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Covid-19 has Tested Azerbaijan’s Education System…

Covid-19 has Tested Azerbaijan’s Education System…

Like in the rest of the world, Covid-19 has also tested Azerbaijan’s education system. We turned to an education expert, senior lecturer Ilham Ahmadov for a comment on the existing problems of this sector, ways out of them and other pressing issues.

What are the problems of the country’s secondary and higher education systems under the current circumstances of Covid-19 pandemic?

By virtue of the pandemic, education systems of most countries have made transitions to distance education without difficulties. The reason for is that those countries have already had an efficient distance education systems. Our country had of course to resort to distance learning technologies to continue teaching. However, unlike other countries, our country has experienced many difficulties, as the distance education system was not created in time.

The difficulties were observed in other countries as well. Although the distance education system was set up in those countries, about 20% of the students received distance education. Under the current circumstances, the mass transfer of all universities, all specialties and all of the students to distance education were required.

In this sense, there were some difficulties in those countries. However, thanks to the rich experience of those universities in the field of distance education, the necessary resources – staffing (faculty and technical staff, who can teach in this system), legal and regulatory framework, software and hardware, pedagogical and methodological support, those universities had solved problems in a short time. The situation in our country was very different.

The Education Law, adopted in 2009, listed the distance education as one of the forms of education. Why has there been no progress in this sector?

Unfortunately, the Education Ministry, which is the relevant executive authority for the creation and development of this form of education in our country, did not plan and did not implement the necessary measures. In fact, it was already late to establish the distance education system in 2009, as many countries had already started preparations to this end in the 1990s. The process of introducing the Internet in education was underway in about 1995-1996ss. As its natural outcome, distance learning began to take shape on the Internet.

As early as 2000s, despite the slow speed of the Internet, many universities around the world began to provide systematic higher education via the Internet. Finally, though late, the initial basis for the establishment of distance education was created in our country in 2009 (the adoption of the “Law on Education”), although at that time, the distance education was no longer used in international practice as a form of education, but as educational technology.

In order to use the educational technology, there was no need for any article to be mentioned in the law. However, after 2009, there were no obstacles to the establishment of the distance education system in our country, but for unknown reasons, education officials did not have such a desire. No steps have been taken since 2009 to establish the distance education system. I would very much like a representative of the Education Ministry to make an official statement about reasons behind it.

1. Why have they not ensured the implementation of this article of the “Law on Education” for 11 years?

2. What was the main reason behind non-application of the distance education system in our country unlike the rest of the world?

3. In general, what are the causes of the problems in the education system after the onset of the pandemic, and how do they plan to solve these problems?

The widespread introduction of the distance education in secondary schools creates more or less certain problems worldwide. This is for the reason that there are almost no secondary schools that work in a remote format on a daily basis, (except for inclusive education and low-income schools).

The problems are mainly technical. For example, although distance technologies are not widely applied in the secondary education in the Russian Federation, all the necessary resources have long been made available (both by the private sector and by the public sector). Even now, students have the opportunity to receive distance education by providing free access to these resources.

Due to the situation in the Republic of Kazakhstan, all teachers, students and pupils have been provided with free Internet access by the state. In a short time, 80,000 schoolchildren have been provided with tablets at public expense. This country has 20 years of experience in the application of distance education.

A total of 80% of over 150 universities and 800 colleges in Kazakhstan have established distance education systems years ago. For this reason, they had a problem-free transition to distance education. In other countries, as well as where they were able to set up their businesses at a high level in time, a smooth transition to distance education was possible.

We wonder, what is the current situation of distance education in our country?

Attempts to apply distance education at our universities have faced certain difficulties and problems from the onset. Poor internet connection was one of the main problems. These types of problems and questions, of course, can concern any “distance teacher”, because, regardless of the technology applied in teaching, the teachers are more concerned about the quality of training, communication, human relations and the educational process.

At present, in one way or the other, without any preparations – technical, methodological, staff training, human capital, finance and other issues, an attempt to apply the distance education at universities, of course, could not yield the expected result and could not succeed; its benefit will be more than its damage and will take years. This step is like jumping into a sea by people who cannot swim. If we continue the comparison, it is as if we are standing on the seashore, monitoring the experience of foreign universities for 20 years cold-bloodedly for a long time, wasting so many valuable years in vain.

Now, when the pandemic has caught us off guard, like everyone else, we want to find salvation by jumping in at the deep end. Taking heed of a saying “do not lag behind your neighbour”, we have also jumped into a sea and are still floundering instead of swimming.

Countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus and Uzbekistan started these activities 20 years ago and have gradually moved forward through difficulties. They are now “floating freely in the sea”. Our situation is completely different, and it seems that many still do not understand how serious the issue is.

Today, UNEC (the Azerbaijani State Economy University) can promote the distance education in a more organized way than other universities. The reason for is that they have achieved the current level for 5 years (let’s take into account that 20 years ago, some work was done by trial and error method and there are staff with knowledge about distance education). However, what can other universities achieve without building any infrastructure?

In 1995, the Russian Federation set up an ad hoc committee to take the first step in this direction. The ad hoc committee, chaired by a deputy prime minister, deputized by the education minister with other five ministers as members of the committee, their specialists conducted for five years a continuous experiment involving 300,000 students and 30,000 teachers at 300 educational institutions to form all regulatory, technical, software, financial and staffing issues.

Once they completed everything, there was an official transition to distance education. Now, when we have neither a team at the Education Ministry, at the universities, nor normative and technical documents coupled with slow Internet connection, such problems are expected.

However, if the Education Ministry can display high professionalism and competence to this end (unlike the curriculum and textbook development process), we can probably succeed in something in 5-10 years. In international practice, a university with 10 faculties and 10,000 students needs 10 years and 20-30 million dollars to build a normal distance education system. We should not think that everything would be solved with MS Teams software. This can only be a temporary way out of a difficult situation.

You need a special platform to build a software system for a university that meets international standards. In the first days of introducing the distance education, the concern of teachers is also understandable. Education is a human field, any educational technology may be better than previous one, but there is still a lot to perfection. Until artificial intelligence completely solves these problems, any educational technology that is created and applied will still lose to a teacher. Life and technological development will show what comes next.

Though late, we want to undertake real work, at least after losing 20 years due to the mistakes of officials. If we fail to achieve it now, our education will be in danger of extinction as a result of global competition given it is also unknown how long the pandemic will last.

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