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Even in Moscow, not all the kids have laptops The switch to distance learning is testing Russia's Internet infrastructure and the patience of students and teachers nationwide

Source: Meduza
Egor Andreyev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Since late March, Russian children have been studying online because of the coronavirus pandemic. There isn’t a single comprehensive platform offering online education in Russia — instead the Education Ministry has compiled a list of recommended resources. Students and teachers complain about technical failures and the questionable quality of educational content, and pranksters are derailing online lessons. Federal officials acknowledge the problems with online learning, as they continue to their chaotic development and rollout of new services and platforms.

Crashes, pranks, disruptions, chaos 

In late March, schoolchildren across Russia were sent on vacation as a result of coronavirus, and soon thereafter made the switch to distance learning. On April 27, Education Minister Sergey Kravtsov acknowledged in an interview with the newspaper Kommersant that the shift was no cakewalk: “Of course, not all schools and teachers were ready for this. This was a shock for many families. You think I don’t know this? My own daughter has been aggravated using these online platforms, which were freezing and getting overloaded all the time. We've had a lot of problems with online learning.”

Users from various regions of Russia are constantly bemoaning technical failures on the educational sites, in particular the Russian Online School. In Kostroma oblast there were service problems with the local educational platform “Network Education.” And in Voronezh, there were issues with the functioning of digital journals on the learning platform In the early stages of distance learning in March, the platform Moscow Online School sent users a letter warning about “technical failures” (Meduza has a copy of the letter). And on the digital journal page on the Moscow Online School’s site, there was another warning posted about the possibility of information displaying incorrectly due to service updates.

“I would say that the administrative system has seized up. Lots of educational platforms were built with public money by the government or by regional private contractors, but they can't cope with this number of users — they just weren’t built for this kind of load. You'd think usage could be distributed more evenly if a platform can’t handle peak usage, but, no, all lessons across the country must start at 8:30 a.m. sharp,” lamented Karen Kazaryan Chief Analyst at the Russian Association for Electronic Communications. 

For this reason, teachers minimize their use of the educational platforms, he says, and mostly just conduct online lessons via Zoom, Skype, or WhatsApp, as with these programs you can easily organize a conference call, even with a smartphone. 

The IT company “Qrator Labs” reported a fourfold increase in the frequency of hacker attacks on distance learning platforms. Internet pranksters have also zeroed in on online lessons — there are several videos circulating online of pranks played on students and teachers during lessons. Attackers are connecting to video lessons on Zoom or other services and wreaking havoc. Russia’s Investigative Committee has started to take on these cases, prosecuting them under Article 272 of the Russian Criminal Code, which addresses “unauthorized access to electronic information.” Officials opened one such case in St. Petersburg, announcing the possible involvement of a VKontakte user named Artur Amayev, who operates a popular Youtube channel called Russian Paver, mostly dedicated to video game streaming. Federal investigators have indicated that they will monitor constantly for attacks on online learning.

In several regions, attackers broadcast pornographic videos during lessons. Such incidents have occurred in Kaluga, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Saratov, and Murmansk, among other places. The Investigative Committee’s office in the Saratov region has opened a criminal case under Article 242 of Russia's Criminal Code, which addresses the “unlawful circulation of pornographic materials.”

But Vsevolod Lukhovitsky — co-chairman of the Interregional Trade Union of Education Workers (or “Uchitel”) — told Meduza that the most pressing problems are the quality of educational content on the online platforms, the absence of a methodology for distance learning, a lack of technical means for both students and teachers, and the inability of students and teachers to find private spaces to participate in lessons. 

“Due to an absence of standardized administrative regulations for distance learning, there’s a lot of chaos in this area right now. Administrative personnel, namely directors of schools and head teachers, don’t understand how to establish a framework for online learning, yet they try in every possible way to take the reins themselves. This gives rise to wild ideas, like recording online lessons for accountability’s sake,” explained Karen Kazaryan.

Minister of Education Sergey Kvatsov acknowledged that distance education is no replacement for traditional schooling. His office even recommended that regions hardest hit by COVID-19 end the school year for grades 1 through 8 ahead of schedule, and if necessary, move part of the curriculum for these classes to next year. The Ministry also advised a reduction in the number of exams for students in grades 9 and up, only requiring passage of the Basic State Exam in Russian and mathematics (typically students take an exam in math, Russian, and two in subjects of their choosing). However, high school students graduating this year still need to pass the Unified State Exam and submit their results to colleges and universities, though the dates for exams have been pushed back.

What’s going on?

In lieu of a single standardized resource for distance learning in Russia, the Education Ministry prepared a list of recommended services, and suggested that schools put processes in place independently. The ministry lists about 20 such services: government platforms like Russian Online School and Moscow Online School, as well as several private platforms that offer discounted or free access to education providers during the pandemic, among them Yandex.Uchebnik (Yandex Textbook), the Sberbank-owned “School Digital Platform,” Foxford, Skyeng, and others.

The Education Ministry hasn't stopped there: officials are constantly announcing the development and launch of new educational platforms and partnerships with major Internet platforms. They recently announced a collaboration with the group, whose subsidiaries GeekBrains, Skillbox, and the programming school “Algorithm” are offering students free access to their courses during the pandemic. They’ve also heralded the launch of the satellite TV channel “My School Online,” which televises 30 minute lessons in core subjects for students in higher grade levels, as well as a partnership with the TV channel Public Television of Russia (ОТR), which now broadcasts a daily morning lesson series called “My Education.”

The educational content on these platforms has draÏwn consistent criticism. “The majority of platforms like the Russian Online School and Moscow Online School and others, are — to put it mildly — bush league in terms of content. Facebook is teeming with complaints about the quality of lessons, and it’s coming from parents as well as excellent specialist teachers. The content is simply beneath criticism. Both platforms are littered with boneheaded mistakes and errors,” said Vsevolod Lukhovitsky of the teacher’s union “Uchitel.” 

The Education Ministry published methodological recommendations for distance learning, which include, for example, guidance to keep lessons under 30 minutes and advice on monitoring how many students are actually present at lessons. The recommendations also featured instructions on how to organize a video lesson in Skype.

But in Lukhovitsky’s opinion, the ministry has yet to furnish any effective methodological recommendations. “Practically no ordinary teacher has an approach for distance learning. Right now as a teacher I can see that my typical methods with children very poorly apply in an online setting, so I spend twice as much time preparing lessons and checking work, and as far as I know, studying has become much more time consuming for a significant number of children,” he said. 

Not everyone can afford to study online: some localities lack Internet access, and some families don’t have the money to get their hands on a computer or tablet for their kids. According to the Russian Association for Electronic Communication, there were 95.9 million Internet users in Russia in 2019, meaning nearly a third of Russians don’t have Internet access or the means to use it. Based on the statistics, a large portion of those living without the Internet are people older than 65. Yet even among Russian teenagers, the level of Internet access and availability isn’t 100 percent. What’s more, according to Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), only 72.4 percent of Russian families owned a personal computer in 2018 (the most recent data available). 

Kirill Kukhmar / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Thus, around 400 schoolchildren, living without the Internet in the outlying villages of greater Sochi, receive their distance learning assignments through the mail. A similar system was introduced for students in remote parts of the Ivanovo region. “Children without the possibility of doing distance learning online can work in the same way with paper and pencil: a parent, working with the post office, takes our assignments, hands them out to the kids, and returns them to us,” said Olga Morozova, the director of the Novoklyazminsk School in the Yuzhsky district of Ivanovo Oblast. 

On April 24 the Education Ministry claimed to have a solution for this problem: with the “Help Study at Home” campaign, in collaboration with the United Russia ruling political party, they purchased and distributed computers to 50,000 students. “We need to remember how difficult it is to provide every family with what they need to facilitate study. In any situation, this would call for public procurement, negotiations, a whole ordeal. Just even because of legislation it’s impossible to get it all done quickly,” said Kvatsov. 

“The shortage of technology for online learning for both teachers and students is just one of the key problems. My colleagues from different parts of the country are describing a variety of circumstances: in one village it could be one thing, and in another small town, it might be another. Even in Moscow, we’re a long way off from every child having their own laptop, let alone every kid having their own room where they can partake in lessons and study. And the situation with Internet access in this country is inconsistent — it doesn’t work well enough to conduct online lessons everywhere,” says Vsevolod Lukhovitsky.

“The average price of a computer is around $500, and in some cases that’s one parent’s monthly salary. So there’s definitely a lack of technical means for educating schoolchildren,” said the executive director of the Internet Defense Society, Mikhail Klimarev. He stressed that the Internet is not ubiquitous in rural areas, and when it is accessible, it’s often plagued by interruptions that would make online video lessons next to impossible. “In general, there’s a layer of technical problems hindering online learning. And beyond that, sometimes the teachers aren’t capable of using the software that facilitates distance learning or video lessons. Teaching online is a totally separate kind of work, and our teachers aren’t prepared for it,” he added.  

Nevertheless, the problems with distance learning in Russia are not unique. Similar difficulties are popping up for students and educators all over the world, including in the United States. In Fairfax County, Virginia, there were technical problems with the learning platform Blackboard Learn 24-7; in a number of American universities, as in Russia, attackers have disrupted (or “zoom-bombed”) online lessons with porn videos; in Alaska, Internet access is very expensive and unstable, which is interfering with local students’ online learning; and in some places, such as Yonkers, there are shortages of computers for students in need. 

Story by Maria Kolomychenko

Translation by Rob Viano

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