Covid-19 has jolted Iraqi universities into the digital era

The establishment of online learning and the routine use of email were long overdue, argues Ali Adnan Mohammed

October 25, 2020
An iraqi flag and the coronavirus
Source: iStock

The idea that academics should look for the silver linings of the coronavirus can often feel tokenistic. Can scientists locked out of their labs for months or students deprived of a classroom experience since March really take solace from the idea that online teaching is now being taken more seriously?

In most cases, the answer, unfortunately, is no. But the situation in Iraq feels different. This optimistic prediction is not to downplay the enormous disruption caused by Covid-19, which forced the closure of university campuses as students were about to sit their first semester exams. Yet the pandemic has initiated sector-wide changes to teaching, research and university life that may benefit scholars and students for generations to come.

For years, Iraq’s government had promised to set up its own online learning platform, but, predictably, this failed to materialise. Having been forced to take the initiative, institutions such as mine – Al-Bayan University, a private university established in Baghdad in 2016 – quickly established committees to consider how to take teaching digital. Within a matter of weeks, teachers were delivering their lessons online.

Since many students in Iraq can hardly use a laptop, the process was inevitably challenging. Each supervisor at Al-Bayan was required to hold a Zoom conference or post a YouTube video to explain how e-learning would work. They then had to teach two or three trial classes to prepare students for the coming semester. But the success of the initiative, along with encouraging results at other institutions, has led the Iraqi government to maintain e-learning for the new academic year. This embedding of digital instruction may play a huge role in improving access to Iraqi higher education over the coming years.

Nor has e-learning been the only serendipitous aspect of the Covid-19 crisis. The lockdown has also led to a huge increase in the number of students undertaking independent research. Under recent rules laid down by Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education, universities must now require their undergraduates to submit research papers for every class they attend, to be assessed alongside the online exams. Previously, research papers – usually about 1,500 words in length – were submitted as graduation projects only if professors thought them necessary.

This new requirement has prompted undergraduates to investigate any number of issues around health, sustainability and human rights, often related to the new dynamic of the Covid-19 crisis. At Al-Bayan, students have submitted almost twice as many research studies as last year. As a result, the university has initiated a support programme to help undergraduate researchers continue to engage critically with the societal problems around them.

The crisis has also made Al-Bayan’s campus a greener and more sustainable place. Admittedly, the main reason for the fall in our energy bills is that only one of our three main buildings was open during the lockdown – whose electricity is provided through solar power. Even now, only one of the others has reopened.

But the need for staff to work from home also highlighted the wasteful and outdated policy of relying primarily on paper-based correspondence, a modus operandi that is still surprisingly common in developing countries. Now even the Higher Education Ministry has started to prioritise email in correspondence – a step change that will stand the sector in good stead by helping scholars to interact more swiftly with both students and academic peers. The days of memos and correspondence jammed into departmental pigeonholes are now numbered.

In recent decades, Iraq’s universities have had to endure more than most higher education institutions around the world have done, and the scars of war and civil unrest still loom large. The coronavirus crisis has shown that, freed from centralised bureaucracy, Iraqi scholars are able and willing to embrace new technology and new ways of working that will benefit students and academics alike.

These achievements are considerable, but we can strive to do more in the future. Higher education in Iraq will not return to its old ways whenever campuses fully reopen – our universities will come back even stronger.

Ali Adnan Mohammed is a sustainability manager at Al-Bayan University, a private university in Baghdad, Iraq.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Covid-19 pushes Iraq digital

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