This is part 2 of the “Blended Learning Initiative” Blog Series. Part 1 can be found at this link.
“How do you call online learning real learning? Learning usually happens in the classroom under the direct guidance and supervision of instructors!” This is a rhetorical question we have heard for over a year now. Restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic have disturbed education systems all around the world. In Iraq specifically, all learning was moved online suddenly. This challenge led to an intervention by the UNDP-Accelerator Lab in Iraq to conduct a mission of sensing, exploring, and experimenting with solutions that support the incorporation of online learning and future-proofing the education system. As an explorer, this tempted me to investigate the question “What is the most efficient and effective approach to enhancing online learning in Iraq amid the pandemic and how do we embed it within the higher education system in Iraq?”
Having an open mind to exploration is the starting point to understand the education system in Iraq and we must combine that openness with a set of innovative methodologies to transform our understanding into future-proof education solutions. The aim is to make sense of the rapidly changing environment, generate learning, and use these insights to support the design and experimentation of new solutions to enhance learning in Iraq. The exploration aims to use a set of innovative tools including: Horizon Scanning, Partnership Building, Systems Thinking, and the generation of collective intelligence to explore how to embed online learning into the education system and drive change. This blog will take us through this exploration journey and the production of knowledge.
- Horizon Scanning to define the Scope of exploration
In 2020, the UNDP-AccLab in Iraq became absorbed in an innovative exploration journey using the horizon scanning, and specifically, Mapping Signals of Change approach, to explore events amid the COVID-19 pandemic within the higher education system in Iraq. The UNDP-AccLab in Iraq mapped a strong positive signal, online learning, which you can read about in Part 1 of this blog series.
The online learning signal led to a break in the causality loop of learning in Iraq and it added another layer of opportunity to improve the digital skills and increase employability of youth; hence the need to identify strategic opportunities to strengthen the signal. Thorough research and discussions with various stakeholders led to the identification of a strategic opportunity to strengthen online learning, inducing a structural change to the education system in Iraq towards blended learning. Blended Learning is the use of both offline and online methods for teaching and learning; it allows for a planned and deliberate embeddedness of online learning into the education system and tests its applicability alongside offline learning, which ensures adaptability to emerging challenges and the upskilling of the digital capabilities of Iraqi youth.
Next, the UNDP-AccLab in Iraq aimed to embed the use of blended learning into the work of different stakeholders to achieve an impact at scale.
- Who are the ideal partners to embed blended learning in Iraq’s higher education system?
To answer this question, the UNDP-AccLab used stakeholder-mapping to identify the potential partners who have the knowledge, power, authority, resources, and commitment to embed blended learning into Iraq’s higher education system. The UNDP-AccLab in Iraq started mapping potential stakeholders, including government, corporations and large businesses, civil society organizations, and social innovators and citizens, to identify those who work on higher education in Iraq. The mapping phase revealed that the Government of Iraq is the stakeholder that has the power and authority to induce long-term and structural changes to the education system in Iraq by introducing policy and regulations. Within the government, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MoHESR) is the entity responsible for the design of the teaching curriculum, curriculum implementation and the capacity building of higher education professionals and is already committed to incorporate blended learning and enhancing Iraq’s education system.
The partnership tools enabled us to choose the most impactful partner to drive change and set a formal partnership through starting the “Blended learning Initiative.” This initiative by the UNDP-Accelerator Lab in Iraq and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MoHESR) represents a major achievement for the UNDP-AccLab in Iraq, since it enabled the AccLab in Iraq to incorporate the analytical tool, Mapping Signals of Change, into the work of the MoHESR and embed the use of blended learning and innovative methodologies into the work of the Government of Iraq. Adding to that, this initiative represents the first formal cooperation between UNDP-Country Office in Iraq and the MoHESR, hence the AccLab succeeded in forming a groundbreaking partnership.
- Systems Mapping to identify the scope and level of intervention
The UNDP-AccLab in Iraq mapped the higher education system in Iraq to understand synergies and find and analyze potential problems through issue-mapping, the process which utilized online gamified tools, interactive sessions, and performing interviews and working groups. The process of exploring with MoHESR, which occurred in two stages during 2020 and 2021, led to valuable insights.
Stage one of exploration during 2020 enabled us to understand the system through engaging all partners to analyse the interplay between the different issues and identify the critical points for intervention. The interplay highlighted that there is a need to work on several factors to embed blended learning, including the way the curriculum is delivered to students at universities, the tools being used to communicate and evaluate the learning, and the behaviors of universities and teachers towards digital tools. Stage two of exploration during 2021 informed us that changing the foundation that prepares graduate students interested in pursuing a career in academic teaching in the Iraqi Higher education Systemstarts with the Teaching Method Curriculum taught at the 35 Continuous Learning Centers in Iraqi Universities. Second, system mapping within the Continuous Learning Centers led to mapping of expertise and highlighted that teaching methods expertise are abundant, yet there is a lack of expertise in blended learning design and tools. This gap is mainly due to the traditional methods of teaching that depended on offline learning before the pandemic. In order to implement the UNDP-AccLab mandate, a committee of 17 Teaching Methods Curriculum professionals was formulated, and the lab hired a blended learning consultant to develop local capacities and support the MoHESR in producing a future-proof local solution, with local expertise.
- Generating Collective Intelligence
Explorers are the change sensors within UNDP; we merge the signals on the ground with quantifiable evidence to generate collective intelligence and provide new solutions that fit our community’s needs. In order to collect evidence, one of the largest and widest data collection and analysis processes regarding the current Teaching Methods Curriculum and its implementation was performed by the “Blended Learning Initiative.” The data collection and analysis phase started with collecting and analyzing 19 Teaching Methods Curriculums from different Iraqi universities. The analysis focused on the current structure of the curriculum, and the degree to which it embeds blended learning. This was further enriched by performing qualitative interviews with nine various stakeholders, ranging from education professionals to students within the Iraqi learning ecosystem. The qualitative interviews allowed us to sense and explore attitudes and perceptions among key stakeholders, specifically about the capabilities, opportunities, and motivations to engage with blended learning. The collaborative efforts led to generating collective intelligence, whichfalls within three areas that will be used to enhance decision-making:
1- The structure and design of the curriculum: Most of the curriculums have some aspects of blended learning.
2- The content of the curriculum: Weaknesses include lack of a blending mechanism to perform evaluations and assessments, lack of a unified Teaching Methods Curriculum across universities, and lack of various specializations in the curriculum.
3- Capacity building needs: The analysis led to an evident lack of blended learning and digital skills amongst different stakeholders. This is affecting the adaptation of the Iraqi higher education system to blended learning.
The use of innovative methodologies led to the Government of Iraq welcoming the UNDP-Accelerator Lab to induce structural change to the higher education system in Iraq. As the representative of MoHESR stated, “The UNDP-AccLab do things differently; they actually tried to understand the status-quo, not in isolation but in collaboration with the different stakeholders, to generate future-proof education solutions that can accelerate the development of Iraq’s education system.” The collective intelligence gathered by the Blended Learning Initiative will inform the design and experimentation of the updated Teaching Methods Curriculum developed by government partners and local experts, leading to a more modern and adaptable higher education system in Iraq.