2020 August-September Analysis

How did Georgia handle the distance education challenge?

What lessons can students and teachers take from the coronavirus crisis and the great distance education experiment?

Over the past decade, schools around the world have started integrating modern technology into the classroom. A 2018 Cambridge International report on 100 different countries revealed that around 48% of classrooms surveyed use computers, 33% use smartboards, and 42% integrate smartphones into the learning experience.

Some technologies have proven to be more successful than others, and educational systems worldwide are still experimenting and fine-tuning. But this school year, technology went from a supplementary tool to an integral element of the education system.

So how did Georgia cope with the transition?

As with other challenges faced during the pandemic, Georgia seems to have handled the education crisis relatively well. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) even praised Georgia as a model country in terms of its educational system during the coronavirus outbreak.

Although some higher educational institutions worldwide had to send students packing, Georgian universities were quick to make the transition to online classes. The government also set up a nationwide virtual platform for school students, and tried to provide learning materials for those who did not have internet access.

Universities transition from lecture halls to Zoom

San Diego State University made the switch over to an entirely virtual learning experience as early as March 16. The institution not only successfully trained their professors and students in several different online platforms, they had an entire virtual toolbox at their disposal. The backbone of the program was Blackboard Learn, a virtual learning environment and the easiest way for students to communicate with teachers, as well as review their course materials and assignments. They also used video conferencing program Zoom, which comes with a helpful “hand raise” feature so that teachers can easily address students’ questions without everyone speaking over one another.

The appropriately named Turnitin was the platform used for handing out and turning in assignments, which students and teachers were already familiar with, as it was used even before the transition to fully online learning. Respondus Test Software, Respondus LockDown Browser and Respondus Monitor were used to monitor students’ computers during tests to ensure that no one was cheating, and students used MATLAB for data analysis, creating algorithms, and digital computing. SDSU also gives its students access to a number of other applications, such as Microsoft Office Office 365 Portal, Project Professional, Visio Professional, Visual Studio Enterprise, Windows 10, SQL Server 2019 Developer.

The Georgian American University (GAU) was able to adapt quickly to the new situation as well, as the school is a longtime partner of Google. GAU not only provided their staff and students with continuous support, even making house calls to professors’ houses to sort out technical issues and attending online meetings with other Georgian universities to discuss distance learning methods and assessment tools, but also took active measures in the fight against COVID-19. One such measure they took was donating 10,000 GEL to the Georgian government’s StopCov anti-coronavirus fund. In addition, they held social events to support the elderly population in nursing homes.

Accessible education and personal autonomy

The parents of school aged children were impressed with Georgia’s performance as well during this time.

“I think the Ministry of Education managed to handle the situation quite satisfactorily,” says Iako Ormotsadze, an English teacher and mother of a 2.5-year-old. “They did their best to make distance learning comfortable, productive and easily accessible for everyone. They even started a project on TV, giving online lessons every day for those who didn’t have access to the internet.”

The program she is referring to is called ‘Teleskola’, which began broadcasting lessons encompassing all mandatory school subjects for students from 1-12 grade. This was especially helpful for families with no internet access, or those with multiple children sharing one computer, as the children could take turns studying online while the others watched educational programs.

In addition, the Georgian Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports developed the Education Information Management System (EMIS), through which Microsoft Office 365 user profiles were created for around 600,000 Georgian public school students, as well as 55,000 teachers and school faculty members.

Another way that the Georgian educational system differed from that of other countries in their handling of the coronavirus crisis was that they allowed students and parents to access their own data, grades, and learning materials without permission from the school administration and teachers. This allowed them to review their grades and previous exercises on their own time.

And perhaps most importantly, the ministry also set up virtual counseling centers in all regions of Georgia, where volunteer experts from the New School Model are able to coach teachers through the transition and train them in the use of technology in the classroom.

The New School Model and barriers to distance learning

Even before coronavirus hit Georgia, the Ministry of Education was working on a new series of reforms to the Georgian education system. The New School Model is designed to implement new technologies in the classroom, including digital textbooks. It also aims to decentralize the educational standard model and provide schools with more autonomy in order to create more individualized and personalized approaches. The fact that this program was already being developed helped the Georgian educational system immensely in the transition to distance learning.

However, the system currently has a fairly limited reach and is still far from perfect.

Tamta Amisulashvili, who is both the mother of two school-aged children and an adult English learner herself, says that there is still a lot to be improved on. “I think learning theory is easier in this context, but we encountered some problems where teachers just couldn’t explain things well on the platform.” Amisulashvili believes that her own children, who are 12 and 16, benefited from the new format. “I think it was great for them to face these challenges and improve their learning skills.”

But she says that in her experience as a learner, she faced some difficulties. “The course became more boring for me. It was hard to pay attention and I had internet problems.”

Ormotsadze also says that teaching group classes poses more challenges than teaching individually in an online format. “From my personal experience, teaching online individual classes are far more comfortable and productive than teaching online groups,” she says. “Since you are teaching only one person, they are actively involved in every kind of activity you offer during the lesson and they don’t get distracted easily.

“If students start talking at the same time, the class becomes a real mess. Also, some of the students pointed out that it is hard for them to concentrate while working online than working in a physical classroom.”

Although the Ministry of Education did its best in a pinch to provide an option for students with no computers, lack of internet access still remained a big issue. According to a 2017 study by the National Statistics Office of Georgia, only around 70% of Georgian citizens have internet access, and 60% of those who do only have access through their mobile phones. For students living in remote areas or with only one shared computer available for the whole family, this made participating in the classroom difficult.

English teacher Fleur Swemmer, who lives in Georgia and who has over a decade of experience working in both traditional and virtual classrooms, says that this was one of the biggest problems teachers faced during the crisis. “I think the biggest issue that affects every online teaching interaction is the quality of the device that you’re using,” she says. “Obviously, whatever teacher you have is going to make a big difference, but you could have the best teacher on earth, but if you’re working on a 2005 Android device, lessons won’t be great.”

Despite this, Swemmer is generally optimistic about the future of technology in the Georgian educational system. Even possible issues such as the fact that school children may be tempted to be distracted, and surf the web instead of studying, may be to the system’s benefit.

“The thing is, kids love to cheat, and I love that they do, because that means that they’re interested and they’re learning. When I was teaching in Thailand, in primary school, they had iPads for the kids. And the kids would take the iPad and have it jailbroken, find different ways to sign in, create extra profiles. The teachers were always complaining about it and trying to punish the kids. But I think we should have put some app-building software on there for the kids to use instead, make it interesting, incentivize it.”

Swemmer says the biggest obstacle to integrating technology into the classroom is the lack of training for teachers. “I do think that there are so many possibilities for online learning systems for kids, but the teachers need immediate training. What teachers really need is the same thing the kids need, which is interesting, effective and useful training, given by people who know how to do it properly.”

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