Distance Learning and digital tools in rural communities of Armenia

By Yervand Abrahamian

Schooling across the world has been fully modified into distance learning due to the new COVID-19 pandemic. Vis-a-vis teaching has transferred to online platforms. Even the paperback classroom registers are replaced with their e-versions online. Odds are that certain teachers and students have always had preference for distance learning methods, yet for a good many people this transition appeared confusing and the distance learning tools – unusual or unknown. Aside from this, the poor quality or lack of internet access and the limited opportunities of students in many communities of Armenia are other dimensions of the problem. 

Moreover, students in rural communities of Armenia have limited access to quality education and opportunities due to teacher shortages and lack of digital resources to continue online learning, introduced as a result of school closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The new learning reality further aggravated the already existing inequity and socio-economic challenges faced by students from rural communities, who often do not enrol in high school or receive basic education. This sudden transition to online learning combined with the lack of rural teachers’ digital skills and devices amongst students has triggered declines in students’ online attendance and quality of lesson organization and teaching efficiency. Furthermore, regional geopolitical changes and the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh had  immensely impacted the uninterrupted learning and teaching processes, particularly  for students from borderline and war-affected communities. 

To examine the new situation further, we have interviewed several Teach for Armenia program Teacher-Leaders asking them to share their experiences and ideas.

Anush Amirbekyan, Musaler school 

– Ms. Amirbekyan, can I leave for a minute, please?
– Ms. Amirbekyan, my pen won’t write! 
– Ms. Amirbekyan, your image is frozen, could you try to reconnect, please?
– Ms. Amirbekyan, can I show you the wheat grass I’ve grown for Easter when we are done?
(…followed by a tour around the house).

Phrases like this have become an inevitable language of daily communication between the Musaler elementary school teacher Ms. Amirbekyan and her students. Anush remembers having informed the parents of her students from the onset of the state of emergency that lessons should be delivered online and here is when she faced the problems. Unfortunately, many people use the internet only for sharing pictures and messages, while students and their parents had no knowledge of operating online platforms for distance learning. During the first few days they started to use the Viber mobile application to shoot and submit their home assignments, but this method of working turned out to be dull and inefficient.

Since Skype was more popular among the parents of her students, Anush decided to deliver the distance lessons through this platform. In order to make the lessons more exciting and productive, she divided the class into groups of 5 to 6 who took turns to participate in the lessons. The lesson breaks were replaced by short stretches and physical exercises in front of the screen, while misconduct was punished by a temporary dismissal of a student from the group chat. However, along with the fun and positive energy, there are problems that have an immediate impact on the productivity and the balanced engagement of students. The key issue remains the poor internet connectivity that causes interruptions of sound and image during video calls. Another challenge is that students lack the skills of operating different web-based tools, which makes the process of explaining how to use them too time consuming. Discipline and responsibility are also a major concern, because students are often lazy or forgetful to sign in to the lessons on time. According to Anush, however, despite all the challenges, this distance learning experience will ultimately have its positive impact and everyone will have the proper awareness and preparation for organising distance learning in the future.

@Teach For Armenia Foundation

Hayk Simonyan, Bagaran School

Hayk, the Bagaran school teacher of algebra, geometry and computer science and his students were unprepared for this sudden shift to distance learning too, with everything happening in a matter of days. Although Hayk has the skills to use modern online platforms and shares them with his students to the extent of the school’s possibilities, he too faced certain difficulties with teaching online. Students typically use Viber and Facebook messenger applications, since the majority of children are not equipped with relevant tools to use other online platforms. Hayk thinks that the transition from hard copies of classroom registers, chalkboards and face-to-face lessons to distance learning within a week is inefficient and is still unlikely to meet great expectations. Internet access is not the only criteria for successful distance lessons, since lots of teachers, especially those in remote communities, don’t have relevant skills, computers and knowledge of distance education tools.

If schools had been generally equipped with smart boards, sufficient computers for all students and teachers who would also be trained in distance learning methods, we would have a different situation at the moment.

In addition to technical issues, Hayk specified that many students simply miss the online classes because of the generally low level of enthusiasm, self-awareness and self-discipline as a student. They are bored and care little for the online lessons that occupy their whole days. He also spoke about other students who share the same context and opportunities, yet, by contrast, take distance learning seriously and engage in online lessons to remain occupied and enrich their knowledge.

Masha Manukyan, Tsovazard school

“Alright dears, now you turn your cameras on, raise your exercise-books without opening them and put them aside so I can see them.”

This way Masha, the friendly English language teacher of Tsovazard school, is making sure her students don’t cheat while completing the online assignments. Switching to distance teaching, Masha too faced the question of what platform to use. Most of the teachers in her school were used to the Viber application, but it wasn’t very expedient to her, because it only allowed them to connect via group audio calls, notably with frequent interruptions, which makes explaining the material and the overall work with students impossible or inefficient. So, she decided to introduce the ZOOM program to the students and now she is using this platform to deliver the new material through screen sharing or uses a Word File as a board to make the lesson exciting for the children. 

To make the work more interactive, Masha shares different video materials with the students or makes her own videos of new lessons. She says that the school and the community were not prepared for a full transition to distance learning because the internet connection was poor, many students didn’t have computers or sophisticated smart phones and sometimes were forced to skip certain lessons or turn to their neighbours or friends for technical support. Masha is trying to fill the gap with these students through phone calls, which requires extra time and efforts. They might have internet interruptions or power outages during lessons, which has a negative effect on the students’ engagement and attention. Despite all hardships, Masha is full of hope that this distance learning experience will bring good changes and open new opportunities in the future.

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