Published on Digital Development

MOOCs and e-learning for higher education in developing countries: the case of Tajikistan

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There has been a lot of talk and research on massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their potential impact, but is it really applicable to developing countries? How can universities take advantage of online content? And what kind of regulations and quality assurance mechanisms do we need? 

Last year, as a part of the “Tajikistan: Higher Education Sector Study,” I led a team to conduct pilot activities to assess the feasibility of using MOOCs and other e-learning content in higher education institutions (HEIs) in Tajikistan.

Recently the Government of Tajikistan has decided to discontinue existing correspondence-based programs for part-time students and shift to a “distance learning” system using computers and Internet technology. Thus, this study was conducted to assess the possibility of using information and communication technologies (ICT) to improve access, quality and relevance of higher education in Tajikistan. In addition, the study supported a mini-project to pilot a number of ICT-based solution models to tackle challenges identified in the country’s National Education Development Strategy.

Recently, we interviewed pilot participants about their experience participating in MOOCs, e-learning and distance education, and then produced a series of short video clips. These videos showcase the impact of potential use of online learning and distance education for improving access, quality and relevance of education as well as reduction of the gender gap. One of the female students in the video mentioned that distance education allows her to continue studying after having kids.

The pilot project included teacher training on course creation using an open-source learning management system called Moodle and ATutor; the use of existing courses from different online platforms such as Coursera, Code Academy, Lingualeo and for teacher training, life-long learning and supplementary learning materials; a survey aimed at the private sector on joint course creation with universities; and workshops to raise awareness and conduct knowledge exchanges with open universities from Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa and the United States on distance education and the use of learning management systems.

These pilot activities were developed to answer the following five key research questions:

  1. Is there a capacity and infrastructure to develop online courses for teacher education in higher-education institutions (HEIs)?
  2. Can students and teachers take online courses using current Internet connections?
  3. Is the private sector interested in collaborating with universities to make online courses and hiring students who took the courses?
  4. Can online courses be included as a part of the curriculum?
  5. How can we better use the National Research and Education Network and Learning Management System?

While these pilot activities were conducted on a voluntary basis, three universities and two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participated to take part in this experiment. Our team is grateful for their eagerness to learn, commitment and willingness to share experiences amongst each other. The series of workshops also created stronger ties among higher education institutions.   

The results of the pilot showed:

  • Capacity and infrastructure to create online courses exist, but most of the courses are IT-related and more non-IT courses will be needed.
  • Language is a barrier for using existing online courses; therefore, students and teachers preferred Russian-based online course materials such as, which is run by the National Open University in Russia (see Figure 1, below). Thirty-nine percent of participants took courses in English, 43 percent in Russian and 17 percent in Tajik.
  • Students are more motivated to take online courses when a recognized certificate is issued.
  • According to teachers who participated in the pilot, the top three requirements for e-course development are: human capacity, training materials and financial resources.
  • The top three advantages for e-learning, according to teachers and students are: self-learning opportunities, availability of professional development through life-long learning, and potential reduction of the urban-rural gap.
  • The top three disadvantages for e-learning, according to teachers and students are: lack of skills and inability to use new technologies, low motivation of trainees for self-learning and low-quality assurance of educational contents
  • The private sector is willing to create courses with universities, invest in training development and interested in hiring those who finish these courses.
  • Including online courses in the curriculum is still challenging due to accreditation issues.
  • The Tajik Academician Research and Educational Networks Association (TARENA) has the potential to provide more research- and education-related services to HEIs in collaboration with regional research and education networks. 


These findings echo what was discussed during the “MOOCs for Development” conference, held in April 2014 at the University of Pennsylvania. The main discussion about the limitation of the MOOCs was that people do need to have prerequisite skills such as English, literacy and pre-knowledge about the subjects, as well as sufficient broadband connectivity to leverage these resources. Also, when we introduce MOOCs or Open Education Resources (OER), we need to think beyond online content – a new education eco-system such as OER University, which applies open innovation in every aspect of education system from quality assurance to contents provision.

We also have to think about the role of teachers and the new pedagogical approach. And finally, contextualization of the materials is a must.  Through the conference, various knowledge exchanges and analysis of the international experience on the use of MOOCs and e-learning in higher education, we have learned the following:


  • Policy: It is essential to set up a quality assurance mechanism for distance education to assure its quality. Not all the courses should be in distance education format. A phase approach for building online educational resources is key.
  • Course delivery: Distance education is often delivered in a blended mode (online, CD-ROM, via TV, and face to face) where the role of tutor is essential.
  • Course creation: In-house development or outsourcing approaches are taken. Use of creative commons license is getting popularity for content creation. Using MOOCs from foreign universities are restricted. Localization of content leveraging existing OER is important.
  • Role of teacher: Teachers generally become facilitators of education rather than lecturers.In Tajikistan, this pilot helped HEIs and the Ministries of Education and Science think through the operationalization of MOOCs and e-learning contents in a holistic manner.

After the pilot, I went to Tajikistan and held workshops with the participants of the pilot to discuss what we can do to develop an enabling environment for the distance education from the infrastructure, policy, content creation and capacity development perspectives.

Currently, the higher education project is in preparation and lessons learned from this pilot initiative are being incorporated. I will report back on the progress we discover.


Saori Imaizumi

Education Specialist (EdTech)

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