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;
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:
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.
More MOOC madness?
The trend in higher education for MOOCs – massive open online courses – shows no sign of abating.
In 2016, an estimated 58 million students around the world signed up for a MOOC. 23 million of these students (an impressive 40%) enrolled in a MOOC for the first time. Over 700 universities are involved in offering nearly 7,000 MOOCs. Check out ClassCentral’s 2016 report for more MOOC-tastic stats.
As Ben Wildavksy has argued, this is much more than ‘MOOC Ado About Nothing‘ (groan away – it’s his line, not mine!).
Now that the first wave of MOOC enrollment has passed, access begins to open up to a wider audience, following the same pattern as the disbursement of the internet (first to the elites who could afford a computer as an expensive piece of tech, later spreading to society more broadly). The metaphor is apt given that the internet is a crucial reason for the birth and growth of MOOCs.
MOOCs speak your language
One of the most interesting trends in 2016 is the growth in regional providers of MOOCs, which attracted around 25% of all new learners last year. Most of these courses are offered in languages other than English.
The days of the arena being dominated by North American providers and English language medium of instruction may well be numbered, especially with the entry of Chinese language providers to meet the huge education market in China.
Bilim (knowledge) for all
It is on the coat-tails of this regionalization movement that the recent launch of Kazakhstan’s own Open University, Қазақстанның ашық университеті [kz], can be located. OpenU, as it is billing itself, has set itself the lofty aim [kz] of increasing the intellectual level of the country by delivering high-quality online courses.
Courses will be developed by leading Kazakhstani academics and are aimed at high school students (an interesting target audience often overlooked by other MOOCs), university students and those who for some reason are unable to access face-to-face higher education.
All ‘interested citizens’ are also invited to join in too, so the mission is highly inclusive. As with other MOOCs, all OpenU courses are free.
The founders of OpenU
Although pitched as a university, OpenU is in fact a joint project, created by the public fund WikiBilim [bilim = knowledge in Kazakh] with KCell, a leading Kazakhstani mobile phone provider, as the main sponsor.
The initial university partners are:
Four more courses are due to go live in April and a further three this May. Most courses are around five weeks long with one session a week.
In a country where (multi-)language policy is a major issue, it is interesting that 80% of the course content is being offered in Kazakh. That said, English and Russian language subtitles are planned for all video content, which will enhance accessibility.
What can you study?
The initial courses, like the global pattern for MOOCs, focus on computer science and business/management.
Students can sign up for courses in Matrices and Determinants, Public-Private Partnerships, Web Programming Fundamentals, Fourier Analysis [Maths], Robotics and Introduction to Computer Science Using Java [all kz or ru].
The course creators have outstanding academic credentials. Professor Askar Zhumadildayev, for example, holds a Doctor of Science degree (equivalent to the ‘habilitation’ in some other contexts, i.e. a more advanced degree than the PhD) in Mathematical Physics and is an academician of the Kazakh National Academy of Sciences.
Zhumadildayev is committed to this new style of learning: “Если эти лекции посмотрят даже 20 человек, я буду счастлив. Все должно развиваться постепенно. Это настоящая академичная наука и настоящие знания, это полезно” (“Even if only 20 people watch these lectures, I will be happy. Things should develop gradually. This is genuine science and genuine knowledge – it’s useful.”)
The project’s founders hope that the OpenU courses will provide a means for students in regions of Kazakhstan to learn from the country’s great academics [ru], who tend to cluster in the two main cities of Astana and Almaty.
Surfing a new wave of MOOC innovation
There are three reasons why I believe that OpenU offers a new way of thinking about MOOCs that may help to refresh the format and generate a third wave of MOOC development.
I would argue that the first wave lasted until 2012, with the massive rise and popularization of the MOOC. The second wave of 2013-2016 was characterized by the personalization of MOOCs, where provision became more oriented around individual needs in terms of scheduling, credentials being made available and so on.
So what makes OpenU a breath of fresh air in the increasingly jaded world of MOOCs?
- The pedigree of the course creators is stunning. Whilst you can certainly find other MOOCs offered by ‘star’ academics, the concern of many universities when they rushed to joined the MOOC bandwagon was to generate course content. Less attention was paid, at least in the early days, to quality and delivery. OpenU’s collaboration with a range of universities and its focus on working with leading academics means that quality is being put first.
- The partnership between a non-profit public organization, WikiBilim, and a corporate, KCell, is an extremely interesting model. Rather than a single university trying to create its own MOOC platform, or the wholesale adoption of an outside model (Coursera, EdX etc), the OpenU model creates a different type of structure through which partner institutions can offer selected courses. This is advantageous for the universities in terms of resource sharing and also for the prospects for publicity (and thus potential future student recruitment) it offers.
- OpenU has not been set up to offer degrees [ru], as is now possible through the combination of some MOOCs. Rather, it is an ‘educational upgrading’ experience to support growth in educational quality not just for individual learners but also for universities in Kazakhstan. The idea is that they may adopt some of the course content as part of their own curriculum in order to draw on expertise available within the country but not within their own institution.