ECU professor offers online Arabic culture class
(Oct. 10, 2002)
A high tech classroom at East Carolina University has brought students in a Middle East history course up close and personal with their counterparts in the United Arab Emirates. The results have been candid and lively discussions on topics such as women in Islam, the meaning of jihad and the Pillars of Islam.
Three remote controlled cameras in a videoconference classroom at ECU's Joyner Library panned left and then right. The tiny gears of the rotating system made a slight wheezing sound.
The images on the three, big-screen TV monitors were of Muslim women seated at a table and dressed in hijab, the traditional Islamic attire for women. The dark cloth covered all but their faces and hands.
Dr. Michael Singleton, a professor at Sharjah Women's College in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates introduced himself and his class and welcomed the class at ECU. The pictures and voices of Singleton and 15 of his Muslim women students were relayed to Greenville by satellite. The images and sounds from the ECU classroom, with 40 men and women students, could be seen in Sharjah at nearly the same instant.
"Faith is an on-going requirement for living in the Muslim world," Singleton said in a British accent for the American students who watched and listened from 8,000 miles away. "It is one of the pillars that holds up Islamic society," he said.
Singleton and Dr. Kenneth Wilburn, an ECU history professor, devised the plan to link their classes earlier this spring. Wilburn teaches the History of the Middle East to a student audience that has doubled since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Singleton conducts a similar class on Arab world history at the Sharjah campus.
The discussions have been described by the professors as being "lively and interesting" with students who are eager to learn about each other's experiences and lifestyles.
"The students from the United States are eager to learn firsthand about the experiences and lifestyles of our students, and our class is keen to learn how the West views Arab societies," said Singleton.
The exchange seemed like an ideal pursuit for college campuses that are geared up with the kinds of technology suitable for such an exchange. It's especially appealing, considering current international events, and fortunately easy, as the Muslim women are all fluent in English. But organizing the linkup called for special considerations that had nothing to do with satellites, cameras and electronic gear.
Sharjah, a small college town, is about nine miles north of the Persian Gulf city of Dubai in a country the size of Maine that is one of the most conservative Arab countries in Arabia. In the first linkup between the classes in January, the male students at ECU were unable to attend. The ECU women students and their professor were the only ones permitted to participate. The concern was not to offend the Muslim women whose Islamic tradition forbids them to interact with men strangers. After the video conference the ECU women students reported back to the men students on what had happened.
"We had to get permission from the women's families for the men to be present in the video conferences," said Wilburn.
Permissions were obtained. To make the Muslim women more at ease, the ECU men students sit along the outer perimeter of the classroom while the women sit in the inner semi-circle.
The March 4 discussion between the two classes focused on the "Pillars of Islam." There are five of them that comprise the foundation of Islam. Members of the Sharjah class gave brief presentations on each. The five pillars are faith, prayer, charity, fasting and a pilgrimage called the Hajj.
The first pillar -- witnessing -- prompted wide dis