Abu Dhabi students discover diplomacy in the digital age

Students offered innovative ideas, such as using blockchain as an anti-corruption tool, harnessing artificial intelligence and virtual reality to educate refugees and finding ways to map water shortages.
Sunday 09/02/2020
A researcher at the New York University Abu Dhabi. (NYU Abu Dhabi)
A distinctive learning experience. A researcher at the New York University Abu Dhabi. (NYU Abu Dhabi)

ABU DHABI - Students at New York University Abu Dhabi have embarked on local and global academic trips for a distinctive learning experience known as the January Term.

This year, they learnt how to thrive in a century during which technology is rapidly transforming how countries and individuals interact and power functions.

Enrolled in “Surviving the 21st Century: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age,” students reviewed new forms of power, how to build brand and influence, the geopolitical challenges ahead and how to maximise the opportunities of technology to manage the threats it creates. They learnt from leaders in various fields and designed solutions to the challenges of the Digital Age.

“The objective was to give the class a set of 21st-century survival skills, including critical thinking, curiosity, courage and creativity,” said Thomas Fletcher, a visiting professor of practice at New York University Abu Dhabi, who led the course.

“We develop these by studying history, politics and technology. The class was put together after my previous students hacked my curriculum to identify what would be most useful to learn.”

Taking place in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, the 3-week course is considered important in a world where too many students learn the “wrong things” in the wrong way, said Fletcher, author of “The Naked Diplomat.”

He said the class included a visit to Jordan to meet UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the royal family, NGOs, refugees, ambassadors and to see Jerash and Petra.

“I gave a lecture on civilisations in the amphitheatre in Jerash and, for their final assignment, they had to pitch ideas for how to apply new technology to global challenges,” he said.

Students met with Emirati and international speakers as the course focused on a balance between knowledge, skills and character. “The focus was learning through simulations, role plays and interaction,” said Fletcher, who also teaches a course on geopolitics and diplomatic craft at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi.

Students offered innovative ideas, such as using blockchain as an anti-corruption tool, harnessing artificial intelligence and virtual reality to educate refugees and finding ways to map water shortages in Jordan and engineer shelter for refugee camps. “They also came up with an app to make philanthropic giving easier,” he added.

“There are 12 students from… across NYU’s global network. They learnt global competence — the cultural and social skills that help them adapt to different societies and prepare for a rapidly changing world of work,” Fletcher said.

Educational experts said similar courses are essential. “We are living in a world where closer cooperation is definitely required and now more possible than ever before,” said Judith Finnemore, an education consultant in the United Arab Emirates. “However, there is a tendency to ringfence information and retrench rather than be outward looking.”

She said the future is reliant on sharing and cooperation, whether it is expertise or addressing poverty.

“Young people see themselves as global citizens — Greta (Thunberg) being one example,” she noted. “They have great ideas and are more willing to share. It is the older people who have more of a ‘them and us’ attitude.”

Rather than in-person meetings, she said the digital world allows for virtual gatherings that could be more efficient. “I don’t know why the UN requires every country to meet in New York,” she said. “It could be a virtual meeting.”

She stressed that the business of international sharing and working together needs to be part of education at all levels.

“If I am a student in school studying about a country, I look in a book,” Finnemore said. “Why not have virtual links with schools in other countries and talk to other young people about where they live? This facility is now available but I don’t know of schools using it. Or find out how people are trying to overcome problems in other countries and perhaps share suggestions.”

She said this would create more “togetherness” instead of the insularity and “ignorance” found in younger students. “It takes a more highly connected world, however,” she added. “Not all students have technology. It doesn’t help when their parents insist on texts.”

Natasha Ridge, executive director at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, said the course is timely because it uses interdisciplinary approaches that add value to students’ lives and help them think more critically about the potential and threats of technology.

“It is very important for today’s students to think about power from multiple perspectives and how considerable influence can be wielded by people with strong brands but not necessarily a lot of knowledge or depth,” she explained.

“In the UAE and Jordan, we tend to be passive consumers of technology and of the social media feeds we follow without always thinking about larger implications and agendas. It is vital that students in the region are able to think critically about what they are watching and reading, the mediums that enable this and the larger geopolitical context beyond the region.”

She spoke of such topics as being paramount, adding significant value to the students’ understanding of the world. “We need a lot more critical analysis of the benefits and pitfalls of technology, [artificial intelligence] and others, rather than assume they are somehow neutral or value free,” Ridge added.

“In higher education, we need to be educating students to be able to challenge the status quo whether it is in science, technology or education, and be able to come up with new solutions and ways of thinking about existing issues — without this, the region will continue to rely too heavily on foreign expertise.”