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 https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-distance-learning-exposes-weaknesses-of-education-system.
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.
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.
Fast, reliable and free internet access is widespread across many university and college campuses these days. In fact, access to the world wide web, often delivered wirelessly by wi-fi, is so much of an everyday expectation that those working on campus tend to take it for granted, noticing only on those rare occasions when the internet goes down for a few hours.
Not so in Tajikistan, where Asia-Plus reported recently on the ongoing challenges for students and faculty in obtaining access to the internet [ru] on the country’s campuses.
Even the country’s leading university, Tajik National University, has not yet been able to roll out free wi-fi across all of its departments, and that’s with additional funding from China (see also my previous post on China’s generous financing of infrastructure in Tajikistan).
And whilst there seems to be general agreement that decent internet access can support distance learning and provide greater access to learning resources and electronic libraries, the jury appears to be out on whether Tajikistani students should be trusted to make sensible use of free wi-fi – were such a facility to be available.
There appears to be some scepticism that greater access to the internet might lend itself to non-learning outcomes (basically because students would be stuck on social media), leading the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Journalism at Tajik National University to suggest that the internet “should be controlled”.
(That the government regularly closes down websites such as Facebook and YouTube at the first hint of a scandal or unrest goes unsurprisingly unmentioned in the article – and neither does the article note the many workarounds that Tajikistanis – students and otherwise – employ to get around such restrictions.)
But let’s take a step back before weighing in on whether and how students’ access to the internet should be monitored. The bigger picture is that students, faculty and staff in Tajikistan are currently living with limitations on the information they can access and the possibilities that the web can offer to enhance their teaching and learning practices.
Beyond free internet, there’s also the question of electronic journals and books that sit behind expensive paywalls. There are so many of these that the cost of subscribing is generally prohibitive to all bar the richest institutions.
As one student notes in the article, the introduction of web-based learning techniques – even in face-to-face lessons – could significantly improve the student experience. This could be asking students to do online research or using web-based polls/quizzes in large classes. Right now, the student reported, classes are “sometimes so boring that students fall asleep”.
Mobile phone use in Tajikistan is huge: on average, there is just over one phone for each and every citizen in the country. This suggests huge potential not just for higher education but for government and a wide range public service providers to develop creative ways to use that high level of mobile phone penetration to support learning and service delivery.
Nevertheless, with access to the internet is limited to around 20% of the overall population, there remain significant challenges to rolling out web-based technologies that could also be used in higher education.
Until internet access becomes more reliable and widely available in Tajikistan, those of us who have the luxury of being able to access academic sources and online teaching/learning resources at the click of a mouse might do well to think about ways we can redistribute those resources to promote broad, open access to the world’s vast repository of knowledge.