Distance learning solves problem of education in rural Russia

Distance learning may be a nice educational tool for those children who live in remote villages and towns. Source: Alamy / Legion Media

Distance learning may be a nice educational tool for those children who live in remote villages and towns. Source: Alamy / Legion Media

Classes taught online give students in remote villages the chance to learn from qualified specialists without leaving home.

The Novosibirsk Region stretches 400 miles from west to east and 280 miles from north to south. Much of the region is sparsely populated, but people live there nevertheless. And some of them have children who must be educated. Like schools in rural areas in many parts of Russia, and indeed the entire world, those in much of the Novosibirsk Region are short of teachers.

As an attempt to alleviate this problem, the Novosibirsk Region launched the Distance Network School project, which today involves 5,237 children.

Nelya Kim, who directs the project, said that the idea came out of a kind of continuing education distance learning program for teachers.

Back in 2006, when the federal education information support project kicked off, we first worked remotely with 500 teachers in their native villages to upgrade their qualifications,” Kim said. “We were impressed with the results and thought, why not try and teach schoolchildren in the same way? For example, train them for the Unified State Exam?”

The Unified State Exam (EGE) is Russia's vesrion of standardized examination. It is a test required to enter universities and other institutions of higher learning in Russia.

In the pilot program, the regional center for information technology prepared a course based on the moodle.ru free virtual teaching framework. Children from three districts in the region studied remotely, receiving lessons from a teacher who never left his desktop computer in the regional capital Novosibirsk.

The exam scores of those who participated in the distance-learning program were very high. Despite this success, many parents still question the initiative.

“Of course, there are many problems,” Kim said. “You’ve got to deal with parents who demand ‘a real live teacher’ all the time. We go out to the rural areas and explain that the network teacher is ‘real’ and qualified. And anyway, there is no other teacher.”

The Moshkovsky District is 51 teachers short and many of its schools are undersubscribed. One school in the village of Barlak has just 44 students. Without the distance learning option, students would have been learning physics, geography and informatics from teachers not qualified in those subjects.

Schools involved in the project receive laptops and mobile carts to recharge the computers and provide wireless Internet. Students can use the computers after school if they don’t have a computer at home, or if they don’t have an Internet connection. Take-home tests are graded by computer, but exercises with essay questions have to be sent to the teacher for grading. The difficulty level of subsequent assignments depends on the results of these tests.

Assistant principal Yelena Vikhrova pointed out another benefit to the distance learning system.

“The advantage of distance learning is that the children are tested by people who have no emotional connection with them,” Vikhrova said.

“Emotional contact is very high among rural teachers, because the classes are small and there are few staff," she added. "When I enter the classroom, the children immediately know if I’m in a good mood or not. I know what’s going on in their home lives, their medical history, and exactly how to act with every pupil to get the best out of them. But the final tests evaluate their knowledge only; the framework is independent of emotion. Children must get used to this and train themselves.”

For teachers, the system is both beneficial and challenging.

“Teachers, most of whom here have reached retirement age, also have problems switching to network classes. The poor Internet connection in rural areas caused a lot of grief. Teachers can’t work in video conference mode, instead they have to work like wireless operators pounding on the keyboard without seeing or hearing their pupils,” said program director Kim.

Network teacher Yulia Sidorova said that despite the challenges of technology, the distance system is at least as reliable as traditional schooling.

“I prepare teaching materials for every lesson in advance and mail them out to the children,” said Sidorova. “It’s better to be on the safe side because problems with communication happen. However, poor roads are much more of a problem – and one that affects pupils at other schools."

"I once saw a group of pupils led by their teacher being unable to get to another district center to take their Unified State Exam," she said. "A freight train had come off the rails and the commuter train they were waiting for was delayed by a number of hours. The miserable teacher was dashing about trying to hitch a ride for her pupils. And there are some schools in the district that cannot be reached in spring or autumn without risking the lives and health of the children [due to spring runoff and heavy snowfall].”

The attitude to network lessons is very different at the City Gymnasium 16, where the Internet allows teachers and children to see each other. They assemble long before the class, socialize and show off their pets and younger siblings through the webcams. They know that on cold winter days or during flu season, they can stay away from school without missing classes. They know that they can leave school for sporting events, for example, and not fall behind in their studies.

The program organizers hope that their example will show students and teachers in other parts of Russia that some day it will be possible to gain admission to the world’s top universities without leaving your remote Siberian village.

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