Education in Palestine

Yesterday I attended a meeting at PITA to discuss bridging the gap between education and industry in Palestine.  I’ve heard that approximately 2,500 students graduate each year from Palestinian universities in IT-related fields of study.  The problem for universities is finding employment opportunities for all these new graduates.  The problem for companies is to recruit the best students available.  While the stated goal of the meeting was to see how we can bridge the two, it quickly appeared that the goal of the meeting was to start thinking of a national strategy for education in Palestine, and specifically how it relates to the ICT sector.  While I’m sure there a lot of talk about what should and shouldn’t be done, below are my thoughts on the role of education/industry/government to ultimately encourage growth and job creation in the future.

1. Grade school: The first and probably most important step (obviously) starts in grade school.  I’ve read a number of articles that talk about how children aren’t afraid to make mistakes, but unfortunately making mistakes and especially failing is a big taboo especially in the Arab world.  Children are taught and raised to be perfect, while we know that no one ever is.  In trying to teach our children to be perfect, we scare them from attempting anything where failure might be possible.  Instead we (myself included) need to encourage our children to try new things and take chances.  We also need to move away from the book memorization techniques at most schools.  Don’t memorize, think, be creative and solve problems.  Most importantly, our educators who are also mostly raised in Palestine, also need to try new teaching techniques and think of new and creative ways of getting students to really solve problems.  Children should be encouraged to participate in expressing opinions and be able to experiment and try new things.  Don’t try to change their ideas, try to have them build on them.  Give them real-world projects and see how they approach these problems.

Children have an amazing ability to grasp new ideas.  My two-year-old daughter surprises us on a daily basis with the things she learns on her own.  This morning, we found out that she can go her mom’s laptop, open a browser, go to youtube and start watching Tom and Jerry videos.  The things she does, which are second nature to her, will probably be tricky for some adults.

2. Universities shouldn’t change what they teach, they should change how they teach it.  Last December, a group from iConnect Tech visited Birzeit University to have a discussion with IT students on bridging the gap between academia and industry, and we went to represent iConnect’s views.  We don’t disagree with what they teach, we disagree with how they teach it.  As an example, all software engineering students should have a really strong understanding of data structures, object-oriented programming, logic and algorithms and databases.  Who cares if they don’t know .NET or Java?  They can easily learn that stuff if they have a solid foundation.  What they do need to know is how to think about solving problems and thinking outside the box.  Too commonly, I find new graduates who want to be told what to do and how to solve problems.  “That’s not why you’re here!” is my answer to them.  You’re here to solve problems, not share your problems with other people.  Divide your big problems into smaller ones, think about solutions and discuss them with others, you can bounce ideas off other people but you shouldn’t expect them to give easily hand you answers, and for God’s sake, RTFM!

With a Bachelor in Engineering, a Master in Engineering and an MBA, I’ve been in universities much longer than most people.  I’ve also taught at Birzeit University, which gave me a new perspective on higher education in Palestine.  It’s the same problem as grade schools, people don’t learn, they memorize.  It you give them a mathematical equation, they’ll solve it.  If you give them a real-life problem, they stumble and don’t know how to move on.  Basically, if they can’t find the answer on Google, they don’t know what to do.  Again, this is how we raised and educated them over the years.  Why should we expect this all to change as soon as they graduate?

One last point regarding engineering students in particular is that there are no original graduation projects.  When I was in Birzeit as a student, most of the projects were related to robotics, everyone wanted to build a robot.  Next came the Internet phase, where everything revolved around the Internet and what I’m seeing now is mobile apps.  Most students I talk to now are working on project that involve mobile apps in one way or another.  The problem with these projects is that they’re not real life problems.  They’re students just trying to show that they can code or build a mobile app.  Instead they should be thinking of what problems they solve with their product or solution.  An easy way to think of this would be to say, once I’m done, can I sell my solution and would anyone buy it?  Why or why not?  It doesn’t have to be a rocket or the next facebook.  Just think of a small original idea that can actually add value and implement it.

3. Encourage entrepreneurship, there is a lot of talk on entrepreneurship, but no one really encourages it.  I am however starting to see a number of organizations supporting start-ups and I hope this continues.  We also have some new VCs and funds, which is also encouraging.   Many people would like to build their own company or implement and sell their great idea, but from what I’ve seen, these people mostly lack business and management skills and resources.   People are realizing later in life (after university graduation) that they can build something bigger and better and get bored of the same old routine.  How amazing would it be if these same people would have learned this 5 or 10 years earlier?  Think of the progress they could have made, the ideas, the business opportunities.

While these are only three points from what I know will be a long discussion, I appreciated one point made yesterday by Dr. Basri Saleh from the Ministry of Education, who noted that there must be a multi-stakeholder approach, which is something I completely agree with.  One of the interesting things I noticed during my last visit to Boston last October was that government, industry and universities all speak the same language, they all talk about innovation  and education in the same way and they’re all working towards the same common goals.  Hopefully, we can get to this point as well, where we all agree and advocate for the same goals.

This is a long-term process and we shouldn’t expect to see immediate results.  Unfortunately, this may discourage many people who need to see results immediately.  The situation I described isn’t as bad as it sounds, but I think we need to be critical in order to build momentum and get things moving.

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