Digitising the education system in Iraq
For the first time ever, Iraqi universities this year conducted online exams. Higher education in Iraq is typically focused around text books and blackboards, rather than dynamic or blended learning techniques. In fact, until recently online examinations were not acknowledged or given credibility, and little effort or funding has gone into regenerating these tired practices.
In 2014, the University of Mosul suffered extensive physical destruction during attacks by Islamic State (IS) and almost 80 percent of the faculty buildings, equipment and infrastructure were partially or completely destroyed. The burning of the central library saw over one million documents lost forever. As such, the university faced huge challenges in resurrecting its once-prestigious educational hub.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased openness to change and digitisation among highly traditional institutions. Upon the request of SPARK’s university partners in Iraq, online education was added to the new Jobs & Perspectives programme, financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to build the capacity of Iraqi universities through their digital transformation.
Regular power cuts and access to reliable or affordable internet are challenges faced across Iraq but especially in Mosul. A fund was set up by professors from the University of Mosul to assist students with purchasing data packages and as a result attendance rates of the new online lectures was over 70 percent, which is comparable to the average attendance rate of in-person lectures (75 percent).
In order to aid the universities’ transition to the digital sphere, SPARK set up a series of online sessions between Iraqi universities and international education experts to share experiences of online learning. Over 300 educators from 10 universities from across Iraq, including the University of Mosul, University of Baghdad and Erbil Polytechnic University, joined to learn more about the process.
Prof. Gokhan Silahtaroglu, Manager of the Distance Learning Center for Medipol University in Istanbul, led a session on best practices for online exams. “In normal conditions, it takes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years, to prepare instructors and students. But thanks to the pandemic, it was a very good motivation to do it in one week!” He shared: “Some teachers say they don’t believe in distant learning or examining. But all those people who were against this kind of thing are [now] doing it.”
As the University of Mosul closed its first ever online exams over the summer, Dr Rawaa Qasha, professor at UoM and Director of foreign affairs, said: “The most useful thing was the tips and experience sharing. We were able to project this onto our context. [For example], how to design questions for online exams and how it differs from the traditional type helped me a lot personally”.
“My mother wants me to be an Engineer”
Despite the fast progress with building the digital capacities of institutions, arguably the most challenging resistance to reformation within higher education comes from youth themselves.
Societal pressures to study traditionally prestigious subjects such as Engineering or Medicine mean that vocational subjects are largely ignored or looked down upon, despite the evidence being that qualifications from subjects like marketing and website development are much more likely to result in gainful employment after graduation.
Sarab, a Kurdish Mechanical Engineering student said: “It was one of my dreams to be an Engineer, to be called an Engineer. In Kurdistan, probably Engineering and Doctor are so important here and they [society] all want you to become one, especially parents. The biggest problem in Kurdistan is jobs, finding a job. The future is not bright.”
Similarly, young graduates lack fair opportunities to gain work-based experience without connections and since Iraq lacks an internship culture.
Through SPARK’s COVID-19 response for SMEs in Iraq, a support package is available for digital companies affected by the crisis. The package consists of small financial grants, training and coaching, plus an innovative ‘digital internship’ component. Unemployed Kurdish, Syrian and Iraqi youth will be provided with a home-based online internship for six months, where they will support growing companies with their digital needs.
The mutually beneficial programme enables companies and startups to scale up their digitisation during COVID-19 and allows young people to gain hands-on experience and digital skills during a period of unfathomably high unemployment.
Despite many relentless hardships, generations of young people have faced in their journey through education towards employment, the higher education sector is now on a fast track to digitisation. The traditional educational system is becoming more student-centred. At the same time, graduates without work experience can boost their digital skills, despite a global pandemic.
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