Saturday, March 26, 2016

Monday, March 07, 2016

For a Better Educator

A few days ago, I returned to Doha, the country in which I live and work, from Dubai where, during part of my Spring break, a few of my colleagues and I attended the three-day International Conference on Language Learning (IICLL), which was sponsored by The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), a Japanese non-profit organization. Conference attendees came from Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Japan, Jordan, Latvia, Lebanon, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Oman, Palestine, the Philippines, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, the UAE, Uganda, the UK, the USA and the West Indies. Bearing a theme of "Education and Social Justice: Global Trends, Local Solutions," a topic that could be perceived as somewhat controversial in this part of the world because of the implications of 'social justice', the conference promised to have some unusual offerings.

Each year for the past five years, I have travelled abroad to attend education conferences, and this year was no different. It is fortunate that my employer, Qatar Foundation, allows me to pursue Professional Development (PD) activities at my discretion. Ideas gleaned through watching presentations and networking with other professionals alter my teaching--and my thinking about teaching--considerably. For example, the composition course that I teach at the Academic Bridge Program (ABP), a pre-university program on the Education City campus in Doha, Qatar, requires that students create themed blogs to showcase many of their writing assignments, which was a direct result of attending a conference wherein one of the presenters described a similar project with her own students. Great ideas are worth borrowing. In the past, I also had PD opportunities at former schools in which I had been employed, and teachers were obligated to complete a designated number of hours of development each year, but the punitive effects of not meeting those requirements made it less enriching: teachers, in general, would only complete the minimum number of hours in what they viewed as the cheapest, simplest or geographically closest opportunities, rather than pursuing opportunities that might offer real benefits to their teaching. It may be a faulty system, perhaps, but still better than nothing. Actually, my own PD experiences are governed by similar circumstances: I only go during Spring break as my wife and son have different breaks and so we cannot travel together during those interruptions in the school year, and events must fall reasonably within the PD allowance that is provided by my employer. Also, I hate to miss teaching time unless it is absolutely necessary. So, IICLL Dubai rose to the top of the list this year.

My ABP colleague, Mutassim, shedding some light.
One of the most engaging sessions featured Dr. Fadi Aloul from the American University of Sharjah who, in his fast-paced and humorous presentation entitled "Cyber Security Awareness," convinced many of us that we needed virus protection on our cellular devices, devices that contain all kinds of important information and are seemingly integral to our existence these days, and not just on our home computers. He also described conducting a mock phishing (scam email attempting to retrieve confidential information such as bank account numbers or passwords) experiment in his university to evaluate the awareness of the university's users. In recent weeks, and over the past few years, I (along with my colleagues) have actually received a number of phishing messages, so the discussion was quite relevant. As we become increasingly reliant on such technology to manage the routine operations of the world, we have to try to be as safe as possible.

Many of the breakout sessions were quite strong, measured by how long I stayed (roughly from 9AM to 4PM each day, although sessions on the first two days lasted until 7PM), and how much I had to talk about during coffee breaks. In particular, I have attended a number of sessions by Saudi educators over the years and I always look to attend those. They are fascinating to me, not because they are revealing exceptionally poignant research, but because, with a similar population in some regards, they seem to be actively trying to improve their educational system. That kind of motivation seems to be lacking in Qatar where, as far as I can observe and almost entirely based on casual conversations with my students, most Qatari teachers appear to have left the profession. Is it a problem if your children are educated by people from other cultures?

This leads me to another session by Dr. Fatima Badry, also from the American University of Sharjah, who spoke about Arab identity in the modern world. Despite the rapid development in cities in this part of the world and even with the changes brought about from an overwhelming influx of immigrants, Dr. Badry's research showed that students in the UAE still considered themselves Arab, even if they dressed in Western clothes or exhibited other non-traditional characteristics. It was intriguing research as it contradicted how many of my students in Qatar perceive the changes around them. They will lose something. They will gain something else. They will still be who they are: more than what they were before. They will possibly be even more than they can imagine, and that is incredibly hopeful, however painful at present.

It remains to be seen how much this conference will change me. It has already changed me in that I have downloaded a virus protection app on my cellphone; I have told my wife about it. Dr. Christine Coombe's keynote presentation on Sunday about professionalism prompted me to write this response, thus raising my level of engagement with teaching and with my colleagues both near and far. What else may change? Will I modify my curriculum? Will I share my experiences in more detail with my colleagues? Time will tell.