Digital learning in Uzbekistan: challenges and lessons learnt

The Uzbek higher education system and its institutions were able to respond promptly to the situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2016, the national Higher Education Reform Experts (HEREs) team has contributed to an exploration of digital education approaches and helped to build capacity and develop a policy framework. This article, by Nazokat Kasymova from the Tashkent State University of Oriental Studies, describes how the pandemic has been an accelerator for positive changes in this area and the extent to which higher education institutions have met the challenges.

During the pandemic, higher education systems around the world had to meet very much the same challenges, regardless of their diversity, structures or institutional characteristics, and cultural specifics. With slight variations from country to country, the methods used to solve the challenges were distance learning and the use of online platforms. This was also the case in Uzbekistan, which witnessed an accelerated digitalisation of the national higher education system that was reflected both in legislation/policy and at the institutional level.

As a result, during the academic year 2020–21, as the pandemic developed, remote learning in some educational institutions began to move online. The Digital Uzbekistan 2030 Strategy was announced in October 2020, with a focus on e-governance, digital education and infrastructure. The Ministry of Higher and Secondary Special Education prioritised the development of online courses and curricula, support for staff and students, professional development, data protection, and monitoring tools and techniques.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the national EDUUZ channel has been launched, with information about changes in the field of education and materials for independent learning . More than 3,500 electronic textbooks in various disciplines have been posted on the Innovation Library website.

This shift was possible as a result of the experience already accumulated by universities well before the pandemic in the field of online pedagogy and methods of assessing learning outcomes, the acquisition of various digital tools, and their effective implementation. It was also possible due to a general strengthening of the potential of teachers and students, and of expert knowledge at system level.

The national HEREs team had already started to actively promote the topic of digitalisation in higher education. The process began with a seminar on ICT-based learning in Petra, Jordan, on 26–27 October 2015, organised under the EU’s Support and Promotion of Higher Education Reform Experts (SPHERE) initiative. This was followed in November 2016 by the SPHERE technical assistance mission “Perspectives of E-learning and ICT-based education: applicability of best practices in Uzbek Higher Education Institutions”, in which more than 70 teachers and specialists participated. A number of additional technical assistance missions and regional workshops were conducted during the period 2017–2019 on topics such as academic libraries and information support for universities (March 2017); improving the quality of teaching in higher education institutions through new curricula and smart technologies or e-modules; e-learning, digital skills and open e-resources (September 2019); and digitalisation of the university, its concept and role in the reforming of higher education institutions (June 2021).

A series of publications was issued in the HEREs magazine Perspectives of Higher Education Development, as well as related briefs and analytical papers developed by the national experts for the ministry in the framework of their technical support and expertise. In addition, the Erasmus+ project “Modernisation of Higher Education in Central Asia through New Technologies” (HiEdTec, 2018–2021) supported new initiatives in this field, namely the Centres for Innovative Education Technologies, cloud-based virtual libraries of digital educational resources, adaptation of effective digital teaching methods and tools, and Digital Competence Framework development. These examples demonstrate how the engagement of the Uzbek HEREs team has contributed to national and institutional change and capacity building.

However, the journey has not been without challenges, and a few significant shortcomings offer lessons to be learned for future digitalisation. The universities initially struggled to maintain general standards and to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on students. It took various adjustments and efforts, and significant investments over a period of time, to explain and enable a more proficient use of demonstration videos, virtual labs, and software. It was of crucial importance not to undermine the credibility of education programmes in the minds of students, parents, potential employers and the public in general, and to preserve one of the most important advantages of programmes, namely recognition at national level. Nevertheless, emergency distance learning as a quick and temporary response to the pandemic is different from well-organised online education with appropriate specific theoretical and practical knowledge.

In particular for higher education institutions in rural areas, crucial points relate to the availability of appropriate equipment, its accessibility for students and teachers, the quality of the education platforms, and access to and quality of the internet. Thus, the so-called “digital gap” between different parts of the country and its negative impact were exacerbated during the crisis, leading to a lack of access to some learning and teaching sources and opportunities for students.

Not all national universities have been able to ensure quality control in remote and online study processes and a timely response to rapidly changing conditions during the pandemic. Therefore, institutional autonomy has been identified as one of the requirements for the progressive development of digitalisation, to allow universities to promptly respond and take decisions when required. To ensure the quality of online learning, it is important to consider a host of issues, such as institutional policies and strategies of digitalisation (the Ministerial decree requires each higher education institution to develop its strategy on digitalisation based on the  national concept for digital higher education), monitoring tools, relevant digital tools, design and development of online courses, curriculum development, digital evaluation techniques, data protection, academic confidentiality rules, support for staff and students, staff development, the creation of academic online communities and other ways of online communication channels. (For further details, see “European Quality Assurance agencies’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic”.)

Nevertheless, national universities have gained experience and made progress in acquiring the skills, processes and tools necessary for online learning. The use of new digital technologies should not be an end in itself, but in the context of goals and objectives, should relate to the expected competencies that students should achieve. In this regard, beyond the pandemic, the shift to online learning could be a catalyst for the introduction of more effective blended learning among students, incorporating traditional academic skills and real-time learning, and leading to better learning outcomes such as critical thinking and adaptability.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Nazokat Kasymova

Nazokat Kasymova is a Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Tashkent State University of Oriental Studies (TSUOS) in Uzbekistan. She has been a member of the national Team of Higher Education Reform Experts (HERE) since 2008, is on the editorial board of the HEREs journal Perspectives of Higher Education Development, and is a member of the research councils of TSUOS and the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, Uzbekistan.


Comfortable read mode Normal mode X