It all started with HBO.
Last year we received permission from Home Box Office to prescreen their moving, but tragic documentary “For Neda.” This film focuses on the life and very public death of a young Iranian woman (Neda Agha-Soltan) who was shot at a peaceful demonstration in Tehran during the upheaval surrounding the 2009 elections. The images of her final dying moments, captured by cell phone, went viral on the internet and quickly became an emblem of the political struggle in Iran. The film similarly underscores the dramatic role new technologies can play in global politics. Social media enabled Iranian demonstrators to coordinate activities and communicate with the outside world, and outside players – like State Department official Jared Cohen and San Francisco programmer Austin Heap – stymied Iranian government efforts to stop the free flow of information. Cohen urged Twitter to reschedule its site maintenance so it would not disrupt communications among Iranian dissidents. Heap worked to create proxy servers and develop a circumvention tool (Haystack) so that regular Iranian citizens could evade government censorship. In one fell swoop, digital diplomatic tools helped shape foreign events.
Unfortunately, digital tools and skills are anything but standard diplomatic fare. Throughout my 22-year Foreign Service career I was appalled at the State Department’s slow adoption of new technology. American embassies had long utilized state of the art communications equipment to pass encrypted messages to and from Washington, but for years all writing was done on unsophisticated Wang desktop computers and the internet was banned from the workplace. Indeed, one of the late Richard Holbrooke’s classic complaints was that many State Department officers hadn’t even learned how to take full advantage of the telephone (Holbrooke was famous for holding meetings while simultaneously carrying on two conversations – with a phone in each hand – and keeping three more foreign officials on hold. His farewell gift as US Ambassador to Germany from staff was a melted telephone fused to a wall plaque). Colin Powell finally brought the internet to the desks of Foreign Service officers, but electronic devices remain barred from official meetings. Under Hillary Clinton, efforts are now being made to tap more fully the power of social media to promote and defend American values on the digital frontiers.
Enter the iPad.
As Apple’s latest creation captured the world’s imagination, I began to weigh how the iPad might be used to enhance teaching international affairs at the masters degree level. In particular, could using the device help provide a cohort of future leaders who would enter the public, private, and non-profit sectors equipped with the expertise needed to advance what Secretary Clinton has deemed “21st Century Statecraft?” I also thought that graduates who had sharpened their technological skills using iPads might create a kind of demand pull as they enter the workforce and lobby that they must continue using the device to maintain their productivity. Learning with iPads might help address both shortcomings: ensure graduates enter international careers equipped with the knowledge and tech skills that are increasingly an essential component of their tool kit; and help pave the way for greater acceptance of such mobile devices in official government settings. I shared these thoughts in a short email to John Couch (VP of Apple Education) last July. He was intrigued enough to dispatch Monte Rector (Apple’s Southeast Area Director for Education) to fly into Lexington in August. Here – during a delightful three-hour dinner conversation, accompanied by some excellent Italian fare – the outlines of a potential long-term iPad trial emerged. What was under consideration would be the first instance where an entire professional school – all students, faculty, staff – would use the device through a complete degree cycle. Rector was enthused about what the iPad could bring to the graduate classroom experience and I saw a clear benefit in how the device would help sharpen professional skills. Together, we envisioned an experiment that might be groundbreaking. I also recognized that such a trial could serve as a model for other professional graduate schools (business, law) or academic centers.
Not surprisingly, fleshing out the details took several months. How would we structure the trial? Which specific iPads would students need? How would we assess which applications can best support a masters degree program like ours? Do we need to develop specific apps for our school? If so, how: in house, with outside developers, or a mix of the two? What additional hardware and accessories would best support the effort? How about basic training and reluctant adopters? And, of course, the now standard UPS refrain: “What about logistics?” Some answers came quickly, some slowly, and a few are still being finalized.
Widespread support and undeniable relevance.
What has made this endeavor easier than expected has been the significant assistance that has come from the Apple and tech communities. We have been heartened by the advice, support, encouragement, and generosity that the Patterson School has already received. This engagement and partnership will strengthen this effort across the board. Our students will be able to take advantage of some of the best hardware and iPad accessories available, as well as an array of applications that will enhance their studies and productivity from day one. They are excited and so am I.
As for relevance, the events earlier this month in Tunisia and those taking place in Egypt today reaffirm the role new technologies and social media are playing on the world stage. Once again, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, and the internet are providing a foundation to facilitate political change. Training and equipping future global actors with the understanding of their powerful potential to advance or impede our goals and values remains key.
We have no doubt that this iPad trial will positively transform our program. One backer already suggested that the Patterson School of Diplomacy might soon need to add a fourth word to our motto …
Personal. Passionate. Professional. … and Cool.
Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, Director
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