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Difficulties of Transition to Distance Learning: the Case of Kazakhstan

“It is necessary to work on improving the distance format and the development of online educational platforms precisely in the long term, and the perception of this format as temporary for the period of a pandemic is erroneous,” says expert Ayim Saurambaeva in an article, written specially for CABAR.asia.


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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the education system is undergoing drastic changes, and the country’s digitalization reform in recent years is being tested for quality.

Following the results of conducting trial online classes throughout the country in April 2020, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan decided to abandon online streaming education due to the extreme congestion of the wireless network and the inability to ensure uninterrupted operation of the Internet to go live for two and a half million children throughout the country. Instead, as stressed out by the Minister of Education and Science of Kazakhstan Askhat Aimagambetov, it is necessary for teachers to be given more opportunities to use instant messengers, e-mail and special electronic programs. For students in remote Kazakhstani villages, it was planned to keep attending classes in a regular mode with two shifts of education, accompanied by mandatory disinfection and ventilation of the premises.[1]

In general, the distance learning format was planned to be carried out in accordance with several directions: television lessons, Internet platforms, as well as in the format of transferring assignments through Kazpost or by hand on paper.[2]

Data from the official website of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan

Digitalization in Kazakhstan

Digital transformation began in 2013 after Nursultan Nazarbayev approved the state program “Information Kazakhstan-2020”.[3]

One of the main achievements of this program is the development of electronic government in the country. According to the rating of the countries of the world by the level of e-government development for 2014 (The United Nations E-Government Survey), Kazakhstan is located on the 28th position, having risen by 10 points, compared with the indicators of 2012 (38th place).[4] At the same time, this year Kazakhstan is on the 29th position in this rating. Through the platform of “electronic government”, it was possible to establish the provision of services and information to citizens, government agencies and businesses.

However, if the results are available, there are still important problematic areas: insufficient provision of the population with computer technology, incomplete or low provision of the population with broadband Internet, as well as telephone services, and inappropriate level of provision of public services in electronic format. The previous one was replaced by a new program – “Digital Kazakhstan”, planned for the period 2018-2022.

Data from the official information resource of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan

In the context of digitalization, it is important to note the “e-Learning” system developed as part of the state program for the development of education in Kazakhstan for 2011-2020, aimed at introducing the concept of e-learning in the country’s schools, developing high-quality educational services and technologies, as well as equal access to all students in the country through the use of ICT. During implementation of the project in 2011-2013, the “e-learning” system was introduced in 1159 organizations of secondary, technical and vocational education in all regions of Kazakhstan, the capital and the city of Almaty. Within the framework of this project, all schools in the country had to be connected to the broadband Internet network, as well as to obtain the necessary platform for automating the educational process.

However, according to the deputy of the Mazhilis Mukhtar Yerman, the e-education system was never put into operation, and the funds allocated for its implementation in the amount of 35 billion tenge (which is approximately 84 million US dollars) were wasted.[5] The entire digitalization reform has been criticized due to its incomplete implementation in the educational sphere. Within the framework of the “e-learning” system, each school in the country should be provided with Internet access, while 93 educational institutions remained not connected to it.[6] In fact, the coronavirus pandemic revealed not only the country’s unpreparedness in the context of the digitalization of the educational environment, but also gaps in the e-learning system, the failure of which was even noted by the head of the state.[7]

Difficulties of transition to a new format of education

If in the framework of higher education the distance format is not a novelty, then school education simply was not technically prepared for the transition to such a new regime in a short period of time, when teachers also had to “get used” to the role of TV presenters, and schoolchildren, together with their parents, had to master the conveniences of the new educational Internet -platforms and resources. In this vein, one can single out the main difficulties faced by all participants in the educational process: teachers, schoolchildren, their parents, as well as power structures. 

The primary problem facing government officials was the lack of a legislative framework, i.e. regulatory control in this area, which would provide for all the necessary conditions and a consistent procedure for a possible transition to a distance learning mode. Due to the fact that such a definition as “distance learning” is not provided for in the current national legislation, there is no proper experience in maintaining such an educational format. This dictated the need to develop appropriate teaching aids, instructions and regulations for teachers and students. For example, at present, distance education is provided for by legislative acts of Russia, namely, the federal law of 2012 “On Education in the Russian Federation.” This regulatory document establishes and provides for the possibility of conducting the educational process using distance learning technologies; The law also contains the concepts of “e-learning” as well as “distance learning technologies”.[8]

In addition, difficulties are associated with the lack of national IT platforms in Kazakhstan (to ensure the simultaneous connection of a million students to the educational process) and the extremely weak content of the digital educational base and software.

The problem of teachers’ literacy in the field of information technology is determined rather by the absence of developed habits for the use of gadgets and modern technologies, rather than by the age indicators of teachers. On the very first day of distance learning in the educational portal Kundelik.kz there was a technical failure due to the high congestion of the system, which was immediately shared by dissatisfied parents in one of the groups of the social network Facebook.[9]

It is also possible to single out a psychological problem arising from the new educational format: primary school students who cannot cope with distance learning without the help of an adult mentor do not perceive their parents as teachers. Hence, problems arise with perseverance and concentration on the educational process. The low level of self-discipline and home environment do not allow the students to fully immerse themselves in the educational process, and it can be difficult for parents raising more than one child to create the necessary atmosphere for learning.

Furthermore, the problem of lack of equipment should be noted as well. Schoolchildren in remote rural regions, as well as low-income families, primarily have the task of providing the child with computers, as a result of which we are not even talking about computer literacy of rural schoolchildren. Limited access or no broadband internet connection prevents many students from using digital educational platforms and / or watching videos in high quality.

As it can be seen, the pandemic has exposed the problem of the digital divide in the country. The representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Kazakhstan Arthur van Diesen expressed concern on this issue, noting the problem of educational inequality.[10] The problem of pupils’ access to digital technologies may affect children with special needs, inmates of orphanages, who had difficulties with access to secondary education even before the pandemic.

Due to the fact that not only homework, but also classroom assignments will have to be performed remotely, and control by the teacher has become practically impracticable due to the lack of real contact with students, this can seriously affect the qualitative indicator of the level of knowledge of modern schoolchildren, when the received grades may not become a reliable reflection of the learning of educational material.

What has been done in a few months?

During an online briefing with Askhat Aimagambetov, the issue of technical equipment, as well as the problem of the lack of a sufficient number of computers for their transfer for temporary use, was raised. According to the minister, at the moment more than 36 thousand computers have been purchased, and by September 1, regional akimats (local executive bodies) will make an additional purchase of the missing equipment. In total, about 500 thousand computers will be donated by the government to children from families who are in need by the beginning of the school year. With regard to training in remote rural areas, where the epidemiological situation allows, education will be held in a traditional format. The number of students in such schools is about 4% of the total number of students in the country.[11]

In addition, IT companies are working to improve existing Internet platforms (Kundelik, etc.). The materials that are already available on such platforms are being adapted for teaching children with special educational needs.[12]

With the aim of technical training of teachers in a new format and increasing their level of competence, online courses were organized, including questions on teaching methodology and cyber-pedagogy from July 20, 2020.

International cooperation in this regard should also be noted: UNICEF, together with the government of Kazakhstan and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is developing the GIGA product, a global initiative aimed at reducing the digital divide between urban and rural areas in education. Within the framework of this program, access to the Internet was provided to 446 rural schools in the country, and by the end of the year the number of such schools should increase to 1342.[13]

Conclusion

The forced transition to distance online learning exposed the country’s entire technical unpreparedness in the educational sector, and the digital reform, supported by impressive financial investments, did not pass the quality test under the new conditions.

Nevertheless, the present situation can be viewed in a positive way, as a kind of “trigger” for the further development of information and communication technologies in the educational environment with the obligatory introduction of training courses on IT literacy for both teachers and students themselves. So, following the example of Estonia’s digital experience, it would be advisable to consider and adopt foreign practice, which provides for the presence in schools of special technical specialists, experienced teachers, whose task would be to help teachers integrate and further use digital resources to improve the curriculum.

It is necessary to work on improving the distance format and further development of online educational platforms in the long term, and the perception of this format as temporary for the period of a pandemic is erroneous. For example, The Tiger Leap Program that was launched in Estonia, back in 1996, was based on three main directions: providing all schools with computers and the Internet, basic teacher training, as well as conducting e-courses in Estonian for general education institutions. As a result, in 2000 all schools in Estonia were equipped with computers, and by the next 2001 – the computers were provided with access to the Internet.[14] In fact, the widespread use of the online platform in Estonian schools was a key factor in allowing the country to ensure a smooth, “painless” transition to distance learning during the global lockdown. It should be considered that not only the coronavirus can transform our usual reality. For example, in Kazakhstan there are severe winters inherent in the northern regions of the country, which do not allow schoolchildren to attend classes at a certain period of time every day, and this also negatively affects the quality of education in general.

Given the above-mentioned problems, it is critical to provide certain segments of the population with computers and ubiquitous connection to the global network. The lack of a legislative framework in this area also served as an obstacle to a qualitative transition to the remote format. Moreover, the government had to hastily develop appropriate methodological recommendations, instructions and regulations.

It is extremely difficult for the traditional system of secondary education that has developed over the decades in Kazakhstan, transfer to a distance format, when the real contact of the teacher and the student is critically necessary in the context of socialization, the development of teamwork and communication skills of children, and “live communication” with peers is an essential component of a usual emotional state of students. Despite the fact that the last quarter of school education took place online with a number of problems, in the long term we risk facing a crisis of knowledge, the required level of which will be possessed by only a small percentage of disciplined and highly motivated students. It is safe to say that in the case of a cross-section of student knowledge for the fourth quarter, there will undoubtedly be large gaps in many disciplines, compared to last year, when the traditional educational process was not yet overshadowed by a pandemic.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


[1] Kazakhstan; Youtube; https://youtu.be/N9N5308TDOU

[2] Kazakhstan; Zakon.kz; https://online.zakon.kz/Document/?doc_id=39442167#pos=4;-106

[3] Informational Kazakhstan 2020; Zerde; https://zerde.gov.kz/activity/management-programs/information-kazakhstan-2020/

[4] Kazakhstan; https://publicadministration.un.org/ru/Research/UN-e-Government-Surveys

[5] Kazakhstan; TVNZ; https://www.kp.kz/online/news/3653653/

[6] Kazakhstan; Kazakhstanskaya Pravda; https://kazpravda.kz/news/obshchestvo/obrazovatelnaya-sistema–e-learning-za-371-milliard-tg-ne-bila-prinyata-v-ekspluatatsiu–mazhilismen

[7] Kazakhstan; Kaziform; https://www.inform.kz/ru/razreklamirovannaya-sistema-e-learning-ne-vyderzhala-ispytaniya-na-prochnost-kasym-zhomart-tokaev_a3636459

[8] Russian Federation; Consultant Plus; http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_140174/9ab9b85e5291f25d6986b5301ab79c23f0055ca4/

[9] Kazakhstan; Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/groups/proastana/permalink/3409053295791427/

[10] Kazakhstan; Sputnik; https://ru.sputniknews.kz/education/20200629/14354412/V-distantsionnom-obrazovanii-nuzhno-uchest-potrebnosti-raznykh-detey–YuNISEF.html

[11] Kazakhstan; Official Internet resource of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan; https://primeminister.kz/ru/news/reviews/distancionnoe-obuchenie-prodolzhitsya-v-kazahstane-s-1-sentyabrya-dezhurnye-klassy-obespechenie-uchebnikami-i-zakup-kompyuterov-1775416

[12] Kazakhstan; Youtube; https://youtu.be/AUr0Kja8lQc min 11.30-12.20

[13] Kazakhstan; Unicef; https://www.unicef.org/

[14] Estonia; HITSA Information Technology Foundation for Education; https://www.hitsa.ee/about-us/historical-overview/1997-2000

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