on how best to teach the internationally acclaimed textbook to children, Omani teachers continue to this day to struggle with the textbook. Many participants admitted not attending these training sessions due to scheduling and location concerns; therefore, they persisted untrained in basic teaching techniques. Although YouTube offers numerous free teaching technique programs, there remains a lack of motivation in updating skills, which is all the more disconcerting.

Furthermore, in a memo sent to all departments not long ago, the main administration of Sultan Qaboos University urged academic staff to incorporate technological advancements into their teaching practices, many of which are provided by the university. The number of people who heeded that advice puzzled me.

Learning is a cultural practice that does not cease with the attainment of a higher degree, such as a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or doctoral degree; in reality, it is a lifelong journey that never ends. Arabs, however, often do not view the ceasing of a degree as the beginning of knowledge, but rather as the end.

The Arab culture is also marred by traditions that must remain intact in order for Arabic societies to survive. For this reason, fear of change has become a part and parcel of Arabic culture. Many are reluctant to change how we acquire and practice knowledge because of this, preferring old methods.

As he slumped back into the cushioned office chair in despair, the student interviewer queried, “Is all lost then?”. “Not really,” I smiled. I explained that everyone must keep up with the Netizens, or the generation that grew up with the Internet, eventually. There are so many opportunities for information and artificial intelligence available to students in elementary schools and universities that they may soon outsmart their teachers if the latter is unable to keep up.

It is my conclusion that learning is a personal pursuit, whether for self-development or for professional incentives. By providing and funding opportunities, which the Ministry of Higher Education continues to do, the government guides its citizens to the well, but Omanis must draw the water from the well themselves. Lest they desiccate.

[The writer – Najma al Zidjaly – is concerned with topics on self, national and cultural development; researcher; and associate professor of social media and Arab Omani identity in the Department of English Language and Literature (College of Arts & Social Sciences) at Sultan Qaboos University]

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