Originally posted July 2010

Educational reform from the West has arrived on a grand scale in the Arabian Gulf, particularly in higher education. American, Canadian, Australian, and British universities are being established throughout the region. In addition, Western-style methodologies and best-practices are being employed. Although there are considerable benefits to adopting Western models of education, such reform does not come without a price.

Historically, the purpose of education in Gulf society was to preserve and transmit traditional culture.[1] Nowadays, leaders throughout the region view education as a basic component in building their nations and the foundation of economic development and social change. In the process of development and modernization, they have realized that in order to limit the erosion of traditional culture, they need to prepare their own citizens to run the business of their country and stop relying on foreign professionals and experts. Consequently, substantial resources have been invested to provide greater educational opportunities; however, developing educational systems that can produce students capable of tending to the needs of a changing society while at the same time preserving traditional Islamic values has been a major challenge. The sudden introduction of foreign concepts and practices has disrupted society, and interaction between Arabs and Westerners has resulted in conflicts in some cases. It has also led to a division within society between those who feel that change is necessary for progress and those who feel that change is an assault of Western morals and values on their societies.[2]

The conceptual framework for this study is based primarily on Diffusion Theory as defined by Everett Rogers.[3] Roger’s work provides a synthesis of the last 30 years of diffusion research and offers a set of guiding principles for the dissemination of new ideas. He tells us under what conditions these ideas are most likely to be implemented[4] and delineates the process of adaptation, why some people or organizations adopt new ideas before others, and how they are influenced at each stage.[5] He also helps us to understand the consequences that relate to the adoption of innovations and calls for more research to be done in this subject area, hence the relevance of this study. According to Rogers, there has been inadequate attention paid by change agents and educators to the consequences of innovations because they are difficult to measure. There is also an assumption that consequences will be positive, which is not always the case. Rogers defines consequences as “the changes that occur to an individual or to a social system as a result of the adoption or rejection of an innovation.”[6] He classifies consequences into three categories: 1) desirable and undesirable, 2) direct and indirect, and 3) anticipated and unanticipated. According to Rogers, “the desirable, direct, and anticipated consequences usually go together as do the undesirable, indirect, and unanticipated consequences.”[7]

Findings

The first finding below supports Roger’s classification of “Desirable Consequences” because Western models of education and best practices are seen as useful and positive. They have a desirable impact on those who adopt them, and it is expected that there will be continued desirable consequences resulting from their diffusion. In other words, people see value in the new ideas and therefore adopt them.

The primary benefit of adopting Western-style education and best practices in the Arabian Gulf is to help produce a qualitative shift in the learning styles of the students — to steer them away from rote memory as the sole tool of learning and to encourage them to become self-reliant, independent thinkers. The goal is to provide students with the analytical skills they need to make their own decisions, enabling them to become lifelong learners who are capable of contributing to their societies and communities.

The second finding is related to “Direct Consequences,” which Rogers defines as the “changes that occur to an individual or a system in immediate response to an innovation.”[8] The direct consequences below are the results of the diffusion of innovations from the West both in and outside the classroom.

The changes in education are positive and stem primarily from Western best practices in the classroom. Classroom learning is a two-way process whereby both faculty and students are affected by each other’s culture and background.

In the past more attention was paid to male students. However, nowadays there is a new positive attitude in education toward female students. This is due, in part, to the adoption of the Western educational system.

Not all change in the Gulf region is due to Western-style education. Much of it is the direct result of extensive exposure to Western lifestyles, pop-culture (via television and computer), and other non-Western expatriates. So, education, technology, and social interaction all overlap to influence change in the region.

Rogers defines “Anticipated Consequences” as “changes brought about by an innovation that are recognized and intended by the members of a social system.”[9] In the findings below, Western best practices in education are recognized and viewed as accomplishments by the respondents.

Adopting Western-style education gives Gulf students the opportunity to gain some perspective on Western culture, which will help to minimize differences and bridge gaps of understanding. This kind of cross-cultural understanding is seen as key to helping solve some of the conflicts between the Arab world and the West.

There have been many accomplishments in education due to the adoption of Western standards, such as timelines and best practices. Practical knowledge is also gained from the West, such as the use of technology. However, Islamic guidelines are imperative for striking a balance between Gulf and Western societies. Because Islam is considered part and parcel of daily life, it holds the key to the ethical components of Arab society.

Rogers’ model refers to “Undesirable Consequences” as the dysfunctional or negative effects of an innovation to the adopter. The findings below illustrate how educational innovations from the West can have an undesirable impact on Arabian Gulf society:

Western models of education, best practices, textbooks, and educators inevitably bring Western culture to the classroom and into the learning process. Although it is important to challenge students and foster critical thinking, if what they are learning is totally different from their own cultural norms, contradicts what they’ve learned, and goes against their Islamic values, there can be negative consequences. Furthermore, students are not changing, but are merely mimicking the behavior of their instructors.

There are many instances where Western faculty - knowingly or unknowingly - infringe on the cultural and religious beliefs of Arab students. The change agent, in this case the expatriate, brings his or her own norms and values, which at times are threatening to the student and society in general. The findings also support Rogers’ (2003) contention that it is difficult for a change agent to be objective about the desirability of an innovation in another country.[10] He suggests that the values, beliefs, and attitudes of a particular culture are effective for that culture and should be judged based on their functionality in terms of their own specific circumstances and needs. The norms of the outsider or change agent should not be imposed on the user’s culture. Rogers argues that, “Every social system has certain qualities that should not be destroyed if the welfare of the system is to be maintained.”[11]

Rogers refers to “Indirect Consequences” as the changes that come about as a result of direct consequences. They are referred to as the “consequences of consequences”[12] as illustrated in the finding below:

Due in part to the post-9/11 backlash many families from the Arabian Gulf are reluctant to send their children abroad. Consequently, Western universities have been contracted to set up campuses in the Gulf states. Western models of education and the recruitment of Western teachers has become a way to “get the best of both worlds.” However, sometimes students pick up behavior, concepts, etc. indirectly, and because there is an element of prestige attached to families whose children are taught by Westerners, the potential negative social impact from those teachers is often ignored for the sake of social status. Those Gulf students who do travel to the West often return home with new views and attitudes toward their own culture, not all of them positive.

According to Rogers, innovations do not come without any strings attached. Some consequences may be anticipated, but others are unintended or unexpected, or hidden. These types of potential changes are in line with Rogers’ analogy of a social system to a bowl of marbles: “move any of its elements and the position of all the others are inevitably changed also.”[13] Adopters do not always fully understand this interdependence; moreover, there is a lack of understanding on the part of the change agents of the internal and external forces at work when a new idea is introduced, as is illustrated in the finding below:

Although influence from the West is transmitted through education, such education would not have come about had it not been for the discovery of oil in the region. All of this “Western influence” is seen as the by-product of a “boom economy.” Many people of the region have the financial means to make choices about where they go and how they live, which is believed to have affected tradition to an enormous degree. Change is happening too fast and has already distorted local customs and traditions. Classes are more and more mixed, females are much less reserved, nuclear families are replacing extended families, there are more mixed marriages, children are being raised in both Eastern and Western cultures, Abayas in Saudi Arabia are changing colors, women are taking off headscarves and going out on their own (unaccompanied by a male), and mass media is disseminating information faster than ever before.

Re-invention is another aspect of Roger’s Diffusion Theory. This is “the degree to which an innovation is changed or modified by the user in the process of its adoption and implementation.”[14] What is perplexing is that often, Western universities come to the Gulf with the idea that they can “cut and paste” their model of education into the region only to discover that it is doesn’t work that way. Western educational programs must be modified, tailored, and adapted to the local Gulf context. In other words, as Rogers points out, an adopter is not always a passive recipient of change, but can also be an active adapter of new ideas.

Concluding Thoughts

Continued change in the Arabian Gulf is inevitable, but the resistance to reform is powerful and in some cases, extreme as is evident with some of the fundamentalist movements. As one respondent explained during an interview, “There is a battle going on.”[15] People want to move forward like Western societies but they are afraid that they will take on all of the West’s problems. It is very important to keep in mind that that each country must evolve at its own pace. Furthermore, it is imperative that the change agent understands fully his or her own culture in order to understand how he or she may be perceived by the host culture and thus communicate better and avoid some of the misunderstandings that are repeated over and over. Equally important, experts and consultants need to take the time to understand their clients and analyze the setting where their educational projects are to be implemented.

 


[1]. Joseph S. Szyliowicz, Education and Modernization in the Middle East (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973).

[2]. Khalid Mrabet, “A Glance at the United Arab Emirates: A Setting Analysis,” unpublished paper, 2000.

[3] Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: Free Press, 1995).

[4]. Stephanie Vanderslice, “Listening to Everett Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations and WAC,” Journal of Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, Vol. 4 (2000), pp. 22-29.

[5]. Robert Hornick, “Some Reflections on Diffusion Theory and the Role of Everett Rogers,” Journal of Health Communication, Vol. 9 (2004), pp. 143-48.

[6]. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: Free Press, 2003), p. 150.

[7]. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: Free Press, 1995), p. 441.

[8]. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (1995), p. 415.

[9].Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (1995), p. 419.

[10]. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (1995), p. 411.

[11]. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (1995), p. 412.

[12]. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (1995), p. 415.

[13]. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (1995), p. 419.

[14]. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (1995), p. 174.

[15]. This phrase was used by a respondent to sum up the tension in the Gulf region with regard to influence from the West.