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Overcoming structural barriers in digital learning

Nahrein Network28 July 2020

In this post, UCL Laidlaw Scholar, Fareeha Masood, writes about her recently completed research project, “Whose Middle Eastern Heritage? A demographic study of Oracc’s users worldwide”.

The Nahrein Network’s collaboration with Oracc and UCL’s Research Software Development Group aims to improve inclusivity in the study of cuneiform. Cuneiform texts preserve the earliest languages known to humanity. Yet today, for those living in the Middle Eastern lands where these texts were first produced, there are disproportionately high barriers to studying cuneiform in the Arabic language. Overcoming the loss of such rich literary heritage is part of the Nahrein Network’s sustainable development aims, and the adaption of open-access resources provides real prospects to re-centre the production of cuneiform research.

Oracc.org hosts a growing cuneiform corpus: an open platform for researchers to collaborate and publish projects on the traces of life left from Ancient Mesopotamia. Digitisation has come a long way in improving access to these tablets, which have become dispersed across the world through a haphazard history of excavation and plunder. As with much of the digital world however, the centre of gravity is shifted towards the European and American sphere, pulling Middle Eastern heritage along with it. In the last few weeks, I have undertaken research to assess the needs of Arabic-speaking audiences in the Middle East to access online resources, and specifically, Oracc.

Through a combination of Oracc’s Google Analytics data and a survey circulated across the Nahrein Network, I built up a detailed picture of the target demographic. Questions addressed included: how Middle Eastern users currently use the site, what technology do they access it through, what channels are used to reach the site, and what content and features are they interested in. The notification of a new survey response was always a welcome sound, promising insights into the real experiences of researchers behind the numbers on the screen.

Findings revealed similar research interests between Middle Eastern users and their counterparts around the world, although the former are slightly more interested in archaeology. The biggest divergences between the two groups came from the devices and software being used to access Oracc. A higher proportion of Middle Eastern users reached the site through social referral. Non-expert users found it difficult to engage with the site interface across all demographics, preventing the growth of widespread interest.

The future of scholarship relies on widespread access, and so I have put forward recommendations to develop the site for new, as well as existing, audiences. Solutions addressing immediate usability and marketing, such as mobile-friendly interfaces and a more diverse social media presence, are all under consideration. Most importantly, a longer-term, sustainable outlook is developing around content creation from the Middle East, which will spur engagement to organically grow from the region. All suggestions are driven by a shared, clear vision: improving the offerings for Middle Eastern audiences to explore their heritage.

Having newly joined the teams behind Oracc to complete this research, my personal takeaway has been the core values held by the people behind the site. Working during the pandemic has had its solitary moments, but meetings with UCL’s RSDG, Oracc Steering Committee, and of course, my supervisor, were infectious with the drive to be doing more. Decisions are research-heavy, solutions are ambitious, and integrity runs throughout project aims. Perhaps my most important finding, therefore, is that the future of cuneiform resources are in safe hands. The inheritors of the world’s first written culture can expect big things from this space.

Cultural Heritage, Statebuilding and the Future of Iraq

Mehiyar Kathem23 June 2020

The Nahrein Network – Chatham House partnership, established in 2019, addresses the neglected role of cultural heritage in statebuilding and international policy. Although in recent years development agencies as well as private foundations have recognised the significance of cultural heritage in countries affected by conflict and political instability, those growing interests have not been translated into effective policy or improved academic research. This partnership attempts to overcome that dearth of research in this regard and highlights the need for more holistic approaches to cultural heritage in Iraq.

The Nahrein Network’s partnership with Chatham House explores the connections between cultural heritage and statebuilding in Iraq. In Iraq’s contested statebuilding process, cultural heritage has been heavily shaped by the country’s changing politics. In recent years, new structures of power and systems for organising politics have transformed Iraq’s cultural heritage in ways that have yet to be fully understood or studied.

State institutions and other structures of power, including the ways in which resources are distributed, have also shaped national and community cultural heritage. Exploring the connections between cultural heritage, politics and statebuilding can help us better understand how the past is used today. These analytical directions, taking into account political-economic structures and resource-distribution, can shed light on why particular components of Iraq’s cultural heritage are prioritised and afforded protection and financial support, whilst other aspects suffer from neglect and even destruction.

Tangible cultural heritage, including historic city centres and buildings, archaeological sites, places of worship as well as intangible cultures, such as crafts and cultural practices, have been altered by decades of conflict and changing politics. The relationship between politics and cultural heritage was most glaringly highlighted by the destruction visited on Iraq’s built heritage in Nineveh, Anbar, Kirkuk, Salahaddeen and Diyala and other Iraqi provinces by the Islamic State and the war to oust them from the country. The deliberate destruction of material cultural heritage is a glaring manifestation of political contestation in Iraq. There are other forms of cultural destruction however, whether deliberate or otherwise. Those include looting and the effects of social-economic development, urban sprawl, construction and agriculture. Ill-conceived conservation interventions have also detrimentally affected Iraq’s tangible cultural heritage.

In Iraq, cultural heritage has historically been central to the operation of politics. Specifically, the construction of singular narratives – most notably witnessed when key cultural sites are folded into competing political elite projects – also highlights cultural heritage as an integral component of statebuilding. In recent years, the fragmentation and fracture of Iraq’s national heritage institutions, overlapping power structures and laws, and the absence of long-term goals and strategies, are also some of the many outcomes of Iraq’s divided politics.

How tangible and intangible cultures are used, instrumentalised or destroyed can tell us much about politics, actor-motivations and provide evidence-based analyses about Iraq’s statebuilding processes that have conventionally been studied through other domains of practice and research. Significantly, an exploration of these dynamics can shed might light on the future of Iraq’s cultural resources and what the Government of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as well as international development agencies, NGOs, universities and academics can do to strengthen Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The Nahrein Network – Chatham House partnership is working to map key state, quasi-state and nonstate heritage related institutions in Iraq and the impact the country’s political system has had on its cultural heritage. Exploring the type of relationships institutions forge in relation to cultural heritage is a key component of this research. Other features of the report will explore lessons learnt over the past few years, case-studies and challenges pertaining to Iraqi and international initiatives in the field of cultural heritage. An evidence-based and policy-oriented research paper will be finalised in 2021.

Future events include roundtable discussions and other meetings planned from July 2020 and a series of one-to-one and group interviews. Webinars will also be organised.

We invite all those concerned about the future of Iraq’s cultural heritage, its protection and potential contribution to peace, stability and social cohesion to participate in these activities.

For further information, and to participate in these discussions, email us on nahrein@ucl.ac.uk

 

How Iraqi academics are overcoming a legacy of intellectual isolation  

o.borlea12 June 2020

Mehiyar Kathem

In recent months, hundreds of online academic webinars have been organised from Iraq as an outcome of the situation arising from COVID-19Across a wide range of topics and fields of research and discussion – from arts and heritage and archaeology to medicine and engineering – this new trend in Iraqi academia is helping Iraqi academics overcome decades of academic and intellectual isolation.  

Online meetings or webinars, including symposiums, lectures and conferences, are not only about academic conversations. They are ultimately focused on using more creatively and constructively online platforms such as Zoom, Free Conference Call and Google Hangouts for cultural exchange. Overcoming physical barriers, not least in terms of geography and problems of inaccessibility, online intellectual exchange has produced lively debates about the ways in which Iraqi academics can contribute to the development of their country and help breakdown in the process decades of isolation.  

Significantly, as seen from the images (link provided below) of these seminars and lectures, there has been an overwhelming focus on humanities and social sciences. This represents a major positive development as Iraqi researchers and academics recognise that these new forms of communication can provide an important alternative to physical meetings. In this context, online platforms have made it much easier to instigate and engage in conversations with academics and researchers, which have seen the participation of thousands of Iraqi academics as speakers and attendees. 

Online meetings have been a way in which Iraqis who have returned to the country after completing their education in the US and Europe and other parts of the world can continue to engage in international academic debates and ensure their connections to those countries and their colleagues are not severed. In the UK, these exchanges have included participants and speakers from University College London, the University of Greenwich, Lancaster University and Oxford University, to name just a handful. Another positive development is that webinars have seen a rapid growth in the number of femaleled lectures and have also provided a space for addressing gender balance in terms of participants.  

There are several factors as to why this is happening now. The first is to do with financial costs.  Inviting foreign academics to Iraq has been prohibitively expensive and Iraqi academics also find it difficult for cost reasons to visit other countries. Iraq’s security situation continues to be a key challenge for UK and other academics to visit the country. COVID-19 has also made it difficult to visit Iraq. Visa issues have been another obstacle.  

Webinars have provided an opportunity for academic exchange between Iraqi universities, who have otherwise found it difficult to communicate with each other. As seen from webinar invitations, there has also been significant exchange between Iraqi academics and their counterparts in the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. This marks a major change from years of Iraq’s isolation and cut-off from the region and this exchange is also helping Iraqis communicate with Gulf neighbours and universities in ways that have been not possible since the 1980s. This has importantly been a way to break down barriers resulting from conflict of the past three decades in the region.  

In this spirit, and acknowledging the challenges faced by Iraqi academia in recent years, online academic and cultural exchange have been widely encouraged by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and university leadersMuch of these webinars have however been organised by individual academics and university departments, telling of some positive change within the university system in Iraq.  

A significant number of these initiatives have been led by Nahrein Network’s partners in Iraq, including Mosul University, Kufa University and University of Al-QadisiyahMustansiryah University and DhiQar UniversityWithin a matter of a few months, and since the Nahrein Network started its work in late 2017, we have witnessed a remarkable increase in academic and intellectual activity in the country.  

 The Nahrein Network has actively participated and supported these positive developments. In 2019, the Nahrein Network implemented three workshops funded by the British Academy to support Iraqi academics improve the quantity and quality of research production in the country. Academics from London School of Economics, University College London and the University of Glasgow, were able to visit and implement the Iraq Publishing Workshops in Kufa University, Mustansiryah University and Sulaimani Polytechnic University. Whilst webinars are not perfect substitutes for tangible presence, they should be widely encouraged as important alternatives 

 Recently, the Nahrein Network issued a grant to Bristol University to work closely with Mosul University and Kufa University to develop Open Educational Resources (OER) as a way to improve awareness of Iraq’s cultural heritage (see further https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/large-research-grants-awarded). An introductory online meeting was recently held which saw the participation of numerous academics from both universities. The former Minister of Higher Education also participated in these debates. 

In an online meeting in early June, Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Ali Naji, also led a discussion about peace and  the role of heritage in Iraq. Dr Ali Naji recently completed a scholarship at University College London and is now also working on a grant to document historic buildings and heritage in the old town of Kufa (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/small-research-grants-awarded)This particular discussion saw the participation of Dr Hassan Nadhem, UNESCO Chair for Inter-Religious Dialogue, who has recently assumed the position of Minister of Culture in Iraq. To listen to this discussion, which is in large part in Arabic, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXP9FJ7upJ4&feature=youtu.be 

There have been many other Nahrein Network friends and colleagues who have actively participated in Iraqi organised seminars. To view some of the topics discussed in the past few monthsI’ve prepared, with the support of Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Dhiaa Kareem of Kufa University, some of these invitations and images. It provides a snapshot of the topics covered in Iraqi webinars. You can view them here to get a better picture of the type of discussions happening in Iraq todayhttps://www.dropbox.com/sh/q6mtb7uel85z87o/AABDM5fVjEzj-b42GaBqV0v5a?dl=0 

Online platforms, in Arabic and English, have been a central way for Iraqi academics to decide on topics that concern them most and have as an outcome provided significant agency to Iraqi universities and researchers. There is as an outcome of these recent activities obviously a ‘democratisation’ of learning that is taking place as knowledge and cultural exchange is made more accessible to people directly from their homes.     

Development is about gradual change and sometimes shifts, as we are seeing in recent months. These hundreds of webinars and online conferences and lectures that have taken place in a short period of time are not only about academic exchange but represent a thirst for engagement in a country that has suffered from many decades of conflict and political instability.  Taken together, they also represent an expression for moving beyond the challenges of the past few years.  

There is much to be done to support academics, universities and researchers who are now increasingly becoming an integral part of the country’s national development. We all can be part of this change.   

Cultural heritage and reconstruction — a view from Mosul University

Nahrein Network7 January 2020

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on cultural heritage in Iraq

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of Iraq, 2 October 2019

On 3 October 2019, The Nahrein Network organised a round-table discussion on the role of cultural heritage in state-building, as part of Chatham House Iraq Initiative’s conference, Iraq in Transition.

Professor Kossay al Ahmedy, Chancellor of the University of Mosul, gave a local perspective.

I will speak about the University of Mosul.

DAESH’s occupation of Mosul has been hugely detrimental. Nineveh, capital of the ancient Assyrian state, saw a great deal of damage and destruction. 83% of the Old City of Mosul was destroyed, including its most iconic and historic sites.

DAESH undermined and attacked culture.

One of the most important cultural sites is the University of Mosul. Large parts of it were also destroyed – we had 70% destruction and over 300 buildings damaged and destroyed.

The electricity network of the university was 80% destroyed. 50% of the water network, 50% of the road network were also destroyed.

217 university vehicles disappeared from the university.

The central library lost 1 million books.

Now, the question is, why did ISIS target and destroy Mosul University so severely?

We have 48,000 students enrolled. 8,091 staff and 24 huge faculties. 125 scientific institutions and 7 research centres.

Mosul University is like a city within a city.

It’s a learning and education zone. That is why it was targeted – the intellectual class was attacked and undermined, including culture.

With international friends we are working to rebuild Mosul University. The university is not about formal education only. Its role is to rebuild ideas. We have achieved a military victory but not yet a victory in thoughts and ideas. The university is key to rebuilding this.

The university is a key institution, able to rebuild the city and to rebuild the intellectual life of the city.

People lost hope. Most historical landmarks have been lost – destroyed. How can we revive hope for the people, especially the youth?

How to access the youth is key. Key question: Do youth watch and observe media – no! They don’t, they only focus on social media. Our university publishes a monthly newspaper. Most youth do not read newspapers, therefore we need to focus on social media.

We have 16 workers in the media department, and we set up tens of websites and social media sites – to transfer knowledge, using the language they understand.

Key to our work is to use media and knowledge to rebuild youth and their understanding of the situation in Mosul.

Now I am always smiling. My smile is a message – that we can rebuild Iraq and rebuild Mosul and build our culture and society who share our ideas.

We need international assistance. The challenges are immense and therefore we need to work together. We all have a responsibility to rebuild so that we can prevent this catastrophe from happening again.

 

This summary of Professor Al-Ahmedy’s words was compiled by Dr Mehiyar Kathem.

This event is part of a project funded by a UCL Public Policy Expert Engagement grant.