On April 1st, I received a message from the head of my department at the University of Sulaimani, asking me to draft three lesson plans for my students oriented around e-learning. I felt like it was either an April Fool’s joke, or that the email signaled the beginning of a new era in the Kurdish education sector.
The crisis continues. Schools are shut. Parents are wondering what to do at home with their children. It’s clear that without a viable option to keep young minds active and on track in their education, an entire generation could slip behind. Kurdistan needs a breakthrough remote learning system – but are we ready for it?
In these times, the benefits of a remote learning system are obvious. As social distancing and quarantine have become our new way of life, e-learning is an urgent alternative to the traditional classroom methodology. Shifting from a traditional classroom to online learning definitely makes the learning environment very different and students face some problems, but there are solutions to overcome them, says Nivin Burhan, a senior in the English department at the University of Sulaimani. “E-learning is a new experience for universities in Kurdistan because students are used to attending in-person classes to learn,” she says.
Transitioning to online learning means embracing change – and will require the collaboration of government officials, telecommunication companies, parents, lecturers, and students. Implementing that change within the Kurdish education landscape today will no doubt face major technological and cultural challenges.
There are many options for remote learning: webinars, and virtual classrooms, collaborative learning, micro learning, mobile learning are all various modes of e-learning. Which one works best? There may not be one size that fits all. Universities and other educational establishments should straightforwardly decide up on the proper methods that work the best for Kurdistan.
There are some who are skeptical. Pishtiwan Mnasor, a lecturer at Sulaimani Polytechnic University, doubts that e-learning will be possible for the Kurdish education system at least in the very near future.
There are technical and logistical issues that put Kurdistan at a disadvantage. The shortage of public electricity, weak internet connections, and infrastructure requirements for students who live in remote areas and villages and have difficulty getting access to the internet mean that some may be left out of the benefits.
Then, there are challenges having to do with the style of teaching which is predominant in Kurdistan. The question-and-answer methodology for a class of 40 students is certainly a challenge in an electronic environment, as is making use of tangible teaching aids. Accessing information via the internet saves time, and the brain responds quicker to visual content. Learning at their own convenience can unlock the potential of a student that, in a classroom, is a disruption – but in the comfort of their own home, they have room to be creative.
For more advanced learners, in a decentralized classroom the teacher is no longer a star on the stage, but instead a guide to the vast amount of information available for research on the world wide web. This has the potential to individualize the learning experience and change the relationship between the student and teacher entirely.
On the other hand, some students will remain passive recipients of information, depending on their virtual classmates and other players in preparing assignments, making knowledge be treated like saleable commodities — this is a problem that all teachers know from their classrooms, and is not exclusive to online learning, though it may exacerbate it.
Despite the mounting uncertainty and anxiety that accompanies our increasingly interconnected world, integrating students from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds will be a tremendous feat. Culturally conservative parents who do not allow their daughters to show their faces or exchange voices are a barrier to education that may still carry over to online spaces. Although online platforms permit students to disable their video function and there are lots of informative online resources available for free, cultural barriers may prove some of the most difficult to overcome.
One of the worries to be mitigated is the danger of exposing students to online harassment. Anyone who has read the comments section on YouTube knows that harmful social attitudes seem to flourish unchecked on the internet. Anti-social behavior and cyber bullying could be of major concerns, let alone handling the spontaneous overflow of misinformation on social media are a legitimate concern of students and parents.
“Due to the social (mostly tribal mentality) and religious thinking, that has shaped our cultural values and lifestyles, not every parent is willing to allow their daughters to publicly share their presence online, but this bars them from participating in these modes of learning,” Mansor says. “ Moreover, e-learning dissocializes and prevents students from engaging proactively with their classmates so they cannot get a real taste of studying in a university/ institution. This is especially true for the freshmen and new semester courses,” he added.
These challenges can all be overcome eventually. Internet-based learning provides an opportunity for Kurdish educators and students to take initiative and innovate. Dara Karim Mahmood, head of the Department of English and Teaching at Tishk International University, Sulaimani Branch, says that the beauty being an educator is taking risks, finding novel approaches to solving problems, and learning from the mistakes and hardships we face on the road.
“E-learning is rather assignment-based, in which learners need to be assessed based on the amount of time they have dedicated to researching a certain topic. As a result, it tends to inspire learners into self-education and self-assessment rather than teachers being the centre of the process, which will consequently provide us with a generation full of enthusiasm towards solving problems and leading innovations,” Mahmood told Rudaw English.
Students, who are the greatest asset in driving the march toward future innovation, must remember the need to balance the convenience of learning online with the potential for distraction. Energy-draining advertisements, irrelevant and fake news, and mind-numbing videos which flood our phone and minds can and do shape our thoughts, speech, and actions, and these need to be far removed from places of learning.
Despite the fact that computerized education is indispensable and students are constantly exposed to various kinds of materials, temptations, distractions, digital interruptions, online schooling can be considerably beneficial particularly for those students who are bullied by their classmates, and are more visually-oriented learners.
Modernizing Kurdish educational sector will require culturally and intellectually changing the mindset of not only parents, but also authorities, teachers, and students. Regardless of the ramifications of COVID-19, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Scientific Research should implement well-thought-out projects backed by legislation to lead the way.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have brought life to a halt. But sometimes it is necessary to slow down and pause, before beginning again in a new direction. This lockdown has given us more time to be at home, and this a window of opportunity to shift from the culture of memorization and spoon-fed education to concentrate on cultivating students’ independent analytical skills, to set up a modern technological infrastructure, and test the ability of human beings to adapt and evolve with changing circumstances. This time has the potential to be a game-changer, so let us not waste it.
Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a writer and teacher at the University of Sulaimani’s Language and Culture Centre. He has contributed to Open Democracy, Fair Observer, The World Weekly, Newsweek Middle East, The New Arab, and Your Middle East, among others.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.