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French Version

Jordan test drives hi-tech education reform initiative

Networking-giant cisco spearheads 3-year scheme
Program is marketed as mechanism for 'accelrating social and economic development'

The World Economic Forum, the organization that brings together the most influential global leaders and CEOs is not well known for its role in education.

But last year, the forum chose Jordan, home to foundation member Queen Rania, in its drive to "leapfrog education reform," through perhaps the most comprehensive involvement of foreign multi-national corporations in a country's education system.

Known as the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI), the three-year pilot scheme was first hatched by John Chambers, close friend of Jordan's king Abdullah II and CEO of Cisco Systems during the forum's 2003 meeting at the Dead Sea. The $22-billion U.S.-based networking giant is now spearheading JEI, donating some $3 million so far, in addition to contributions from IBM, Dell, Computer Associates, Intel and Hewlett Packard, just to name a few.

The program is being marketed as a mechanism for "enabling and accelerating social and economic development across the region," a "win-win" for government, the private sector and students, says one of many colorful JEI/World Economic Forum brochures that were distributed to the press.

Last week, Chambers and a group of journalists from across the Arab world were flown in to visit a JEI school in Amman, one of several public schools in the capital where the program is being tested before being expanded to reach 70,000 students nationwide. A team of Dubai-based consultants were on hand to escort reporters to pre-selected classrooms, all teeming with cheerful primary students and laptops that projected math equations on the wall. Chambers repeatedly praised Abdullah's leadership saying JEI had made math a favorite even for students who once feared the subject.

"If you want to look at it from a business perspective, call it market development," JEI program director Emile Cubeisy told The Daily Star.

"But for the country, it's social inclusion, it's opportunities, this is the place where market development and our efforts to reform and advance Jordan's capability are hand in hand, there's nothing wrong with it," he added.

Cubeisy said private organizations are investing around $15 million in the JEI, in addition to $5 million to $6 million from the government. He said it would be "too soon" to label JEI as a kind of privatization although the program is dependent on corporate contributions, adding: "The only budget we have is the contributions we get ... zero budget ensures that I am at no point in time squandering resources ... there is no intermediary between a company making a social contribution and the private sector partner ... there is no layers of fat in between."

"It's a never-ending pool; it could be $100 million or more," he said.

Cubeisy, keen on mentioning some of JEI's local partners, such as mobile provider, Fastlink, which donated $1.5 million, says JEI could spawn an industry of its own, developing educational products that could be exported across the region.

"I would love to see an industry coming out of this, which might be ICT based," he said, adding that officials from Bahrain, Kuwait, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have come to see JEI in action: "Jordan's responsibility will be to package the JEI process in a way that can serve a broader regional education reform agenda."

He said Arab countries often graduate students that lack entrepreneurial or critical thinking skills, while JEI is based on a curriculum matrix that chooses the best to approaches from around the world. "Many students (in Arab public schools) are graduating and becoming dependent on the public sector for work, so the government is investing to educate people and they are going back to the same system. They are not creating new systems," he said.

JEI on the other hand, will spawn more of a Silicon Valley type employee, "more leaders, more entrepreneurs, more risk-takers. People that want to take control of their destiny," he said.

Asked if he believed multinationals would also use the program to groom future customers, Cubeisy said: "It's not a question of believing. It's a question of realizing your own vision, it's a question of not compromising on your vision. Jordan has learned not to compromise on the quality of its education and ensure every child gets an equal education."

Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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