Lights, camera, action!
Dedicated teachers bring remote learning closer to every child in Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek, 11 May 2020 – Gulsara Kamchybekova starts this day in the COVID-19 shutdown in front of a raft of television prompters, film crew, glaring lights and cameras. The 49-year old, secondary school physics teacher is inside a studio to record lessons which will be broadcast later on television and made available on online platforms so that children can benefit from remote learning. Gulsara is one of more than 200 teachers who have been mobilized to produce video lessons for remote learning in the Kyrgyz Republic.
This is a surreal moment for Gulsara who has more than 27 years of teaching experience and has educated thousands of children. This is the very first time she is teaching in front of a camera, with no students in the room.
Education during COVID-19
As COVID-19 continues its rapid spread throughout the world, countries have been taking unprecedented measures to contain the spread of the virus. The Kyrgyz Republic, like many others, closed its borders, introduced a state of emergency in the affected areas and implemented quarantine measures. A consequence of these measures: The closure of all 6,426 schools and pre-schools in the country, affecting over 1.7 million children.
To continue education programmes and complete the final quarter of the academic year, the Ministry of Education and Science (MoES) put in place an anti-crisis action plan, focusing on introducing and implementing remote learning. The MoES identified priority lessons and has worked with national TV channels to air video lessons. By 8 April, after three weeks of filming, approximately 1,300 video lessons were ready for dissemination to students of various grades and their families.
Even with short notice, Gulsara was ready to jump in. “The MoES needed to address these challenges and our school was tasked to actively participate in the production of the video lessons on different subjects,”
, she says. “Many teachers agreed to help. We realized the level of responsibility in this moment. In our classes, we teach 20-30 students, but here we reach and educate thousands of students around the country.”
Main challenges for remote learning
The MoES took proactive steps in planning the remote learning activities, mobilizing development partners to assist with the implementation of activities and urgently producing video lessons aligned with the last part of the school year. Participating teachers faced various challenges, the first being simple logistics. Many teachers live in remote parts of Bishkek, the capital, or in the outskirts. Due to the lockdown and limited means of transport, it was difficult for them to travel to the production site. The MoES obtained special permits for their movement and arranged for their transportation with the support of the development partners, including UNICEF.
Preparing the lessons themselves was another challenge. The teachers entered unfamiliar territory, finding themselves serving as directors and script writers for their classes. “It might sound easy but, in reality, it means a lot of preparatory work,” says Gulsara. “A minimum of five to six hours went into preparing the slides for every 20-minute video lesson. Normally, you can repeat yourself, and you can approach a student and explain things as needed, but such options are not possible here. We also had to make sure that our topics could be understood by all students. That put a lot of pressure and responsibility on our shoulders”.
"In our classes, we teach 20-30 students, but here, we reach and educate thousands of students around the country.”
Speaking in front of the camera, with a green chroma key (or greenscreen) in the back and flooded by bright lights also took getting used to, she adds. “You are in the spotlight and you see other people in the studio that are looking at you and waiting for you, while the cameraman and sound specialists were directing me, telling me where to stand, where to look at, and how to speak. During this time, other teachers were waiting for their turn. Am I speaking too fast? Am I explaining the lessons too simply or is it too complicated? Is my voice smooth or trembling? All these questions run through you head at the same time!”
Gulsara, who has taught at Bishkek School No. 5 (currently the national school-lyceum for innovative technology) since 1993, sounds calm and professional when sharing the difficulties she was confronted with and recalling the sleepless nights spent in front of a mirror, practicing her lessons. “We had to try to present the lesson in a single take…without getting confused nor stumbling. It was very difficult”, she adds. Teachers involved in the video lesson production, including Gulsara herself, had to go back home late at night, and then had still to prepare for the following day and be ready for the filming again the next morning.
With big hearts and pride
All their efforts have paid off. On 8 April, the government launched the remote learning programmes throughout the country. Like Gulsara, in a short period of time, hundreds of schoolteachers learned how to use tools such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Google Classroom, assessing which applications were needed to reach students and help them continue their learning.
Gulsara sees the pros and the cons in this new way of teaching remotely. On one hand, she is unable to assess how students understand and follow her class, like she would usually do with the 20 to 30 students in her direct care. Moreover, the pace of learning is different for each student. On the other hand, remote learning has its own advantages as it teaches students to be more independent and search for information by using different tools and sources. “It teaches them to be more responsible,” says Gulsara. “I realized what is important for me now. I am a teacher. I am also helping the common good, and I am a part of this collective effort. This was motivating me and helped me to fight the fear and cope with stress.”
The education response in the Kyrgyz Republic during the COVID-19 crisis would not be possible without the leadership of the Government, especially the MoES, and the timely support of the development partners. UNICEF contributed by helping the MoES to develop the remote learning methodology, production of the video lessons for both pre-school and school-age children that are currently broadcasted in Russian and Kyrgyz languages, including subtitles in Uzbek, Tajik, and sign languages. To date, programmes to ensure continuity of learning have reached approximately 1.2 million learners, and more lessons are under development. These programmes are addressing a challenge felt in many other parts of the world. They have accelerated remote learning opportunities and maximized participatory education through TV and online learning. Most importantly, the work has brought dedicated teachers like Gulsara into the homes of families across the whole country.