Networked Collaboration Transforms Curricula: The Case of Arab Culture and Civilization

By Barrow, Dana | Liberal Education, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Networked Collaboration Transforms Curricula: The Case of Arab Culture and Civilization


Barrow, Dana, Liberal Education


WHILE THE WEB has become many people's first-sometimes only-stop when they are looking for information, for many academics it remains a slightly suspect source. Aside from a limited number of trusted sites created by major players in the media, science, and arts establishments, academics rely on nothing less than peer-reviewed journals, university presses, primary sources, and their own independent research for the material that fuels their work. These academic sources are everything Web sources generally are not.

Academic sources are written by researchers with traceable credentials and institutional affiliations, vetted by editors, reviewed by other scholars, printed on acid-free paper, and deposited into libraries to be catalogued by professionals. It is no wonder then that Web-based sources, which arc famous for appearing suddenly on anonymously created sites, running the gamut from considered opinions to rants from the fringe, and disappearing just as suddenly, are often perceived in academia as second-rate. Faculty may have their own course-related Web sites, but they often have little faith that most students will be discriminating enough to distinguish between the relative merits of the thousands of sites retrieved in a typical search-especially a search on a hot topic such as "Islam."

What would you think as a scholar, however, if a Web search for keywords "Arab world" or "Islam" turned up something unexpected: a site with a substantial collection of high-quality, multimedia course materials on Arab culture and civilization, created by academics and for academics, and freely available to anyone with an Internet connection? Such a site exists now and receives around 1,000 hits a day, giving it a much more public face than many academic publications. Conceived and created by the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE) and a network of academics from liberal arts colleges across the country, the Arab Culture and Civilization Web site is an interdisciplinary, collaborative project spurred by the spike in demand for curricular offerings on Arab, Islamic, and Middle Eastern studies after September 11, 2001. It offers course modules on history, ethnicity and identity, Islam, Arab Americans, literature and philosophy, popular culture and performing arts, family and society, art and architecture, the Arabic language, and geography. Each module features a variety of materials ranging from major texts on Arab culture, to film clips from classic Arab cinema, to interviews with well-known scholars that were produced especially for the site, to music clips, maps, and a timcline that traces key historical events in the Arab world. The site has been well-received, and was even named a "Yahoo Pick" in November 2003.

It was Clara Yu, the director of NITLE, who first floated the idea for the site. "The Arab Culture initiative came into being because, right after September 11, we felt we needed to dt) something useful rather than just be angry or helpless," she explains. "It turned out that there was-and still is-a real need for rich curricular offerings in this general area... so it was the convergence of need and circumstance."

Creating NITLE

At that time NITLE was a newly minted organization. The organization emerged from discussions among administrators from small liberal arts colleges who faced similar concerns as they struggled to guide their institutions through the maze of possibilities created by monumental changes in information technology. With funding and support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a group of liberal arts colleges formed a national network supported by three regional technology centers. The idea behind this "centers strategy" was to coordinate interinstitutional collaboration to make the most efficient use of financial, infrastructural, and knowledge-based resources so that new technology could be integrated effectively on liberal arts college campuses. …

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