Learning and Teaching in the Digital World: An International Conference at An-Najah

By Laura Wert

On Sunday, 3/30/14, An-Najah National University held a conference on the subject of learning and teaching in the digital world, and how new developments in this realm can influence education in Palestine. In attendance were several international representatives as well as leading Palestinian educators. Focusing on such subjects as the current state of e-Learning in Palestine, employing the digital world to improve quality of education in the region, models and ethics of e-Learning, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, and the intersection between digital learning and sustainable development, the conference aimed to provide a comprehensive discussion of new technology’s effects on academia.

The conference included a presentation by Professor Lawrence Ragan of Pennsylvania State University on the ways in which e-Learning is transforming the educational system worldwide. Professor Ragan emphasized the potential of e-Learning to expand access to education, improve student-teacher communication, and ultimately restructure traditional academic methods.  He emphasized the need for a continued focus on quality of professors and minimizing costs to keep education available to as wide an audience as possible.

Next, Dr. Nele Leosk presented on Estonia and this nation’s superior provision of internet access and speed in comparison with the rest of the world. Dr. Leosk focused on the development of such services as online birth registration, “e-school,” “e-health” and how electronic involvement in the democratic process and shaping policy via the online world.

In addition to the conference’s international speakers, there were many local contributors who highlighted key aspects of e-Learning as it relates to development in Palestine. Eng. Aref Husseini urged continued efforts to harness modern technology in order advance education, and encouraged educators to prevent academia in Palestine from falling further behind the rapid technological advancement of today. He emphasized the importance of encouraging critical thinking and the integration of students’ lessons with real-world applicability, and challenged Palestinian educators to find ways of bridging the widening gap between education and technology.

In addition to these discussions of technological advancement and its ramifications globally and locally, there were many papers and research projects presented at the conference. They spanned such subjects as the role of e-learning in skill development for Palestinian youth, the effects of blended learning  on communication skills in Jordanian students, student attitudes toward e-learning at An-Najah, and awareness of and obstacles to e-learning in the Gaza Strip, to name a few.

This conference addresses a contemporary issue of utmost importance.  Reliance on web-based technology is increasing rapidly in the realm of higher education, and is widening students’ access to information and learning materials. It is essential for the Palestinian educational system to take advantage of the e-learning resources available today; education, as a cornerstone of social and economic development, must be encouraged and promoted at every possible opportunity.


An-Najah National University at the Intersection between Education and Social Services: Confronting Homelessness and Poverty in the West Bank

By Laura Wert and Karam Abu-Ghazaleh

It is no secret that under the occupation Palestinians are confronted with a myriad of challenges each day. In the West Bank, continued restrictions on movement and access to basic resources such as water and arable land are compounded by rising unemployment,[i] a lack of government-funded social services and ultimately an increase in poverty. In addition, during 2013 a record number of houses were demolished, which as of December 31st left 521 people homeless.[ii] These circumstances have exasperated the conditions for individuals and families alike, and while many are able to utilize the support networks provided by relatives, it is not always an effective safety net.[iii]

When struggling families have few places to turn for help, funding for social and humanitarian services becomes indispensible; in truth, however, such services are mostly effective when conducted with sensitivity to local conditions, as it is here where local knowledge and trust mechanisms are established. Since 2008, local organizations intent on providing social services or alleviating poverty have increasingly struggled to meet the demands of a burgeoning population, in both urban and rural areas. However, in the city of Nablus and its surrounding towns and villages, the local university has sought to mobilize its student body of over 20,000 and 3,000 staff for the greater good of the community.

An-Najah National University, the largest university in Palestine, is located in Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city. Beyond its provision of educational opportunities, it has sought to ingrain social responsibility and the value of community through a number of its outreach projects. One such program that illustrates these efforts is the Community Service Center (CSC), founded in 1999 in cooperation with McGill University, which has forged a natural link between education, community interaction and social services. For example, as a graduation requirement, all An-Najah students must complete 50 hours of voluntary service, where their time is spent assisting underprivileged and impoverished families in the area. Over the years, a number of local families have sought the help of the CSC when facing homelessness, mobility assistance, trauma, or financial difficulties.

A case in point is Fatima,[iv] a mother of seven from the Jenin area, who was struggling with a seemingly hopeless situation. Divorced by her husband after his attempt on two of their children’s lives, she was left to fend for herself and her children, ages 12-23, with no relatives nearby, no home and no source of income. To make matters worse, she had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had no way of affording treatment. With the help of distant relatives, she eventually secured shelter for her family in an empty storehouse, but it had no running water, electricity or furniture. Reduced to begging for money in the street, facing the threat of violence to herself and her children at the hands of her ex-husband, and struggling with her own health, Fatima’s situation was desperate.

One day while sat begging outside of a mosque, a passerby told Fatima about An-Najah’s CSC. Upon discovering her plight, the CSC staff responded to aid Fatima and her children. They began renovating the building where the family of eight was taking shelter. Whereas previously they had been saving bottles of water in a small storeroom for bathing and washing dishes, they soon had running water in what increasingly became a home. The housing program installed electricity, a flushing toilet, and a kitchen for the family, in addition to basic furniture and appliances such as a refrigerator and beds for the children, all of which they had been living without for a year. Invested in addressing their psychological needs as well as their physical needs, the CSC provided them with counseling in order to help the family deal with their traumatic experiences, particularly one of the children who since bearing witness to their father’s attempted murder of his siblings had been unable to speak. The center’s help to Fatima’s family does not end there; in addition, they provided funding for her oldest son to study Engineering at An-Najah, and assisted with payments for Fatima’s cancer treatment.

According to Community Service Center staff, the Housing program has been able to renovate over five hundred houses in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs, a significant feat considering its limited financial resources. More poignantly, this translates to five hundred families like Fatima’s who have been given a new lease of life and had their faith in humanity restored. The housing program, along with its motto which declares “a decent roof above the head, continues to provide as many families as possible with safe, sanitary living spaces, targeting the elderly, disabled and families with children in particular.

Of course, the Housing Program is only one of several efforts through which the CSC provides support. It is home to eight community programs as well as a mobile center which enables rural communities to benefit from the services offered. The CSC has managed to utilize the resources available to it to make an impact upon the local community, and although modest in its scale at this moment in time, it certainly offers itself as a successful model for the implementation of local humanitarian services.

The bathroom of Fatima's home before renovation

Before and after: The bathroom in Fatima’s home pre-renovation

The family's bathroom after CSC renovations

The family’s bathroom after CSC renovations

[i] According to the Palestinian Statistics Bureau, unemployment in the Palestinian Territories has risen steadily since 1999, with most recent estimates showing that 23.9% of working-age Palestinians are jobless. Palestinian Statistics Bureau, <http://www.pcbs.gov.ps/site/lang__en/1/default.aspx&gt;, 1 February 2014.

[ii] The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, ” Statistics on demolition of houses built without permits in the West Bank (Not including East Jerusalem),” <http://www.btselem.org/planning_and_building/statistics&gt;, 1 February 2014.

[iii] World Bank, “West Bank and Gaza: Poverty in the West Bank and Gaza,” <http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/EXTPA/0,,contentMDK:20208653
~menuPK:435735~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:430367~isCURL:Y~isCURL:Y,00.html> , 1 February 2014.

[iv] Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.