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Is the Chosen Model of Distance Learning Justified in Kyrgyzstan?

“Blended learning, which allows the use of currently used forms of distance education in conjunction with traditional tools, can become a promising solution of finding an optimal learning model,” says expert Ekaterina Kasymova in an article written specifically for CABAR.asia


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According to UNICEF, at the end of March 2020, more than 1.2 billion schoolchildren in 161 countries of the world did not attend educational institutions,[1] including 1 million 100 thousand schoolchildren in Kyrgyzstan (almost 20% of the population). Due to the coronavirus situation in the country, by March 20, 2020, all educational institutions of Kyrgyzstan, including schools, kindergartens and universities, were quarantined. Kindergartens resumed their work only on June 5, 2020, after almost 2.5 months, while schoolchildren and students have not yet started in person studies.  

In the recently published UNICEF Global Fact Sheet on Education during COVID-19, Kyrgyzstan is one of the countries that have made significant “progress in accessing distance learning”.[2] Schoolchildren from Kyrgyzstan were given access to distance education through “online platforms, three national TV channels and two mobile applications for free.” 

The Internet is full of posts and blogs of parents with complaints about such a system of education. They argue that for technical reasons, the educational process is difficult to continue, teachers are adapting slowly, and officials have not approached the situation responsibly enough.

To be fair, it should be noted that the educational system of Kyrgyzstan has faced an unprecedented challenge – to carry out its functions in a situation where the educational model, the classroom system, which has been tested for centuries, cannot be used. The pandemic served as a kind of stress test and the issue of “digital inequality” arose sharply, recalling the lack of devices and Internet connections among schoolchildren from low-income families. Considering all these factors, as well as emergency conditions at the time of making a decision, the strategy chosen by the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic has become the “lesser evil” of the possible. The vast majority of schoolchildren in Kyrgyzstan managed to complete the school year in a certain way.

But how justified can such a strategy be, can such a learning model ensure good educational results and the implementation of all functions of the education system? The answers to these questions become especially relevant when everyone understands that the first quarter of the new school year will have to start without returning to school.

Continue the educational process at any cost

The domestic system of mass education had three possible scenarios of action: the first option was to continue the educational process despite the epidemic, the second option was to suspend full-time education completely, the students could have gone home until the situation improved, the third option, which is a more advanced version of the second strategy, to start showing of TV lessons on national television.

We took the third path. Within a three-week period, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Kyrgyz Republic prepared video lessons and, on March 8, they began broadcasting on three national channels “Balastan”, “Ilim Bilim”, “Sanat”. In addition to TV lessons, additional educational material, including electronic textbooks, were posted on the online platform “Educational Resources of Kyrgyzstan” (oku.edu.gov.kg). Moreover, all these materials were available for use in the MEGA 24 mobile application. Recently a project of Global Shapers was launched under the name “Mughalim” (teacher) in order to free training local teachers to use online tools and conduct online training.[3]

As for the educational institutions, they had a little more than three weeks at their disposal to transfer the entire educational process to a different track. Teachers and children had to immediately master new forms of learning and interaction. As conceived by the Ministry of Education, the distance education format involved not just watching a TV lesson, but the teacher was required to select homework for it and check them, and, if necessary, give an extended explanation and answers to clarifying questions.

The plan was not implemented in full. Due to communication problems and often lack of laptop computers for teachers, most of them continued to use “non-digital teaching methods.” Tasks were sent mainly to the messenger to parents, and they, in turn, sent a photo of the workbook. This way of doing “distant” work has made life very difficult for both, teachers and students.

It turned out to be much more difficult to check the photos of the completed homework than a stack of notebooks on the table.

In addition, many teachers were not ready to completely go online. Taking into account the fact that the average age of a teacher in Kyrgyzstan is 50-60 years,[4] where many of them well acquainted with information technologies. For them, the transition to distance learning has become a real challenge.[5]

Photo: www.edu.gov.kg

The lack of the necessary equipment for each student and a reliable connection to the network has become a serious problem for many families in Kyrgyzstan. The vast majority of families got by with one smartphone for all children. Moreover, the schedule for broadcasting TV lessons did not consider the simultaneous education of several students from the same family. Primary and high school classes began at the same time, but through different channels. What to do when there is only one TV in the house?

There were also some problems with TV lessons. The duration of the lesson was 20 minutes, and the content of the lesson was reduced to broadcasting a squeeze of the main materials on each topic. Due to the limited time, the pace of explaining a new topic was so high that the students on the other side of the screen simply did not have time to write something down.

Online systems are different, but the problems are the same

In the country as a whole, the transition to distance learning took place in very different ways. If we talk about school education, then two opposite models can be distinguished. The first model is more typical for private and leading public schools, when the subjects of the main block were successfully translated into the format of “live” conference lessons via Skype, Zoom, and the study of subjects of secondary importance was compensated by independent work, which was directed and controlled by the school. 

The experience of municipal educational institutions can be summarized by saying that everything “online” was reduced to watching TV lessons and sending finished homework to the teacher via WhatsApp. Despite such different experiences of distance learning, teachers are unanimous in one item – the most difficult part appeared to be explaining new material or topic online, since it is very difficult to keep the attention of students during the broadcast. It was especially hard for elementary school teachers. Due to the psychophysiological characteristics of younger students, they need to constantly move. Keeping primary students engaged during an online lesson has proven to be much more difficult than in the classroom due to the limited educational tools.   

The issue of self-discipline and motivation of students became acute in the period of distance learning. In ordinary lessons, the role of the teacher is great: they help the children to plan their work and organize themselves. In the “distance”, the teacher’s control is reduced, the student can skip the lesson, by referring to poor internet connection, or turning off the video during an online conference, and do their usual housework or other affairs. It is also difficult to control and check the material that was passed during the class.

It is impossible to trace which tasks children perform independently, and which ones with the help of their parents.

Furthermore, even during a “live” online lesson, it is difficult to objectively assess the student’s readiness, since the teacher most often has to communicate with children without eye contact. At the same time, if a student is really interested in the high quality of the education received, then online learning does not limit them in obtaining knowledge. Thus, a conclusion comes up that this educational system is more suitable for motivated and disciplined children, and such, as you know, are a minority in the class. The rest may be left “overboard” and not get even the minimum knowledge offered by online training.

The lack of positive socialization and nurturing can also be attributed to the disadvantages of distance education. The class-and-lesson system, proposed by the Czech teacher Jan Amos Komensky in the 17th century, performs not only educational functions. The most important task is to instill social and cultural norms in the younger generation, develop communication skills. Psychologists and educators have long noticed the paradox of virtual communication: the younger generation has learned to communicate perfectly in a virtual environment but cannot apply these skills in real communication.

With distance education, it is extremely difficult to acquire skills in personal communication, public speaking and teamwork.

Being in front of the screen for a long time without the possibility of real communication can lead to isolation, insecurities and fear of communicating with an unfamiliar audience. 

At the same time, the burden on parents has grown enormously. There are certain advantages in the fact that parents had to become active participants in the educational process, but in most cases, this was a problem, because many of them continued to work remotely or away from home. Moreover, distance learning hit the parents of younger students the most. On their shoulders lay not only the issues of control and organization of the learning process, but also all the “logistic tasks”: sending completed assignments, connecting the child to the conference at the set time.

In addition, for low-income families, hot meals provided in municipal school canteens are considered as a significant social support.[6] For parents whose children are in private schools, it is not just about a balanced diet. Full-time private schools solve the pressing problems of working parents and are a kind of “locker” for children for the whole day, providing not only lessons, but also homework, as well as a variety of extracurricular activities.

Conclusions

Summing up, it should be emphasized that education is the sphere that is most difficult to digitalize, primarily because of the importance of personal interaction between a student and a teacher. In addition, the class-lesson paradigm remains the foundation of the educational process in our schools, which assumes an exclusively full-time format of education, as well as professional training of the teaching staff. All the existing distance educational alternatives have failed to become a panacea and have shown their effectiveness only in teaching children with high motivation and self-discipline. There was no organic transition to any of the distance learning systems in mass school practice.

Criticism of the distance education model currently being implemented in Kyrgyzstan does not mean that the author opposes the traditional full-time education format and distance education and considers one of them to be the most “correct”. Based on the author’s personal practice, it can be argued that in the existing conditions and form, the distance learning model in Kyrgyzstan will not be able to provide high-quality educational results. With the policy “we continue everything as it was, only at a distance”, the educational system does not fulfill its functions in full. It is only suitable for simulating the continuity of the educational process in anticipation of a return to “proper” learning.[7] This approach can only be justified over a short distance to stop the epidemic and provide isolation for students. Already now, the governments of many countries of the world affected by the epidemic are realizing the need to develop a serious and systematic approach in conditions when the old model does not work.[8]  

A promising solution to this problem is blended learning (b – learning) – which will allow the use of currently used forms of distance education in conjunction with traditional tools. In this case, there is an electronic component of e – learning education, video lectures, video conferencing, online testing, the entire educational environment based on the use of information technology, and the classical form of knowledge transfer based on the “teacher-student” principle. Information technologies in their “initial form” will not be able to supplant live communication with a teacher and peers, but this does not mean that one needs to completely abandon them. The task of digital technologies is to expand the arsenal of educational tools and bring the possibility of educational interaction outside the classroom, school, city.  

The domestic education system was able to withstand the first blow of the coronavirus, but now it needs serious financial, technological and methodological support to adapt to new conditions. To implement the new educational model, a stable and fast Internet connection is needed, schoolchildren from low-income families and teachers need laptops, and continuing education courses for teachers and education officials are needed. Leading schools should become experimental platforms for the implementation of the new model.

The question is whether the state will be able to find resources for further digitalization of education. So far, unfortunately, calls for the transition of the educational system to innovative development paths are not supported by real changes in this area.

What can the policy of “sitting out” difficult times turn out to be in the long term? Quality education runs the risk of becoming the prerogative of private educational institutions that provide educational services on a paid basis and have the necessary resources to introduce the latest technologies into the educational process. The gap between municipal and private educational institutions may widen so much that only wealthy people can afford a decent education. 


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] “Unequal access to distance learning in COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate the global learning crisis” UNICEF Global Newsletter June 2020 page 1 available at unicef.org

[2] Ibid, p. 6

[3] https://cabar.asia/ru/iwpr-organizoval-diskussiyu-na-temu-tsifrovoe-obrazovanie-v-usloviyah-covid-19-perspektivy-razvitiya-chelovecheskogo-kapitala-v-tsa/

[4] E. Kasymova “Reforming school education in Kyrgyzstan: along the path of tradition or innovation” https://cabar.asia/ru/ekaterina-kasymova-reformirovanie-shkolnogo-obrazovaniya-v-kyrgyzstane-po-puti-traditsij-ili -innovatsij/#_edn24 

[5] Nevertheless, it is necessary to emphasize the high adaptability of the teaching staff at all levels of the education system. The system managed to withstand the first blow of the epidemic largely due to the self-organization of teachers, their active development in learning new technologies, often in the absence of methodological support, in the face of increased labor costs and misunderstanding on the part of parents. Many teachers in the period of online learning were able to take a giant leap and begin to master new tools in a distance format. Of course, there was a small percentage of teachers who decided to “withdraw” during the quarantine, but they also switched from a wait-and-see strategy to action when the Ministry of Education announced that the first quarter of the new school year would be held remotely.

[6] In December 2019, the President of the Kyrgyz Republic S. Jeenbekov signed the law “On the organization of meals for students in educational institutions of the Kyrgyz Republic.” In 2019, hot meals were already available in 1,375 schools (60.6%). In these schools, elementary school children can get milk porridge for breakfast or hot soup for lunch.

[7] Nota bene: The main mistake that should be avoided by everyone involved in the educational process is to hope that this period of “abnormal” learning will last for a short period of time. In March, neither parents, nor school principals, nor education officials were fully aware that the school year would have to end without returning to school. Parents did not care about the full involvement of their children in online learning, some of them abandoned the new form of the educational process, citing the lack of a stable connection, time to organize classes at home, restlessness of the child, etc. Most schools did not think about the introduction of new platforms for classes, about reliable methods of monitoring and assessing knowledge, leaving teachers to independently choose the methods of feedback from students.

[8] UNESCO launched a global education coalition under the slogan Learning never stops https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

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