The Greater Caspian Region’s Transition to Online Learning Underscores the Need to Expand Internet Access
The detection of coronavirus in the Greater Caspian Region in late February 2020 precipitated the rapid shutdown of in-person schooling and the rapid transition to complete the academic year virtually. However, the beginning of the new scholastic year is stirring debate over whether schools should reopen for in-person instruction. The divergent opinions from families, teachers, and public health officials are resulting in the lack of a standard policy across the region. On September 15, students in Armenia returned to the classroom for the first time in six months, while in Kazakhstan, authorities announced that only a limited number of students in the first through fourth grades would be permitted to return to the classroom this semester. In both countries, parents and public health officials have challenged the decisions. Public health officials in Armenia believe that it was a hasty decision that will put teachers and students in unnecessary danger. On the other hand, some Kazakhstani parents have voiced concerns that distant-learning methods are not sufficient for meeting educational standards. In many cases, online learning will exacerbate the already existing cleavages in the Greater Caspian Region and disproportionately impact students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Online instruction will have a negative impact on students who do not have access to the proper equipment, reliable power sources, or stable internet connections. In many Kabul neighborhoods, residents only have access to power for four hours per day. Furthermore, purchasing computers and internet service is expensive and many families cannot afford to take on that additional financial burden. For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment taken by 15-year-old individuals in member countries, reported that in 2018, Kazakhstani students with access to computers were 20 points ahead of their peers without computers. In addition, students with access to computers and internet performed about a half-year ahead of those without access.
Students in rural communities are also disproportionately affected by online instruction. The Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan are the least urbanized countries in the region, as well as least technologically developed. According to the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Development Index (IDI), which measures technological development in a country, the Kyrgyz Republic was ranked 109th globally with a score of 4.37, the lowest in the region. Rural internet connections are often weak due to rough terrain and poor conditions. Internet service providers in Tajikistan have said that it is not worth the spending needed to accommodate these rural communities because the return on investment is too low. Students in rural communities are forced to either pay high prices to acquire bandwidth or not attend online classes for the year.
In Afghanistan, cultural and technological barriers will seemingly have a greater impact on girls than boys. Prior to the pandemic, 60 percent of school children were girls. Moreover, as a result of the dire economic situation spurred by the pandemic, many Afghan families might choose to prioritize the education of their sons over their daughters, according to Rabia Sabri, the Program Coordinator for education projects at the Community World Service Asia. Online learning will likely have a lasting impact on the gender divide across the country.
Some countries in the Greater Caspian Region have already taken proactive steps to address structural difficulties in administering remote education. In Uzbekistan, about one-third of the population does not have internet access and nearly 50 percent reside in rural areas. To ensure that these students do not fall too far behind, the Ministry of Public Education broadcasted over 350 video lessons on national television. In Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic, the government made emergency funding programs available through ongoing bank-financed projects, such as Kazakhstan’s Education Modernization project. While these initiatives may ease the transition to online learning, it is imperative that countries in the region continue to prioritize the development of infrastructure that will allow online learning to resume if unforeseen circumstances call for it.
Students who have adequate access to technology and live in a space that is favorable to online learning will be better prepared when returning to in-person instruction than their peers who do not have this access. Students from low-income backgrounds, girls, rural students, and students with special needs are more severely affected by distanced learning. Today, online connectivity is essential to providing students with a quality education. Governments in the Greater Caspian Region must take steps to bridge the educational divide by ensuring internet access is available to the most vulnerable students. The ongoing pandemic has brought the necessity of internet infrastructure to the forefront, but that need will not subside when COVID-19 does.