The Iraqi government will invest $5bn in education this year, the second-largest budget allocation after military spending. The budget is expected to include initiatives to build capacity at schools and integrate information communications and technology (ICT) into education and training programmes for teachers.

Iraqi education budget
2009 $4.5bn
2010 $4.3bn
2011 $5bn
Source: Education Ministry

The education sector in Iraq is looking to utilise these communication capabilities by applying new tools and investing in the 21st century classroom. It is calling on private firms to help develop the planned initiatives.

Internet service provider Scopesky is deploying fibre-optic networks for five universities in Iraq. US technology giant Microsoft has sent representatives to gauge market potential and, in December 2010, set up a training centre for ICT skills development in the country.

Networking initiatives in Iraq’s schools

While the government is focusing on updating technologies, there is still a significant skills shortage and lack of access. UK-based satellite communications firm Talia is looking to bridge the divide by introducing Schoolnet, an ICT networking initiative into schools in Iraq.

“Education today needs to prepare students to live and participate in a connected society,” says Alan Afrasiab, chief executive officer of Talia.

The company is looking to build a school-networking tool, linking institutions to the internet to enhance learning opportunities.

The plan is to connect students and teachers to a dedicated portal and website to enable communication between them and the wider community. Teachers will be able to upload and share resources for students, such as lecture notes and other materials.

The website will not only play host to teaching materials, but will also be a window to the wider world to enable collaboration and sharing of ideas. The portal has an integrated networking platform, designed to connect students and teachers with the education community, locally and internationally, through a dedicated forum and online instant messaging tool.

The company is in the early stages of development and plans to launch Schoolnet within the next six months. The service will be available in Arabic, Kurdish and English.

Talia aims to build computer labs in each school consisting of 10-20 computers, depending on the size of the school. The company will provide the software, other hardware and the internet connection. The type of connection will depend on the location of the school and the availability of infrastructure. Fibre-optic cables will be the first option, but in rural areas where there is no access to fibre, satellite solutions (VSAT) will be used.

“One important aspect of the programme is the training we provide to the teachers, to help them develop a curriculum, to improve their computing teaching skills and ensure hardware is maintained properly,” says Afrasiab.

Teachers and classes will be evaluated to fill any knowledge gaps. Those that pass will be rewarded with more computer resources. After an initial three years, further training, additional software and computers will be provided. Talia is in the process of putting together a committee to assess the effectiveness of the project.

[Schoolnet] will enable the users to share information with others … It democratises access to the internet in Iraq

Alan Afrasiab, Talia

The Schoolnet initiative is an ambitious one. Besides providing the connectivity and resources to education institutions, Talia hopes it will be used for adult education and vocational training. The use of these computer labs will be extended to members of the local community after school hours.

The programme is modelled on similar initiatives around the world. More than half a million young people in 34 countries have worked together in similar projects. One US-based school-networking programme has enabled its users to create more than 55,000 unique pages about their lives, families and communities.

Wider access

“It is not just about providing internet access. The websites and portal will enable the users to share information with others, particularly the West. It democratises access to the internet in Iraq,” says Afrasiab.

Once launched, participating schools will be able to communicate within Iraq. Talia will need to partner schools in other countries to enable Iraqi schools to create a direct link with foreign schools. It will be available for primary and secondary schools as well as universities in Iraq.

“School networking organisations generally act as the link between various stakeholders to bridge the gap between policy and implementation,” says Afrasiab. “We will begin work in the poorest areas. The aim is to help the schools that do not have the capabilities and resources to establish an ICT strategy.”

The Iraqi Ministry of Communications has endorsed Schoolnet along with the Turkish Ministry of Communications. While it is still waiting for endorsement from the education ministry, several senior government figures have expressed support for the programme.