Azerbaijan’s Children Let Down by Online Learning

Inadequate infrastructure and miscommunication have dogged more than a year of remote schooling.

Azerbaijan’s Children Let Down by Online Learning

Inadequate infrastructure and miscommunication have dogged more than a year of remote schooling.

Like many parents around the world, Ilhama Jabrayilli, who lives in Azerbaijan’s Samukh region, found it hard to motivate her two children to participate in online learning during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“The children are reluctant,” she explained, adding that her youngest, in the fourth grade, simply did not want to turn up to classes.

“The teacher gives the tasks on the computer, but the child doesn't do them. Mothers are required to sit next to their children to make sure they do their work. My other son, who is a 7th grader, studied well before this but is now far behind.”

While online classes have proved a steep learning curve for students around the world, Azerbaijan has faced its own particular challenges. For more than a year, education has been almost entirely remote and online – although schools briefly opened on February 20 2021, they closed again on March 8 after infections increased.

Parents and teachers alike say that neither the ministry of education nor schools or students were ready to transition to such a system. Classes have been dogged by a series of problems – from the lack of computers or tablets to inadequate internet infrastructure.

A growing economic crisis - according to official statistics, there are currently more than 600,000 unemployed people in Azerbaijan – has added to these difficulties. Many people cannot afford a computer or internet access.

From the first day of lockdown, social networks were flooded with videos of online lessons accompanied by complaints over technical and behavioural issues.

Aynura Aliyeva, a teacher at a secondary school in Ganja, said that a combination of miscommunication and inadequate infrastructure had proved very hard to overcome.

“The main problem was that no one knew about the online curriculum developed by the ministry,” she continued. “Even computer science teachers were helpless in the hands of modern programs...there are still teachers and students who cannot use the program.”

Poor infrastructure - including frequent electricity blackouts - and high internet costs added to their difficulties.

“I have children who do not have the internet, so it is impossible for them to study in a group,” Aliyeva said. “There is no internet cable in the area where I live. There was no support from the state. I had to pay the bulk of my salary to connect to an internet package. In general, many regions do not have a network of providers. A family that wants to join an internet package has to spend a lot of money, which is not possible, so there are many children who do not attend classes.”

That was the experience of Ismayilova Gulnar, who lives in Ganja and said that her family soon spiralled into debt after her husband lost his job at a tea house due to the pandemic. Their current budget cannot even cover the cheapest internet provider which charges 15 manats [eight US dollars] per month.

“My husband doesn't have a job,” she said. “The children's books and pencils were bought by my mother. We can't spare money for the internet.”

Likewise, Turan Abbasov, who lives with his family in Baku, said that his children had no access to a computer and were all forced to share their father’s phone for lessons. This meant that none of them could do their work properly.

“I have only one smartphone at home but I have three children,” Abbasov continued. “All of them need the phone at the same time, which isn’t possible. I can't buy a phone and the school or the government didn’t help us with this technical issue.”

The ministry of education told IWPR that numerous projects had been implemented to support teachers and students during the pandemic, including free video lessons posted on their own online portal.

“As a logical continuation of this work, the Virtual School project was launched on April 2 [2020] and the country’s largest national online platform was launched for students,” the spokesman continued, adding that the total number of users now exceeded 1.4 million students and 128,000 teachers.

“The project covers all regions of the country, and thus 93 per cent of teachers and 86 percent of students across the country are registered and use the platform.”

As for those without means to access the internet at home, the ministry said that there were computer centres in 28 schools in 17 regions to cater for teachers and students who otherwise could not join online classes.

The ministry did not respond to questions on how to improve the online learning programme or their plans to help students catch up with school work. 

However, Kamran Asadov, an expert on education, said that under current conditions only 30-35 percent of students were able to access online classes.

“In the regions, the percentage of users of electronic resources is lower,” he said. “Even in one classroom, [only] 10-15 percent of students can use online lessons. However, if there are discounts on internet tariffs, it’s possible these figures could increase to 70-80 per cent.”

He cautioned that it was impossible to shift teaching entirely online, not least because some subjects necessitated face-to-face classes or laboratory work.

The answer, Asadov continued, lay in a staggered return to school, with different years attending in shifts.

 “I think that classes should not be every day of the week,” he said, adding that this should be combined with “attention to social distancing and other preventive measures”.

“In addition, every student studying in [Azerbaijan’s] 4,447 secondary schools should be provided with tablets paid for from the state budget, and equal opportunities should be created for all students to join online education.”

Ulviyya Mammadova, an activist with experience of online learning, said that the crisis should be seen as a chance to improve the whole concept of remote learning in Azerbaijan.

“Distance education should be seen as an opportunity during the pandemic, no matter how difficult it may be,” she said. “Necessary experience will be gained over time.”

She said that this process was becoming part of mainstream education in other parts of the world.

“Unfortunately, it seems that the process of attracting school children to online classes is difficult,” she continued. “However, young people should not shy away from distance education and instead try to better adapt. It would be good to have basic state programmes to support this.

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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