Iraq’s E-learning Dilemma
By Yusra Mahdi
Project Manager at IFPMC
Amid the global shut down to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, education systems all around the world faced the reality of finding alternatives for in-person learning. For many countries the shift to virtual learning was that alternative reality. Suddenly, what seemed a plan for the future, became a necessity for the present. Among the countries forced to make this swift move to e-learning, is Iraq. However, with an already struggling education system, limited technical capacities, and a lagging digital transformation – the country found itself in a difficult dilemma.
Crumbling Education System
Decades of war, conflict, sanctions and corruption have contributed to a poor education system in Iraq and denied millions of Iraqi children access to quality education. According to UNICEF, more than 3.2 million children are out of school in Iraq, and the situation is ‘especially concerning in conflict affected governorates, such as Salah al-Din and Diyala, where more than 90% of school-age children are left out of the education system. Almost half of all school-age displaced children approximately 355,000 children – are not in school’. A large number of displaced people are from minority groups who fled violence in fear of persecution by extremist groups. They are being deprived of basic education and these interruptions expose them to further discrimination, denying them representation and a lack of opportunities for the future. Local education authorities are already facing difficulties with over-crowded classrooms and poor school infrastructures, so the displacement crisis is adding more pressure.
The Iraqi education system has been deteriorating since the post-2003 US invasion, despite billions pledged through funding schemes and programs allocated for its recovery. Al-Rubeai and Al-Jaafri reported in Middle East Online media platform about the ten main problems facing the Iraqi education system, including ‘dependence on rote learning which fails to instill the ability to think critically, a prerequisite for progress and innovation; uninteresting, unexciting, and badly designed curricula; overcrowded schools; inadequate school buildings; reliance on private tutoring; overstretched and underfunded national systems; poorly trained teachers; and the exam-driven nature of the system pressures teachers to pass as many students as possible, regardless of attainment’.
All of these problems are now adding to and exacerbating the complex challenges which learners are facing with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This report seeks to explore the reasons behind this e-learning dilemma, what some programs and projects recommended as potential solutions, and future course of action.
Slow-paced Digital Transformation
Iraq was one of the last countries in the Arab region to adapt to digital initiatives in education, starting as late as 2010. One of the main and first initiatives that started e-learning efforts in Iraq was “the Distant Learning Project’ by the United Nations Development Group (UNDG). The project aimed ‘to support primary and secondary level students inside and outside Iraq to continue their curricular learning in spite of deteriorating security conditions’. The project’s focus was on the transitional grades of 6, 9, and 12, through distance education modalities such as educational TV and radio programming. The radio component was cancelled due to its cost and limitations, and was replaced with the development of a curriculum-focused website which would ultimately include electronic copies of all school and supplemental textbooks, TV lessons, interactive lessons, educational games, and other tools. However, the limitations of the Distant Learning project according to an external evaluation report was that it was managed remotely from Jordan and failed to respond to delays and inexperienced staff from the Iraqi Ministry of Education’s side effectively.
Furthermore, Iraq still faces problems with an underlying lack of access to innovative, up-to-date Information and Communication Technology (ICT) facilities, capacities and training. Several initiatives have tried to improve ICT capacities in education before, but they failed to address this from a grassroots-level, resulting to limited change on the ground. For example, in 2007, the UNDG and UNESCO sought to address ‘a lack of integration of ICT into the organization and management of the Ministry of Education (MoE), in staff and teacher training, and in curriculum, as a means of enabling Iraqi students to prepare for places in a ‘high-tech’ world’. The project sought to build the capacity of the Iraqi MoE by focusing on the effective use of ICT and a variety of e-learning resources. However, due to ill planning from the MoE’s side the project failed to reach its intended outcomes.
According to an evaluation report of the project, ‘the MoE experienced some issues and difficulties in integrating and using these resources and ensuring that staff trained in project activities remain in relevant positions to build on this investment in human resources capacity also the use of ICT facilities and equipments procured under this project for its intended purpose which is supporting ICT at schools level’. The report explains this further by noting that none of the ICT facilities or hubs that were established by the project were actually being used for the benefit of learners. The schools were basically not using them or incorporating ICT in education.
These shortcomings are directly linked to the MoE’s top-down ICT policy that is clearly lacking the foundations to enable the implementation of effective e-learning solutions. Furthermore, there are limited efforts from the ministry to integrate ICT in the national curriculum. The majority of state schools don’t have a technology class and teachers are not trained to adopt e-content activities. Both of which are necessary to build a concrete foundation for the e-learning process.
E-learning amid COVID-19
With the outbreak of the coronavirus, Iraq, like many countries, imposed lockdown measures and school closures. The country’s MoE announced at the start of the academic year in November 2020, that schools will attend one day per week and thus relying on distant learning methods to make up for the time away from the classrooms. This involved facilitating an online platform as well as vaguely encouraging the use of various social networking sites for continuous communication between teachers and students. It also stated making use of tv and radio channels to broadcast lectures.
What is clear is that these methods have not been enhanced much since the Distant Learning Project in 2010. Efforts are still focusing on transitional grades and are only engaging the vast majority of students through TV broadcasts and social networking sites. If there are any new initiatives, they are individual efforts by local education departments or private schools.
There is a lot of ambiguity in the e-learning strategy of the MoE. In interviews with local education department managers, headteachers, supervisors and teachers, it was expressed that there is no clarity on many aspects of the distant learning plan, including teachers’ duties in engaging students online; the e-content used on the platforms and how to communicate with parents during this process. Many headteachers also expressed that they became hooked to this top-down approach and are not confident enough to use a plan that suits their schools. Even the schools who tried to implement voluntary techniques faced a backlash from teachers and parents, claiming that they’re not obliged to follow through. The hope was that there would be some sort of flexibility given to local education departments, perhaps adopting a more “schools know best” approach.
Furthermore, there are many existing challenges that prevent the successful implementation of an e-learning strategy. Limited internet data is one of the key issues hindering successful application of e-learning in Iraq. Upload or download of learning materials such as videos, graphs, and animations take a long time, hence causing frustration and demotivation among students. A study by Al-Azawei et al found that according to lecturers (18.91%) and students (25%) another key factor is the shortage of funding, stating that ‘most of the allocated budget is spent for the establishment of new buildings in order to absorb the increased number of students’. Finally, it was also stressed that the majority of lecturers and students stated that intensive training programs are required in order to enhance user skills towards computer and e-learning technologies.
In public debates, many are also questioning why it is mainly schools and education institutions that are facing tough COVID-19 restrictions. Restaurants, cafes, markets and other businesses are open on a daily basis with limited restrictions imposed. The central government is criticised for not prioritizing education. Schools closing down or limiting attendance without any effective alternative is contributing to a generation of children losing almost two years of their education without any meaningful remedy. Further to this, the lack of innovative teaching methods means that they will be ill equipped to compensate for the missed teaching time.
Bringing schools, teachers and learners in E-learning solutions
Ensuring continuity of learning during difficult times of a global pandemic is not an easy task and an overwhelming one for any education authority, not just Iraq’s MoE. However, looking at best practices in many countries around the world, a common factor for success is the cooperation and consistent involvement of education stakeholders in this process.
Schools should be given more authority and credit to act on their own intuitive insight and become at the forefront of exploring solutions for their learners and staff. Furthermore, teachers should be empowered and motivated to put that extra bit of effort in, by making it their duty and responsibility to engage students in distant learning. As recommended by the International Commission on the Futures of education in their nine key ideas for navigating through the COVID-19 crisis; ‘value the teaching profession and teacher collaboration. There has been remarkable innovation in the responses of educators to the COVID-19 crisis, with those systems most engaged with families and communities showing the most resilience. We must encourage conditions that give frontline educators autonomy and flexibility to act collaboratively’.
Students should be given the opportunities to express their voices in what is best for their learning. As stated by Youth representatives to the SDG Education 2030 Steering Committee, ‘invest in and prioritize youth and students through representation. This means bringing young people and students into decision-making processes and to co-create solutions together for a better future’. It was also recommended that priority should be given to involving young people participating in reform projects on the ground to achieve quality inclusive education.
The right to education must be protected and prioritized during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, as the International Commission recommended efforts should be on strengthening public commitment to education as a common good based on the principles of inclusion, solidarity and supporting the flourishment of individuals and societies. There should be awareness that the whole community is responsible, not just for educating our children and young people, but the whole community – to face both present and future challenges.
-Al-Azawei A., Parslow P. and K. Lundqvist (2016) Barriers and Opportunities of E-Learning Implementation in Iraq: A Case of Public Universities, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning Volume 17, Number 5. p126-146
-Al-Rubeai M. and A.K. Al-Jaafri (2019) What problems face Iraq’s education? Middle East online; accessed 30/12/2020 on https://middle-east-online.com/en/what-problems-face-iraqi-education
-Matar, N., Hunaiti, Z., Halling, S., & Matar, Š. (2010). E-learning acceptance and challenges in the Arab Region. In S. Abdallah & F. Albadri (Eds.), ICT acceptance, investment and organization: Cultural practices and values in the arab world (pp. 184–200)
-UNESCO – External Evaluation report for Distant Learning Project. Accessed 10/1/2021 on http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/FIELD/Iraq/pdf/Publications/Distance-Learning.pdf
-UNESCO – ICT Education for Iraq – External evaluation report. Accessed 10/1/2021 http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/FIELD/Iraq/pdf/Publications/ICT.pdf
-UNESCO (2020) Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action, International Commission on the Futures of Education. Accessed 16/1/2021 on https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/education_in_a_post-covid_world-nine_ideas_for_public_action.pdf
-UNESCO (2020) Youth Statement on investing in education and youth. Accessed 17/1/2021 on https://en.unesco.org/news/youth-statement-investing-education-and-youth-0
-UNICEF – Education: Every child in school, and learning. Accessed 12/1/2021 on https://www.unicef.org/iraq/what-we-do/education