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IWPR Organized an Event On “Online Learning During the COVID-19: Human Development Prospects in Central Asia”

On August 12, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Central Asia (IWPR CA) together with the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations organized an online discussion devoted to “Online Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Human Development Prospects in Central Asia.”

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The event brought together experts that discussed both the obstacles to online learning in Central Asia and new eLearning trends, while also making their recommendations.

The discussion moderator – the Executive Director of the Kazakhstan Council on International Relations (KCIR) Iskander Akylbaev made an opening statement and gave the floor to the first speaker Aigerim Khafizova (Kazakhstan), Co-founder and CEO of Edgravity, Google / Inco distance Learning ConsultantShe discussed the pressing need to adapt, the online learning challenges, and the value of the relevant content.

Aigerim Khafizova

“There is no such thing as ‘complete training’ in today’s education marketplace. Now, this is lifelong learning, and the pandemic has provoked the decades of heralding changes in the education system and reinforced the idea of relearning, adapting, and changing. I would like to emphasize three main points.

First, online learning is not an innovation. Its primary goal and global mission were to democratize learning, i.e. make knowledge accessible to all. But what do we see now? Online platforms imitate the existing system and aim at one student prototype – educated and motivated. The democratization of learning per se did not happen.

Second, the issue is not a lack of training programs. We design those programs; we always aim at better content. However, it’s not about the best content; it’s rather the relevant content at the right time that matters. There are plenty of materials available, but people simply don’t read and take these courses. Then what’s the problem and why are people not willing to learn? We agreed that the problem is not in scarce content, but somewhere else. While teaching adults in Kazakhstan (adult education), we’ve established that people often do not learn due to past negative experiences, lack of confidence, and most importantly, no learning habit.

We did not learn how to learn.  

Third, the presence of a guide. I disagree with those platforms that attempt to completely take out a teacher from the learning process. To learn, a person needs mental representation, and the role of a specialized guide is to give a required set of skills and knowledge to level up the learner.”  

The second speaker, Jenny Jenish kyzy (Kyrgyzstan), Social Entrepreneur in the field of Innovative Education, Impact Officer of the Global Shapers Bishkek (an initiative of the World Economic Forum), discussed the global COVID-19 response in an education and revealed projects under implementation in Kyrgyzstan.

Jenny Jenish kyzy

“The pandemic raised the global number of out-of-school children and youth from 258 million in 2018 to 1.6 billion in 2020. We have witnessed the widespread school closure in two months. Although some progressively reopen, there is still a matter of child safety. Out of 127 countries, only 73 states say they use online learning. 3 billion people lack basic Internet access. The gap in the school closures and technology availability contributes to social injustice as the digital divide and disparity in education rise. Many experts now refer to what they call a learning loss, which will eventually lead to the performance decrease.

In the United States alone, by 2040, when today’s schoolchildren graduate and join the global workforce, potential economic losses are estimated at between $ 173 billion and $ 271 billion annually. Hence, the urgent call for changes in education.

There are about 1.3 million schoolchildren in Kyrgyzstan, 2/3 of whom live in rural areas. What are the country’s efforts in refining the educational system? First, the media is heavily engaged in the process of conducting various surveys among faculty members, schoolchildren, and their parents. Second, mobile operators are actively cooperating with the Education Ministry, providing affordable or free Internet access for schoolchildren and teachers. Third, for the country’s regions that do not enjoy Internet access, the launch of a fairly successful project “Ilimbox” comes to help. This is a digital library of educational materials available offline. In other words, a child does not need internet access to study with Ilimbox. The applications have been installed in 100 regional schools and are to be installed in another 100.

We must accept the fact that schools and the education system will no longer be the same. Apart from the digitalization of education, we must also focus on safety in food, medical services at school, etc. We need to think of the ways to collaborate with the private sector and decision-makers to ensure universal access to the Internet, as inequality becomes more critical.”

Nurmukhammed Dosybaev (Kazakhstan), the founder of the innovative school Astana Garden School, reviewed the online learning challenges, and discussed whether online learning can replace traditional education.

Nurmukhammed Dosybaev

“Online learning in its present form, in my view, cannot replace traditional education. Online learning might foster the development of particular knowledge and skills in children. Offline education, nonetheless, provides socialization, leadership, and physical skills that a child acquires while in society. The research community and the world in general, therefore, agree that we need to reopen the schools sooner and make certain proposals for that.

The current infrastructure of traditional schools needs to be reconsidered and developed with a particular focus on the ventilation system. Unfortunately, this is not provided for in Kazakhstani schools, only in some international and private schools.

If we are to continue with distance learning, we must consider factors that affect the quality of online learning. First, not all children have access to gadgets, and in some families, several children share one computer. First, technology availability requires action at the government level. Second, not everyone has access to high-speed internet, especially those in rural areas. Third, the pressing issue of the high-quality, tailored, and interactive curriculum.  

The fourth distance learning obstacle is the lack of teachers that can give feedback. One cohort in a Kazakh school has up to 40 children, which impinges on the quality of education. It is, therefore, important to train skilled teachers with advanced digital skills. The fifth factor is the lack of a learning environment at home. A child that is provided with all of the above might not have a proper learning environment at home (one-room apartment, many people at home, noise, etc.); this would be a major factor in the quality of online learning. Children, too, have poor distance learning skills. Older children are usually more independent and assiduous, which makes it difficult to work online with younger children. The help of parents, thus, is crucial here. These factors affect the motivation of both children and teachers, requiring a higher dedication from both. Henceforth, children of a certain age category (definitely not junior schoolchildren) need to return to schools with all safety regulations provided.”

Director of Alif Academy, Zarrina Rajabova (Tajikistan), discussed the activities of the academy and the pandemic-induced challenges.

Zarrina Radjabova

Alif Academy teaches programming and trains IT specialists over 16 years old. By developing IT and preparing new personnel, we will be able to give people a new craft and thereby contribute to the country’s entire economy. The academy launched offline courses, while the pandemic revealed many factors that hinder online learning development. What we’re up against in an online mode?

First, the course partakers were demotivated. While group work has been very motivational, many of our students dropped the course with online learning. Second, there is an acute shortage of teachers and practitioners aware of modern education standards and tools, and the border closure rendered the possibility to attract foreign personnel. Third, the Internet accessibility, which also influenced the motivation and departure of students, had been a hindering factor.

What did we do? We realized that we need to increase the scope and number of courses, while also making the curriculum easier and more accessible to the local target audience. We have created a platform where students can download educational materials in PDF format for independent work. We have also customized the content of our courses, made step-by-step instructions, and had been accessible for online communication. We also began to make arrangements with ISPs and mobile operators to introduce discounts for our students and better access to our portals. But all this is doable in the Internet zone. Unfortunately, there are areas with no internet and people are not aware of these online course possibilities.

We can and we do foster digitalization of education through occupational training courses. This can help job-seekers to find a job and contribute to the country’s development. However, school education still has its major gaps that require our common efforts to overcome them”.

Botir Arifdzhanov (Uzbekistan), co-founder of the EdTech project “Khan Academy O’zbek”, made a final report in the discussion, sharing the background of the project creation.

Botir Arifdzhanov

“When we first started the project, we have faced the biggest challenge of creating content in the local language. After getting independence, Uzbek, translated to Latin script, became the state language. At the same time, the material in Latin script has been deficient. Although national schools teach in Uzbek in Latin, many schools still lack an adequate curriculum in Uzbek.

Then we sought ready-made solutions that could be adapted and localized. Having personal experience on the Khan Academy platform, we decided to use that. At first, we financed the project from the family budget but immediately realized that this business requires a lot of funds – about $ 450-500 thousand. Then we launched the first crowdfunding movement in Uzbekistan to support education. Businessmen, international donor organizations, and the local population have been heavily engaged, thus in six months, we raised about $230 thousand. Khan Academy is comprised of text and video. Last week we formally finished translating the text portion of the platform. Throughout the Khan Academy history, Uzbek has become the fastest localized language. The pandemic definitely hinders our work, but we did not wait for 100% completion and started displaying the finished work online. It helped a lot, and in March we saw a huge jump in the number of platform users. We translated school subjects into Uzbek and had about 18 thousand registered users over the year. The government supports our initiative, and together with the Ministry of Public Education, we began broadcasting our videos through their television channels for school classes. 

Online learning will certainly not replace the offline experience, but Khan Academy is very much promoting the concept of “one to one” lectures and a scenario where homework is done merely by the student himself. ”

Watch the full video recording of the expert online meeting:

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