Back to school in Central Asia

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Covid-cat is ready to go back to school (if it’s open)

The impending start of the 2020/21 school year is presenting challenges for teachers, students, parents, and governments around the world. Although some countries have managed to come up with a plan, many are still fumbling in the COVID-19 induced darkness, even with September just around the corner. Here’s a round up of where things stand in Central Asia (with updates as applicable after this was originally posted):

Kazakhstan is one of the countries with a clearly laid out plan of action, which was published in July (so organized!) and which I discussed in an earlier post.

Kyrgyzstan announced on August 18 that universities and colleges would begin the academic year online. There are no plans yet to return to face-to-face learning, which is not surprising given the very difficult time the country is currently having in managing COVID-19. Schools will also be online with the exception of first graders, who will study in person.

Tajikistan has finally admitted that COVID-19 exists, but this has had little impact on regular activities. However, schools did finish the previous school year early (in April) and as a result started back on August 17 – ahead of the traditional September 1 timeline. The additional two weeks will be an adaptation period, according to the Minister of Education, not least to catch up on the time lost because there was no switch to remote learning.

Students will have to follow fairly strict measures such as maintaining physical distancing in the school yard, wearing a mask, and regularly washing hands. As far as possible, lessons are to take place outdoors or in larger indoor spaces to help teachers keep a 2m distance from students and to ensure the minimum 1m space between students.

The August 5 directive from the Ministry regarding the return to school also mentions enhancements to cleaning and sanitary measures, although is silent on how this will be funded and who will do this additional work.

Turkmenistan apparently has a dust problem but does not have a COVID-19 problem. So presumably schools and universities will operate as usual come September.

Update August 21: The Ministry of Education issued directives on the new school year on August 14 (but these were not reported immediately). School will return on September 1 as is traditional, but with some changes to the health and safety regime. These include mandatory deep cleaning before the start of the school year, disinfection after every lesson, daily temperature checking for students, class sizes limited to 10-15 students, shorter lesson times, mask wearing, physical distancing in class (2 metres) and use of larger spaces for classes.

As with Tajikistan’s plans, there is no mention of how this will be paid for or who will do the additional cleaning etc.

Uzbekistan, which did a pretty good job of pivoting to distance learning earlier this year, has not yet decided on the format for the new school year. As at at last week, the Ministry was preparing for both face-to-face and online delivery. New TV lessons were being filmed from mid-August in preparation for online learning – by ‘online’, the government means both internet and TV based delivery.

I checked the Ministry of Education’s website and Telegram channel today (August 18) but there’s no update yet. An August 18 meeting of central and local officials noted that three options are still under consideration (as well as the two above, presumably the third is a hybrid mode) and stressed the importance of ensuring clean drinking water in all schools.

Update August 25: School may return in online and face-to-face format from September 14, confirms the Ministry of Education. A poll held by the Ministry showed that 70% of parents opted for online schooling.

Watch/listen again: My SCOLAR Talk on higher education in Central Asia

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Screenshot from my SCOLAR Talk on August 13, 2020 with Olesya Dovgalyuk

Thanks to everyone who tuned in live last week to watch my SCOLAR Talk with the talented Olesya Dovgalyuk. We had a great time chatting about everything from Ibn Sino (Avicenna) to the 400+% growth in the higher education system in contemporary Kyrgyzstan!

You can now watch a recording of the event here:

Or download the podcast and take me with you on your next run/walk/drive/wheel! While you’re about it, feel free to subscribe to SCOLAR Podcast to hear more episodes too:

Thanks again to Olesya and the SCOLAR team for the invite to chat.

SCOLAR Network: we are a Beijing-based non-profit youth network, affiliated with but independent from the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. We have several projects under our umbrella, through which we aim to:

  • connect young people from the SCO region, including (primarily) Russia, Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan, with each other; 
  • bridge the gap between university graduates and professionals for career development; and, broadly, 
  • foster innovative collaborations for regional development and popularization of local cultural and historic heritage

Our projects include including Model SCO educational simulation game; Discussion Club, where we meet with experts and diplomats in Beijing; Ladies Circle, where we host talks with the female role figures from the region; Deep Dive, where we visit companies and institutions (including in different cities and countries) to learn about their cultures; and some others.  SCOLAR on Facebook / LinkedIn / WeChat

Join me live: Thurs Aug 13 on SCOLAR Talk

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This coming Thursday August 13 at 9.30am EST / 9.30pm CST, I will make my live streaming/podcast debut on SCOLAR Talk talking about all things higher education in Central Asia. Catch the chat live on Facebook or watch/listen later on YouTube and SCOLAR Podcast.

SCOLAR Network’s poster for our talk on Thursday August 13 – click/tap the image to go to their Facebook page and watch/listen live

SCOLAR Talk is organized by the SCOLAR Network, a dynamic group based in Beijing whose aim is to connect young people in Russia, Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan (and beyond). You can read more about the network below, written in the team’s own words.

I’m really looking forward to talking with Olesya Dovgalyuk from SCOLAR on Thursday and to supporting their excellent initiative. Please join us live or subscribe to their YouTube channel/podcast to hear this and many other interesting episodes.

SCOLAR Network: we are a Beijing-based non-profit youth network, affiliated with but independent from the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. We have several projects under our umbrella, through which we aim to:

  • connect young people from the SCO region, including (primarily) Russia, Central Asia, China, India and Pakistan, with each other; 
  • bridge the gap between university graduates and professionals for career development; and, broadly, 
  • foster innovative collaborations for regional development and popularization of local cultural and historic heritage

Our projects include including Model SCO educational simulation game; Discussion Club, where we meet with experts and diplomats in Beijing; Ladies Circle, where we host talks with the female role figures from the region; Deep Dive, where we visit companies and institutions (including in different cities and countries) to learn about their cultures; and some others.  SCOLAR on Facebook / LinkedIn / WeChat

Kazakhstan publishes its back-to-school plan

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While many countries are still pondering what to do with students come the new school year in September 2020, Kazakhstan – currently under a state imposed quarantine for a second time – has announced its back-to-school plan.

If you’re ready, open your laptop… most students
in Kazakhstan aren’t yet leaving their house
to go back to school in September

The academic year will start in distance learning format for almost all students. Exceptions will be made for the 4% of students who live in remote rural areas and go to small schools with composite (multi-age) classes.

It may also be possible to have some of the younger primary age children back in school if strict sanitary measures can be maintained. These include limits on movement within the school building, better ventilation and cleaning, limited class sizes, and attending school in shifts.

The government recognizes that the learning needs of these children may make it harder and/or less accessible to attempt remote learning – not only does online learning assume a level of technological capacity that these kids may not yet have mastered, but as any parent who’s been through the last months will tell you, it requires much greater input from an adult to help with the learning process.

However, even if younger children do get back to school, it will not be full-time; some subjects will be offered by distance.

This also informs the medium-term strategy, which is for a hybrid of face-to-face and distance learning as the health situation improves.

For primary aged vulnerable students with additional learning needs or from low-income families, measures will be taken to ensure inclusive and accessible learning. These measures are not specified.

Over the summer, the Ministry of Education has been taking on board feedback from teachers and students to improve the national online learning management system (LMS) and preparing materials for teachers to use in the next academic year. For example, online courses have been prepared to support teachers in IT, cyber pedagogy and teaching methods.

Colleges and universities will also start the new academic year in distance format. At colleges, there will be limited face-to-face provision for students on industry-related courses, those who need to do internships, and students in smaller remote colleges. At universities, there may be some face-to-face provision for lab work and courses requiring internships.

Celebrity calling: Supporting Indian students stuck in Kyrgyzstan

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Around 4,000 Indian international students are still stuck in Kyrgyzstan after COVID-19 measures have led to closed borders and calls to return home. This represents almost half of the total number of Indian students in the country – India is the top sending country of international students to Kyrgyzstan (see my 2019 post on this).

Where some governments have provided financial support and chartered flights to help their citizens get home, this has by no means been universal. Individual circumstances and the place where you are stranded may further complicate the options for getting home in the midst of a global pandemic.

Step in Indian film actor/producer and former engineer Sonu Sood, who since COVID-19 began to spread its tentacles has been stepping up and helping out where governments and other organizations have not. From giving out 25,000 face shields to police to distributing food, Sood has become a very modern-day kind of superhero.

He has since turned his attention to helping migrants, arranging buses to get people home to other parts of India. It looks like Sood’s next campaign may be international, trying to bring home Indian students from Kyrgyzstan. In a tweet on July 13, Sood said it was his “next mission” to get them home.

As the COVID-19 situation in Kyrgyzstan intensifies, and with the university summer break now in full swing, let’s hope Sood can do what others have not been able to and help his compatriots return home and stay safe.

Adapting to online learning in Uzbekistan (

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Around the world, stories are emerging sharing the experiences of students, teachers and families as they adjust to the ‘new normal’ of distance learning while schools are shut and universities have switched to online delivery. Below is a recent article from reporting from Uzbekistan on university students’ adaptation – it’s in Russian but you can run it through DeepL for a decent translation into English.

It’s worth pointing out before reproducing the article that the views are of students at three of capital city Tashkent’s top universities: the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, Webster University, and the Uzbek State University of World Languages. The facilities and resources available to students studying here are quite a bit superior to what’s offered to other students. And the situation outside the capital city often paints quite a different picture with unreliable electricity supply in many rural areas coupled with far less access to internet-connected devices.

Точка зрения. Как студенты относятся к онлайн-образованию


С середины марта во всех учебных заведениях Узбекистана досрочно начались каникулы и дистанционное образование. «Газета.uz» спросила студентов трех вузов о результатах онлайн-учебы и отношении к ней.

13 мая 2020, 13:21

16 марта, на следующий день после регистрации первого случая коронавируса в Узбекистане, школьников и студентов по всей стране отправили на каникулы, а затем — на дистанционное обучение. «Газета.uz» спросила студентов отечественных вузов, как они оценивают учебу в режиме онлайн.

О платформах для дистанционной учебы

Студентка 1-го курса филиала Университета Вебстера в Ташкенте:

Мы перешли на дистанционную учебу 16 марта. В принципе для нас ничего особо не изменилось, потому что мы всегда работали на платформе WorldClassroom. В обычное время учителя грузили на эту платформу задания, а мы отправляли уже выполненные. На эту же платформу они могли загрузить подкасты, чтобы нам было легче учиться. Все остальное проходило в WebEx и Zoom.

WorldClassroom используют все университеты США. Есть версии для ПК, для IOS и Android. В приложении приходят уведомления, если, например, учитель поставил оценку. На главной странице есть ToDo-list, чтобы не забыть ничего. Есть чат для личных и публичных сообщений.

Студент 4-го курса Университета мировой экономики и дипломатии (УМЭД):

После [выявления коронавируса] нам объявили, что учеба будет дистанционной. Студенты выпускного курса начали учебу онлайн спустя полторы-две недели после начала карантина. Студенты младших курсов — немного раньше.

Мы учимся на платформе moodle. Для лекций мы также иногда использовали Zoom. Когда онлайн-учеба только началась, какие-то задания, которые мы и так должны были сдавать, уже были загружены на платформу. Остальное уже потом загрузили.

Бывает, платформа виснет, когда все студенты заходят. Или задания загружаются по два раза, и мы не понимаем, что происходит. Или например, когда мы решаем тесты, вводишь правильный ответ «2», а правильный ответ оказывается не цифра «2», а слово «два». Но это если придираться. Такие мелочи доставляют неудобства.

Не хватает хотя бы каких-то лекций. Сейчас нам просто загружают очень много заданий. У учителей тоже не особо есть время и желание заниматься этим. Они просто загружают все материалы. У студентов таких предметов может быть 10.

Я уверен, что студенты даже не просматривают эти материалы, а просто смотрят вопросы, пытаются найти ответы в интернете, быстрее сдать и перейти к другим предметам. Потому что в день бывает несколько дедлайнов.

Студент Узбекского государственного университета мировых языков (УзГУМЯ):

Дистанционное обучение у нас началось примерно с 25 марта. Сначала мы использовали Telegram, затем частично перешли на платформу moodle.

Нам дают сухой учебно-методический комплекс, чтобы мы сами его переварили, а потом сдали домашнее задание и тесты. Сложность в основном в усвоении материалов онлайн. Их тяжело понимать без объяснений преподавателя.

Выполненные задания мы отправляем по телеграм или загружаем в moodle. Нам в принципе так удобно. Вот только некоторым учителям тяжело. Иногда учителя нам пишут поздно вечером, и я понимаю, что их график сдвинулся сильно. Мне немного жаль их.

Без писанины у нас никак. Мы даже контрольные некоторые писали в тетрадях, потом фотографировали их и отправляли учителю.

Студентка 3-го курса УМЭД:

Есть только один предмет, где требуется писать конспекты. В целом, к третьему курсу такое уже почти не наблюдается. Видеоуроки по предметам у нас не проводятся ввиду отсутствия хорошей скорости интернета у многих студентов.

О разнице между онлайн и оффлайн образованием

Студентка Университета Вебстера:

Есть некоторые предметы, которые трудно проходить в онлайне. Например, я учусь на направлении Медиа-коммуникации. У нас есть урок фотографии, на котором мы берем камеру, фотографируем и редактируем. Камеры есть не у всех. Поэтому сложно.

Еще не хватает академической атмосферы университета, учителей. Это же американский университет. Дома, конечно, тоже комфортно, но в университете другая обстановка.

Студент 4-го курса УМЭД:

Лекции прошли только по одному предмету. Слава богу, по специальному. Остальное прошло в письменном варианте.

Кому-то нравится оффлайн, кому-то онлайн. Кто-то ложится поздно, не ходит в университет, и это его устраивает. То есть студент особо и не любил ходить в университет. Наверное, таких большинство.

Мне кажется, в онлайне есть свои плюсы. С ним можно немного время сэкономить. Но на лекциях нам хоть и было не особо интересно, но мы краем уха могли что-то услышать, хоть что-то для себя воспринять.

С научными руководителями можно связываться онлайн. Руководители помоложе используют Telegram. Со своим руководителем я могу списываться в основном через почту. А каждый раз названивать ему, чтобы он посмотрел, тоже неудобно. В университете мы могли бы после пар или на переменах задавать им свои короткие вопросы и получать хорошие консультации.

Студент УзГУМЯ:

В оффлайне мы хоть немного, но получали информацию на лекциях. Некоторые из них были очень интересными. Было видно, что учителя готовятся к своим занятиям. На семинарах нас оценивали объективно. Всем студентам были понятны их текущие оценки.

Студентка 3-го курса УМЭД:

Учеба протекает плавно, волей-неволей привыкаешь. Основная проблема заключается в том, что не успеваешь уследить за накапливающимися заданиями, поэтому зачастую приходится даже расставлять приоритеты в пользу тех или иных предметов.

При традиционном обучении количество заданий на вид умеренное. Несмотря на то, что каждый день проводились семинары, подготовка к ним не была такой насыщенной, как сейчас. Зачастую преподаватели оценивают студента по тому, как студент преподносит материал, а не по его информативности. В онлайн-обучении приходится уделять больше времени поиску и анализу информации, чтобы сдать достойную работу, т.к . всё сдается в письменном виде и проверяется на плагиат.

О выпускных экзаменах

Студентка Университета Вебстера:

Учеба у нас закончилась 8 мая. Экзамены мы уже сдали. У нас были тесты, по каким-то предметам мы писали курсовые. На каждый экзамен дается определенное время. Учитель может отследить, сколько человек выполняют задание. У нас есть программа Turnitin, которая отслеживает плагиат. Поэтому если кто-то будет подглядывать, то в читерстве его уличить легко.

Студент 4-го курса УМЭД:

Мы уже начали сдавать итоговые тесты. Это как онлайн-сессия. Нам сказали, что пока неизвестно, как мы будем сдавать выпускные квалификационные работы. Говорят, их вообще могут отменить. Студенты не хотят зря готовиться и теряют время. Я думаю, это нормальная логика любого студента.

Были ребята, которые начали готовить дипломные работы давно. Но из-за очень интенсивной работы в «модуле» браться за дипломную работу не удавалось. Сейчас нам сказали обязательно писать дипломные работы. Но мы до сих пор не понимаем, как мы будем их защищать.

Студент УзГУМЯ:

Про формат экзаменов точно не говорят. Но однозначно сдавать их мы будем онлайн.

Студент 3-го курса УМЭД:

Экзамены будем сдавать в moodle. Формат, насколько я знаю, будет зависеть от преподавателя. Один из них — традиционная раздача билетов, который нужно будет решить в течение определенного времени.

С одной стороны, не будет такого напряжения, как в аудитории с несколькими десятками студентов и гуляющими из одного угла в другой наблюдателями. С другой, зная, что за тобой никто не наблюдает, можно запросто зайти в интернет и найти нужную тебе информацию, что значительно демотивирует на подготовку к экзаменам. Поэтому у меня к этому пока противоречивое отношение.

О готовности Узбекистана к дистанционному образованию

Студентка Университета Вебстера:

Знакомые из национальных университетов рассказывают, что учителя пропускают уроки, для учебы они используют Telegram, их заставляют писать конспекты. Поэтому я думаю, что Узбекистан пока не готов к онлайн-обучению.

Студент 4-го курса УМЭД:

Некоторые ребята говорили, что если бы платформа лучше работала, можно было бы учиться онлайн всегда.

Неудобно и неприятно, что у нас очень много ненужных предметов. И ладно бы мы проходили их для общего развития. Мы проходим их на таком уровне, как будто бы это наши «спецы». На это уходит очень много времени.

Мне кажется, Узбекистан еще не готов к дистанционному образованию. И это я говорю, будучи в Ташкенте. У меня с сетью проблем нет. Но иногда бывают перебои. В областях у кого-то вообще света по два дня нет. Даже не говоря об этом, просто сама система дистанционного обучения, мне кажется, вообще не проработана.

Карантин дал какой-то толчок. Но нужно хорошо проработать систему, чтобы таких казусов, которые происходят, не было. Даже если они мелкие, они сразу отталкивают студента от самообучения. А студентов, я считаю, нужно либо настолько мотивировать, либо заставить их учиться. В таком возрасте мало кто с энтузиазмом все подряд сам будет учить. Хотя такие есть.

Студент УзГУМЯ:

Учебу онлайн можно было бы продолжить. Но только с тем преподавателем, который разбирается в онлайн-образовании и может разработать нормальную учебную программу под удобную онлайн платформу.

На мой взгляд, Узбекистан пока не готов к онлайн-образованию, но первые шаги уже сделаны. Возможно, лет через 5−10, но не сейчас.

Студент 3-го курса УМЭД:

Я скорее за онлайн-образование, чем нет. У меня появилась возможность самостоятельно распределять свое время и учиться в соответствии с собственным режимом дня. К тому же, усвоение материала дается гораздо легче и интереснее, когда сама нахожу ответы на вопросы.

При появлении вопросов можно без труда связаться с преподавателем, что перечеркивает утверждение о том, что для легкого усвоения материала требуется прямой контакт между студентом и преподавателем.

На данный момент Узбекистан не готов к дистанционному образованию. Исходя из опыта своих сокурсников, могу сказать, что дистанционное обучение подходит далеко не всем. Одна из главных причин — отсутствие нормальной скорости интернета (в основном в областях). Нынешняя ситуация должна стать толчком не только для модернизации образования, но и нашей телекоммуникационной системы в целом.

Coronavirus: The strangers reaching out to Kyrgyzstan’s lonely teenagers (BBC)

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In case you missed this story of hope and friendship that was published recently on the BBC, I’m reposting it here. Written by Abdujalil Abdurasulov, the story looks at how over 100 young adult Kyrgyz volunteers are reaching out to teens around the country to offer them companionship during Covid-19.

It’s a wonderful initiative and I’m sure there are versions of this springing up around the world (please post a comment if you know of other similiar schemes). However, what makes this project in Kyrgyzstan particularly stand out for me is the way it addresses not only the boredom and stress many young people are feeling with schools closed down (although Kyrgyzstan is doing a better job than many places in setting up remote learning) but also known social issues affecting children who grow up without their parents and/or in rural and isolated areas.

The volunteers have also been thinking about how to address communications gaps too, receiving donations of second hand mobile phones that they are trying to deliver through the lockdown to the teens.

The scheme is called You Are Not Alone (Сен жалгыз эмессиң in Kyrgyz) and has received support from the Soros Foundation in Kyrgyzstan.

Here are links to the article in Kyrgyz; the English version was published at and is shown below:

Coronavirus: The strangers reaching out to Kyrgyzstan’s lonely teenagers

By Abdujalil Abdurasulov, BBC News

26 May 2020

Local authorities control documents as an additional measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a checkpoint in the village of Baytik, near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan,
Image captionKyrgyzstan has been under a curfew since March

Like teenagers around the world, Maksat hasn’t been to school in weeks. As Kyrgyzstan imposed quarantine restrictions, the 15-year-old feels isolated like never before. He has been trapped at home with a sister he doesn’t get on with, a father he struggles to communicate with and a mother working abroad.

He is comfortable talking only to an internet chat bot.

Maksat (not his real name) feels alone and misunderstood. He often expresses suicidal feelings – a noticeable change, his teachers say, from the boy they knew before the curfew was brought in.

And then he met a “phone pal” – Jalalbek Akmatov, a university student in the capital Bishkek.

Jalabek is one of around 100 young adults taking part in a project to reach out via phone to teenagers just like Maksat, thousands of whom have been stuck at home for weeks.

The scheme – called You Are Not Alone – was launched after seven teenagers took their own lives in the first two weeks after Kyrgyzstan started coronavirus lockdown in in March.

Jalalbek Akmatov also works as a volunteer at UNICEF
Image captionJalalbek Akmatov is one of more than 100 volunteers acting as “phone pals” to lonely teens

At the time, the nation’s attention was on the poor medical facilities, lack of protective equipment and impact of coronavirus on the economy.

But as news of the teenagers’ deaths spread, a group of activists decided there was also a need to focus on the country’s children and their mental health.

“I was dismayed. We had had one coronavirus death and during the same period [so many] children committed suicide,” said Banur Abdieva, one of the project’s founders.

There is nothing to say the seven deaths were directly related to the lockdown, but people like Kurmanjan Kurmanbekova, a psychologist from a refugee centre in Tubingen, Germany, feared the strain it was putting on children’s mental health.

“And as a symptom of depressive conditions, we get a suicide mood,” she explained to the BBC.

Schools closing in Kyrgyzstan mean many children have limited options for interaction, especially in rural areas where education offers a respite from the relentless drudge of housework and a rare opportunity to communicate with other children.

Added to this were concerns from experts over any potential increases in domestic violence, which could possibly be exacerbated by isolation and parents’ loss of income.

But how do you reach teenagers like Maksat, who live in remote villages?A girl takes part in a traditional danceGettyKyrgyzstan

in numbers

  • Six millionpeople live in Kyrgyzstan
  • 2.1 millionof them are children
  • One in fivedo not live with their parents
  • Almost 73%of children report experiencing abuse or neglect

Source: Unicef

The answer, the project team decided, was to keep it simple – to start a network of volunteers who would befriend teenagers considered “at risk” by calling them up for a regular chat.

“Their aim is to show moral support and engage in social interaction so that the child doesn’t feel total isolation,” Ms Kurmanbekova explained.

Volunteers approached local schools and state education agencies which sent them a list of students in a “group of risk” – mostly children without parents or who live with relatives and may lack attention and care.

There are now more than 100 volunteers and nearly 400 children aged 12 and older in their database – and the list is growing.

Crucially, volunteers are not just on the end of the phone to talk about the problems their new friend is facing – unless the teenager brings it up themselves. Instead, they focus on their new friend’s future goals and potential.

A four-way Zoom call
Image captionVolunteers meet on Zoom to discuss strategies how to bond with their new friends

Take volunteer Ayperi Bolotzhanova, who is 25. She bonded with her 12-year-old phone pal over taekwondo.

“I offered to teach her some tricks and she agreed,” said Ayper. “Now, I send video of my practices and she sends back her own.”

But it is not always easy to take the first step, the volunteers admit.

“I was very nervous before my first phone conversation,” Jibek Isakova, who currently lives in Budapest, recalled. “I was afraid that she would refuse to be my friend.”

Of course, there was distrust: a total stranger calls you up out of the blue and offers friendship. But most of the volunteers found their “mobile relationship” took off after a few conversations. Indeed, the volunteers were surprised how most teenagers were keen to talk to them.

What do they want to discuss? Other than the skills needed to milk a cow – a must-have in rural Kyrgyzstan – they’re much the same things teens across the world want to talk about: K-pop, Instagram, the difficulties of finding love. Drawing famous Japanese cartoon characters and learning languages were other topics that cropped up.

And they were all united in one thing: how much they hated online education during the quarantine.

Every response, every question the volunteers receive from their teenage friends is seen as a success. Jalalbek got particularly excited that – after a difficult start – Maksat sent a photo of him together with his family in the mountains.

For some volunteers, the cause is very personal. Eldiyar Manapov, 24, joined the project because he considered suicide as a teenager. Like his phone pal, he grew up without parents and now feels a particular connection with his new friend.

“I experienced what he is going through now,” he told the BBC. “You are constantly in need of some things like clothes. Children mock you that you don’t have parents. I don’t want him to feel all this pain, I want him to chat, to be distracted.”

Even though the idea is simple, the challenges the activists face are not. One of them – a lack of mobile phones – could easily derail the whole project.

“It’s very difficult to build a phone friendship when most children don’t have personal phones,” said Banur Abdieva. “Volunteers have to negotiate with parents or guardians. Sometimes they even ask teachers if they could come to the gate at a designated time. And it’s quarantine, so they need to sanitise their phone and pass it on to the child.”

Activists launched a fundraising campaign to buy phones for the project. Some people donate their used phones, which volunteers try to deliver to children living in remote regions, a challenge on its own during the lockdown.

“Just imagine how happy my friend will be if he gets his own device,” said Eldiyar, whose phone pal is using a mobile belonging to a cousin. “He will be able to learn more and communicate more. That means he will have less time for all bad thoughts.”

If you’ve been affected by a mental health issue, help and support is available. Visit Befrienders International for more information about support services.

Kyrgyzstan: Distance-learning exposes weaknesses of education system (Eurasianet)

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This is an insightful article by Bishkek-based journalist Ayzirek Imanaliyeva published in Eurasianet on some of the challenges posed by Kyrgyzstan’s necessitated shift to online learning in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The article was published at

Bolsunai Turgunbayeva’s three school-age daughters take turns using her battered old smartphone.

The device has become their main means for getting an education since the authorities in mid-March began a system of long-distance teaching as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19. 

“I have an old Samsung phone, it doesn’t work well, everything takes a long time to load, and the sound is bad,” said Turgunbayeva, 34, who lives in the village of Terek-Suu in the southern and rural Jalal-Abad region. “There wasn’t enough memory, so I deleted all the photos. As soon as we send videos of completed homework, we delete them.”

Because the girls are at different stages of their education – in second, third and sixth grade – they must abide by a routine. The younger ones do their studies in the morning, when Turgunbayeva is at their disposal.

The eldest daughter uses the phone alone in the evening to avoid distractions, because her studies are more complex. At that time, Turgunbayeva must tend to her newborn and do the household chores.

Turgunbayeva said the children are struggling to learn in these circumstances. Some households with even fewer resources may have it worse.

“Parents live in all kinds of conditions – some live well, some badly, then there are people who do not even have telephones and televisions at all. But everybody is having a tough time and the children are not taking in the lessons,” she said.

The one saving grace is that distance-learning is not proving a financial drain, since mobile operators in Kyrgyzstan have created free-of-charge data bundles for schoolchildren confined to their homes.

When the lockdowns were imposed, the government was relatively quick to roll out its remote teaching solution. Classes for the younger children were broadcast on the Balastan kids’ channel. Lessons for secondary and high-school pupils were shown on other stations.

Education ministry

The Education Ministry made the same lessons available on the UNICEF-supported online portal Sanarip Sabak (Digital Lesson). Children can re-watch classes on the site, although there have been problems here. Classes for the second half of May were not uploaded in time and the website only offered the forlorn message of “Lessons will be uploaded soon.”

In the middle of April, around one month into this forced experiment, the Education Ministry was positive about the results, although it was candid about the shortcomings. Organizing feedback with students in areas with low-speed mobile internet has been difficult, and the problem is exacerbated in households where parents lack IT skills or do not have a television, the ministry said.

“Even though we are doing distance-learning only for the first time, our teachers have shown good potential. I would also like to thank local authorities and sponsors for the help they have given to families who do not have televisions and telephones,” Education Minister Kanybek Isakov said at the time. 

Parents have been a little less forgiving, criticizing lessons for being insufficiently stimulating. 

Educational authorities have more recently put a figure on just how many children are struggling to get involved in the feedback process because of lack of resources. Isakov revealed on May 15 that 30,000 schoolchildren do not have access to smartphones and that 4,000 families lack televisions. 

The video-conferencing tools that have been brought in to bridge the lag caused by long-distance learning have not quite lived up to expectations either.

“When distance-learning began, there were many difficulties,” an IT teacher at a high school in the southern city of Osh told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity. “It was very difficult for teachers, no one was ready for online learning.”

Instead, instant messaging apps have been used as a fallback. For the younger pupils, the preference is for WhatsApp, said the Osh teacher, while the older children have their classes conveyed through Telegram. The reason is that young children use the phones of their parents, and WhatsApp is primarily the preserve of adult generations in Kyrgyzstan. Telegram’s functions lend themselves better to teaching, however.

But “many students do not have computers on which to do practical exercises. I give them assignments suitable for phone applications. Students work with Microsoft Office applications: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. For video editing training they use Inshot and Viva Video,” the teacher said.

Half the students in her classes ignore her messages, however.

And engagement has dropped somewhat since the Education Ministry announced in the middle of May that progress to the next class will no longer depend on end-of-year exams, but will instead be decided on the basis on coursework.

The lockdown, which has eased a little in recent weeks, has been toughest on the high school graduating class. These students have been kept away from classes in the very crucial year in which they are due to sit their all-important ORT, or General Republican Test. It is on the basis of results from those exams that young people then apply to university. 

ORT exams are still due to go ahead, but at the end of June, instead of the middle of May, as had been planned. Special safety precautions will be taken for students sitting the exams.

In addition to the stress of tests, graduating students have been deprived of important rites of passage, like end-of-school celebrations on May 25. This year, many will instead be collectively marking this milestone online – the first time in the country’s history.

Covid-19 and education in Central Asia

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With the world’s attention drawn to the coronavirus pandemic for the foreseeable future, this week’s post looks at the current impact of Covid-19 on education in Central Asia.

First, a few shout outs to others reporting on the spread of coronavirus in the region.

For general updates on what’s happening across Central Asia, check out EurasiaNet’s coronavirus dashboard, which is updated daily.

An early analysis has been provided in a brief open access policy memo by Marlene Laruelle and Madeline McCann for PONARS Eurasia. Published on March 27, it offers insights on the political and ideological responses of the post-Soviet states.

And on March 29, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published its latest Majlis podcast on the topic of coronavirus in Central Asia. Majlis is always worth a listen to so do subscribe to the podcast once you’ve downloaded the current episode.

For education not specific to Central Asia, four suggested resources:

1) track the astonishingly high percentage of the world’s out of school children (currently over 80%) with UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning;

2) read a thoughtful letter to Education Ministers around the world by Professor Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares;

3) follow Alex Usher’s daily blog for responses to Covid-19 in higher education and some important reflection on what may life ahead; and

4) Canada specific but this spreadsheet by Ken Steele is an incredibly detailed and up to date report on the responses of higher education institutions around the country.

OK, now back to Central Asia.

Covid-19 has officially made it to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan but somehow neither Tajikistan nor Turkmenistan has reported any cases as at March 31 when this post was written. On April 1, schoolchildren in Tajikistan went back to school after their spring holidays to classrooms that have been disinfected twice – but not because there has been any coronavirus, of course…

So Tajikistan and Turkmenistan join an illustrious if rather short list of countries that also includes North Korea which are yet to report any cases. On the contrary, as has been well commented upon on social media, Tajikistan’s erstwhile Leader of the Nation Emomali Rahmon has overseen numerous well attended public events in recent days. This includes the national Navruz celebrations that brought thousands of people together in defiance of the global trend for physical distancing.

So it is to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that we turn to see how they are responding in the sphere of education – it’s business as usual in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan’s schools and universities for now.


Kazakhstan closed all schools and has moved the spring holiday from March 16 to April 5. Teachers are working from home during that period and a government sanctioned group is working on making alternative teaching and learning arrangements in the likely event that schools will remain closed after April 5.

Pre-schools are working as usual but parents are asked to keep their children at home if at all possible; no child will lose their place at the pre-school if they are not attending.

Colleges and universities rapidly switched to distance learning with an array of technologies available for use. These include solutions common around the world such as Google Classroom, Moodle, Coursera, and Zoom as well as locally built programs. Although the government’s webpage says that universities and colleges should already be familiar with at least some of these forms of online learning, one enterprising news agency has published a list of universities where distance learning is well established.

Students who are unable to travel home are being allowed to stay in dorms but must stay in their rooms. Kazakh students who study abroad and international students in Kazakhstan have had varying fates. Some, such as a group of 54 Kazakh students studying in the Russian city of Samara, were sent home on a free bus on March 30. They will be able to continue their studies at a distance, something that will keep them busy as they complete a mandatory self-quarantine once they get home. Less lucky has been a group of 115 Indian students who are currently stranded at Almaty airport, unable either to leave for home or to get back into the locked down city.


The response in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where a state of emergency has also been declared, is similar to Kazakhstan’s (albeit with significantly less funding available from the state). Schools will be shut after a long vacation that runs until April 8. After that, they will continue learning using video lessons which will broadcast on two TV channels as well as YouTube.

To support distance learning, around 400 textbooks in four languages (Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek and Tajik) have been made freely available online. A fantastic looking website for school children, iBilim, has been released in two languages (Kyrgyz and Russian). The site is still being tested but kudos to the developers for getting it up so fast. A government hosted learning site is also being worked on but I couldn’t get into it when I tried today. As well as Zoom and Google Classroom, Kyrgyz teachers will also be communicating with their students using WhatsApp and Telegram.

Colleges and universities in Kyrgyzstan switched to distance learning on March 30 following a government directive. Students have also been granted a longer spring break during which time instructors and administrators were asked to develop plans to use technology to support distance learning and to supervise students’ independent work. Students have been advised to return to their family homes and remain there for the time being.

The University of Central Asia is making up to 90 beds available on its Naryn campus in Kyrgyzstan and is providing food and medical supplies to vulnerable members of the local community.

Looking a little further ahead, it’s not yet clear how higher education admissions will be managed. Students finishing high/secondary school this year may end up like their British counterparts i.e. with no final/university admission exams but graded based on their classwork. This has not yet been confirmed. Some universities that hold their own entrance exams (e.g. University of Central Asia) have postponed the exams that are scheduled for this time of year.


Mirroring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan closed all pre-schools, schools, colleges and universities for an early spring break on March 16. From March 30, during the holiday, lessons began to be shown on TV.

Disability rights researcher Dilmurad Yusupov noted approvingly that TV classes have been accompanied by sign language interpretation (except for English classes, where there is a lack of professional interpreters). This ‘Online-maktab‘, as online/TV school is being called, is being broadcast on a range of TV channels to ensure they reach as many people as possible.

The Minister of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education Imomjon Majidov recommended on March 31 that students use the newly available free time to study and do research (he’s clearly not one to waste a good crisis). He will even be using an official Telegram channel, ‘We will defeat Covid-19‘ to set up an online contest for which prizes will be offered by the Minister’s office.

No decision has been made about when students will be able to return to study. A government directive approved on March 27 on distance learning enables the introduction of relevant technologies and approaches to support undergraduate and Master’s students; these are still under development. At least two foreign branch campus universities (South Korea’s Inha U and India’s Amity U) have switched to accepting admissions documents electronically for those seeking admission in September this year.

Until then, the government has been extremely active about keeping people up to date, primarily using Telegram (which is extremely popular in Uzbekistan) and the Coronavirus Info channel, which already has 1.3m subscribers. For example, the Ministry of Pre-school Education issued a post with guidance for parents on how to support their kindergarten/nursery aged children to access and make the most of the new TV/online lessons.

That is where things stand for now, at the end of March. As we are seeing around the world, the situation is changing day by day. I’ll report again if anything major changes in Central Asia.

Catten the curve!

The one suitable way to end this round up is, of course, through the medium of feline:

Thanks to Dr Anne Marie Darling for this work of genius.

The future is still bright

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The world is a different place these days as COVID-19 spreads its wings in all directions (officially reaching Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by the time of writing on March 18).

When we look back on these unusual times, I think we will see that coronavirus achieved what no politician, activist, or movement has yet managed by forcing us to collectively question the kind of world we want to live in. When the dust has settled, will we return to the economic growth imperative that has failed to be an equalizer across and within societies? Or is now finally the time to listen to the voices that have been clamouring for change – for change to relations between peoples, between humans and the earth, between places?

Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, whose name will be memorialized by the Kyrgyz Space Program

This blog isn’t the place to answer these deep questions. It is, however, a space where I can use my voice to share visions for a more hopeful future. (And do so in a way that ties in with my interests in Central Asia, education, society and politics…)

It seems fitting, then, that today’s post is about young people in Central Asia who are pioneering science and technology because they think it will help the development of their country. How about that for a positive and hopeful vision.

Who are these young people? They are the Kyrgyz Space Program, a group of dedicated women in Kyrgyzstan who want to build the country’s first satellite and relaunch the space industry. Despite some really unpleasant gender stereotyping and ongoing issues in securing funding (plug: please support them on Patreon if you can), the team is persisting and is on track to launch a CubeSat satellite in 2021.

Beautifully and poignantly, they are going to name their satellite Burulai, after Burulai Turdaaly Kyzy, a 20 year old medical student who was abducted by so-called bride kidnappers and later murdered in 2018. As one of the team members says:

It will make her name immortal. I just hope that people won’t forget about her.

Aidana Aidarbekova, Kyrygz Space Program team member

Find out more about the Kyrgyz Space Program and feel optimistic for the world’s future by watching this lovely 25 minute documentary recently released by AlJazeera. And please share the link to spread the joy of discovery and hope.