Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Bolstering Education and Science in the Arab World

by Isobel Coleman
January 29, 2013

Secondary students sit for an exam in a government school in Riyadh on June 15, 2008 (Fahad Shadeed/Courtesy Reuters). Secondary students sit for an exam in a government school in Riyadh on June 15, 2008 (Fahad Shadeed/Courtesy Reuters).


A decade ago, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) shone a spotlight on the sorry state of education in the Arab world with its inaugural Arab Human Development Report in 2002, and its 2003 follow-on report, “Building a Knowledge Society.” The reports’ statistics still shock: in one year, Spain translates the same number of books (around 10,000) as the entire Arab world has translated since the ninth century; on a per capita basis, the Arab world produces only about 2 percent of the scientific papers that industrialized countries do; between 1980 and 2000, all Arab countries together registered only 370 patents in the U.S., versus 7,652 from Israel.

Several high profile Arab educational initiatives have been launched over the past decade with the explicit aim of closing the region’s knowledge gap. Qatar has invested billions of dollars in its Education City, bringing branches of leading institutions of higher education (like Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Carnegie Mellon, and Weill Cornell Medical College) to Doha; Saudi Arabia has opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology—a $10 billion effort to bring more scientific and technical skills to the region. But these (enormously expensive) efforts reach only a small number of elite students. It is clear that closing the knowledge gap will require far more broad-based efforts to provide access to world-class learning to millions of students across the region.

The good news is that the brewing revolution in higher education–driven by new technologies and online learning–provides an unprecedented opportunity for students anywhere in the world to access information and knowledge. (MOOCs is my new favorite word.) With an internet connection, a student in Cairo can now take a course on artificial intelligence at Stanford. A student in Tunis can watch Khan Academy videos explaining calculus.

There is already a wealth of free, world-class educational resources online, including full courses from top universities available free of charge. The amount of online resources, such as Codeacademy, to help people learn computer programming languages is impressive. And yet, these resources are predominantly in English. Indeed, some 85 percent of the “world knowledge balance” is in English, putting students without English fluency at a clear disadvantage. The fact that so little is translated into Arabic puts Arabic speakers at a further disadvantage in the global quest for knowledge.

Yesterday, Secretary Clinton announced a new effort to make a dent in this problem. The Open Book Project is a collaboration among the United States, the Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization, and other partners, such as MIT OpenCourseWare, to increase the amount of free online open educational resources available in Arabic—both through translating existing resources and creating new ones—particularly on topics in science and technology.

The benefits of translating scientific papers, and of expanding access to science and technology education, are obvious—and the timing for this initiative in the Middle East seems ripe. A recent Economist article declares “science is making a comeback in the Islamic world,” pointing to increased research spending and output in a variety of countries. From 2002 to 2009, Turkey went from having published about 5,000 scientific papers to 22,000, and Iran also had impressive gains. (While these are not Arabic-speaking countries, the point about how rapid progress is possible still stands). Initiatives like the Open Book project could help extend this momentum to students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to benefit from progress in the sciences.

It is heartening to note that Khan Academy, with its emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is also working to bring its content to the Arabic-speaking world through a partnership with Taghreedat, an online initiative that undertakes significant translation efforts. Given the huge deficits in scientific and technical knowledge in the Arab world, I understand the emphasis on STEM subjects, but the region would benefit from such translation programs focusing on the humanities as well. As several studies have shown, employability in our global economy requires young people not only to have strong hard skills, but also strong soft skills and the ability to think creatively. So I applaud the Open Book Project, but just hope it won’t shortchange the humanities.

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