With the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), education systems are facing a new crisis worldwide. More than 180 countries (as of April 22) are mandating some form of school closures, impacting at least 1.7 billion students. Extended closures may cause not only learning losses in the short term, but also losses in human capital and diminished economic opportunities over the long term.
Like many countries, Uzbekistan had to shut down all schools to prevent the spread of the virus. The decision was taken on March 15, the same day the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country. Two days later, the Ministry of Public Education announced the government’s unprecedented plan to roll out remote learning for its 6.1 million school students during the lockdown.
When it comes to learning challenges during school closures, equity is the most critical issue where there is limited capacity. It is wrong to assume that all students will have equal access to distance learning resources and opportunities when schools are shut down. In fact, this type of crisis disproportionately hits the most vulnerable, many of whom live in remote areas and do not have access to electronic devices or the internet.
Connectivity is an issue in Uzbekistan, as around one-third of the population still do not have Internet access and nearly 50 percent live in rural areas (World Bank 2018). The country ranks 133rd in the world for mobile internet speed and 95th for fixed broadband, as of March 2020. Therefore, the Ministry of Public Education (Ministry) acknowledges that online learning might not be equitable for all students in the country. But with 100 percent having digital television coverage, deploying broadcast TV is the only viable option for mass delivery of remote learning.
The Ministry’s response has been timely, though there is more to be done. In a matter of days, it made available over 350 video lessons to go live on national TV channels, beginning March 30. These lessons are available in both Uzbek and Russian, with sign language interpretation. At the same time, they are being posted on the Ministry’s social media platforms, including video-sharing ones such as YouTube and Mover.uz, as well as on kundalik.com, a learning management platform.
To supplement learning, the Ministry’s website provides a list of its in-house platforms, including Talim.uz, Edu Market, Eduportal, and Kitob.uz. Courtesy of all Internet service providers and GSM mobile network operators, free data access has been granted to the Ministry’s in-house electronic resources making them accessible for all school students and their parents.
To aid teachers and parents during the first week of the lockdown, the Ministry quickly developed user-friendly recommendations for grades 1-11 and posted them online. Since the closures, it has held frequent briefings to provide updates on the government’s response and to address parents’ and students’ concerns.
Time is a scarce resource during an emergency response, and the Ministry continues to act quickly. It is preparing on average 100 video classes a day to ensure a smooth transition and, most importantly, provide a sense of continuity as school children cope with anxiety and uncertainty related to the pandemic. On April 21, the Ministry took the decision to continue with remote teaching until the end of the academic year, to help manage students’ expectations during these difficult times.
There is a difference between well-designed online instruction and emergency remote teaching during crises. And the efforts of many countries that are rolling out remote teaching should be treated as such. When crisis is over, the experience will present an opportunity for the Ministry and relevant stakeholders to assess implementation and strengthen remote instruction, should school closures take place again in the future.
The Ministry’s emergency response shows a commitment to timely action that can maintain learning during the pandemic, as well as concern for the additional burden on vulnerable students across Uzbekistan. However, much more remains to be discussed and planned for when schools and universities eventually reopen, and classes can resume.
Key issues to be considered in Uzbekistan and other countries that are implementing remote learning:
- Evidence from previous pandemics shows that vulnerable students tend to drop out after crises. Therefore, what measures should be taken to identify students at risk of dropping out of school or university after the pandemic?
- What can be done to help these students remain in school or university? Could there be remedial programs? Should financial incentives (e.g., stipends or scholarships) be considered? What would be the role of teachers and administrators in this?
- What approaches should be taken to accelerate learning when classes resume?
- Would there be an assessment to measure how much learning took place during the closures?
And what measures should be taken to address learning challenges if intermittent closures of schools must take place to mitigate the risk of additional waves of the pandemic?