Exiled Iraqi Professors Lecture at Their Former Universities, From a Distance

Some of the hundreds of Iraqi academics who fled their homeland over the past several years have begun to reclaim a role in their former universities through a new e-learning project, even though they remain in exile.

The unrest following the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 took a severe toll on higher education there, as the violence prompted scores of professors to leave. The exodus of intellectual capital produced a knowledge gap in certain fields that remains unfilled. The new project, the Iraq Scholars Lecture Series, which is coordinated by the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, aims to supplement existing curricula by recording lectures that are then distributed to universities in Iraq.

The initial vision for the project was for a state-of-the-art e-learning format, patterned on MIT’s open courseware model, but it soon became apparent that such an approach was not yet feasible. “We had grand schemes, then we quickly got down to the practical aspect of things,” says Jim Miller III, executive director of the Scholar Rescue Fund. “In Baghdad, where these lectures are needed, there was not enough electricity, or computer availability, so we could have put them together on this side, but they wouldn’t have been delivered.”

Instead, lectures are now being recorded outside Iraq, primarily in Amman, Jordan, and then shown at institutions in Iraq, where the viewing sessions are led by professors on the ground who can field questions and lead discussions. In several cases, the professor in Iraq is a former student of the professor delivering the lecture, allowing for a personal if somewhat attenuated connection.

The lecture topics are chosen based largely on requests from inside Iraq, where expertise in subjects such as electrical engineering, pesticides, neurology, and linguistics is in demand. A recent lecture on pesticides, for example, was viewed not only by students at a college of agriculture but was subsequently requested by several other departments. Although most lecture topics are in response to specific requests, on a few occasions the program organizers have selected topics that weren’t asked for “because we felt there was some importance in getting that curricula back to Iraq,” says Mr. Miller. Four lectures recorded last week by a professor in New York, for example, focused on literary topics including the influence of T.S. Eliot on the Iraqi free-verse movement and Shakespeare in Iraq. The lectures are all recorded in the language in which they would be delivered if the professor were teaching in Iraq, which means that most are in English, which has long been the language for instruction in the sciences.

By the end of the last academic year, in June, more than 500 students at the University of Baghdad, the University of Technology, and the Al-Mustansiriyah University had viewed the 25 lectures that had been produced. More are being prepared, with plans for around 100 by the end of the year. The Iraqi ministry of higher education recently approved a plan to allow up to 20 percent of course curricula to be delivered through an e-learning format, and administrators at universities in Iraq have indicated that they plan to incorporate the material into their courses.

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