There is little debate over the question of whether Central Asia has experienced a crisis in education since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 (Silova, 2009). During the Soviet period, educational systems had been managed by the Ministry of Education in Moscow, which promoted teacher-centered, top-down instruction, focusing primarily on mathematics, science, and Communist ideology (Ismailova, 2004; Joldoshalieva, 2007; Misco & Hamot, 2007; Shamatov, 2006). Teachers were trained to follow an uchebni plan, often translated as “curriculum” but literally translated a “training plan.” This plan included not only scope and sequence, yearly outlines, and assessment, but daily reading assignments and lessons so detailed that a teacher could, hypothetically, move from one school to another, anywhere in the country, step into a classroom, and know exactly what to teach because all the students were learning the same thing at the same time (Ismailova, 2004). Upon receiving independence in 1991, the countries of the former U.S.S.R. no longer had a Ministry of Education to oversee their lessons, but also had no experience with other models. Lev Vygotsky, the founder of constructivism, taught at the University of Moscow in the 1920s and early 1930s. The West adopted his theories as the foundation for project-based learning, problem-based learning, peer learning, collaborative learning, and any methods involving challenging students to achieve their “zone of proximal development” (Doolittle, 1997; Harland, 2003; Kozulin, 2003; Moll, 2013). However, in 1934 two years after Vygotsky’s death, Stalin banned his works, possibly because the premise of socially-constructed knowledge ran counter to the Soviet model of centralized control (Gindis, 1995).
To understand the Central Asian educational crisis, therefore, one must imagine a situation in which all textbooks referring to subjects other than math or science became irrelevant in 1991. That same year, Ministries of Education began plans to create curricula to develop national identities (Ismailova, 2004; Shamatov, 2006), but went through economic crises resulting in large cuts to educational spending (Silova, 2009). Turkmenistan closed its doors to the world, Uzbekistan started to open but in 2006-7 followed Turkmenistan’s path by expelling foreign influences. Kazakhstan maximized its natural resources for modernization but with little implementation of democracy. Tajikistan had a civil war that almost destroyed the country. Kyrgyzstan had a coup and a revolution (Deyoung, 2006; Hiro, 2011; Nessipbayeva & Dalayeva, 2013).
During this same period, countries in many parts of the world that had similarly unstable or authoritarian governments, lack of democratic institutions, and lack of economic or natural resources began increasing their educational capacities through distance learning. For instance, Malawian universities found U.S. partners to develop distance learning through traditional mail (R. A. Perkins, Gwayi, Zozie, & Lockee, 2005). In India and the Philippines, thousands of students used offline mobile phone technology to increase their academic language skills through SMS courses and quizzes. In Mongolia, bankers and emergency room workers used similar technology for their own professional development (Valk, Rashid, & Elder, 2010). Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia developed ODL programs (Zawacki-Richter et al., 2016), as did most African countries (Munene, 2007; Thinyane, 2010). China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka established accreditation and oversight boards for quality assurance in ODL (Jung, Wong, Chen, Baigaltugs, & Belawati, 2011). In Nigeria, a technical start-up company obtained permission from the government to run for-profit schools for tens of thousands of students using lessons presented through mobile tablets (Tyre, 2017).
However, while developing economies around the world tested and implemented distance education programs, the countries of Central Asia seemed almost to sidestep the issue. Scholarly searches for online education or distance education in Central Asia result in studies of very small scope (Bekbalaeva, 2017), or hopeful calls for its eventual development (Ishkanian, 2003; Jones, 2008; Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), 2003; Veugelers, 2011). This raises the question of whether cultural factors may have impeded the diffusion of constructivist methodologies and ODL in Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan in particular, and whether an innovation such as open badges could align with Kyrgyz cultural values in a way that would promote diffusion of constructivist methods through ODL.
Addressing the questions of why Central Asia has not adopted emerging educational technologies when other countries with similar developmental infrastructures have, requires several operational definitions for common terms such as “developing economies”, “Central Asia”, and “badges.” Although some of the scholars cited in the paper use the terms in different ways, the manuscript will attempt to consistently use the terms with the following definitions.
Developing economies are national economic systems in countries with low Human Development Index (HDI) ratings. This index considers infant mortality, life expectancy, maternal mortality, average years of primary education, and percent of the population living in absolute poverty. Low-HDI countries are often associated with low ratings for transparency, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, human rights, but the definition is based primarily on physical indicators. Some researchers distinguish between “emerging” and “developing” countries, but that distinction and the distinction between “developing countries” and “developing world.” are irrelevant in this discussion. While those terms would not cause confusion in this context, they have been abandoned by the World Bank and similar organizations due to potential offensiveness to citizens of those countries, so this study will avoid those terms in favor of “developing economies” (Fantom, 2016).
Central Asia is roughly defined as the regional “heartland” of the Eurasian land mass, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the western China deserts, and from the Pamir Mountains to southern Siberia. It is comprised of multiple ethnicities, but the primary languages are Russian, Turkic languages (Karalkalpak, Kazkah, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Turkish, Uyghar, Uzbek), Persian languages (Farsi, Tajik, Dari), and Chinese languages (Mandarin, Dungan) (Hansen, 2015; Kaplan, 2012; Meyer & Brysac, 2006). Since this paper deals with state educational systems, it will define Central Asia as the states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Badges, also called digital badges, open badges, or micro-credentials, are electronic records documenting specific achievements and providing links to artifacts showing the achievements. They were first used in gaming in 2005, but were popularized by Mozilla’s Open Badge Interface (OBI) in 2010. This open-source protocol saves an image file with with embedded metadata listing the recipient, issue date, badge title, image, description of competencies, criteria for assessment, and issuer. The badge recipient may share it through any digital media as a credential of work accomplished (Bowen & Thomas, 2014; Ellis, Nunn, & Avella, 2016; Gibson, Ostashewski, Flintoff, Grant, & Knight, 2015; Grant, 2014).
Theoretical Frameworks for Inquiry
Research on the diffusion of innovations across and within countries began over fifty years ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, Rogers approached the issue of intent to adopt an innovation from a sociological perspective (Ken Schreiner, 2014), resulting in his Diffusion of Innovations (DoI) Model. This model predicts that innovations are most likely to diffuse when they are presented to early adopters (individuals or organizations) who are influential in their communities. These early adopters help communicate about the innovation quickly enough to gain momentum for later adopters to test and implement it while it is still fresh. When enough decision-makers for a social system have adopted the innovation, it becomes standardized and is no longer an innovation (Robinson, 2009; Sahin, 2006; Sandhya Johanson, 2013; Tidd, 2010).
This model has proven resilient over time (Sahin, 2006), but there is some criticism that it does not account for cultural, socioeconomic, or infrastructure problems that may appear when applying a developed-economy innovation in developing economies. For instance, translated books may be too expensive to print, or delivery vehicles may not arrive (Minishi-Majanja & Kiplang’at, 2005; R. A. Perkins et al., 2003). In developing-economy situations, it is likely that tool X will be unavailable on day Y, and that basic infrastructures will fail at some part of the project. Rogers’ model does not account for that uncertainty as a key factor failing to adopt an innovation.
The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) attempted to simplify the DoI by focusing on factors relevant only to the diffusion of technology rather than the diffusion of all innovations: perceived utility and perceived ease of use of the technology. This model found empirical support in many situations (Armentanno, Christensen, & Schiaffino, 2015; Christensen, 2013; Davis, 1981, 1985); however, the TAM2 soon followed, adding the cultural factors of social norms and self-efficacy (Christensen, 2013; Kim et al., 2012; V. Venkatesh, Croteau, & Rabah, 2014; Viswanath Venkatesh, Thong, & Xu, 2012). Still, some studies indicate that this model also fails to account for all cultural values, as wealthy countries may emphasize hedonic motives, social influence, and price differently than people in developing economies (El-Masri & Tarhini, 2017).
The possible shortcomings of these models may relate to their focus on Western-designed categories of motivation. Researchers frame their hypotheses based on their experiences. Unfortunately, as illustrated by the case of norther-European taste-bud researchers in the early 20th-century identifying only four flavors because they had never encountered the savory umamai (Mouritsen, 2014), it is impossible to know how much is unknown. To understand why a culture fails to adopt an innovation, one must examine the question from the culture’s point of view. For instance, in the 1870s, as Western Europe and North America’s populations started to grow in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Leo Tolstoy wrote a major subplot of Anna Karenina involving questions of why the Russian peasants refused to adopt new Industrial Revolution agriculture tools despite their perceived utility and ease of use. Tolstoy’s protagonist concludes that the new technology was not adopted because farming worked without the innovations, “and it works only where the worker acts according to his habits.” In other words, the farmers valued their traditional practices more than the time saved by using new tools. He then suggests, “Let’s try to look at the work force not as an ideal workforce but as the Russian muzhik with his instincts, and organize our farming accordingly” (Tolstoy, 2004, 3.28.34).
Tolstoy’s insight into the importance of cultural values in technology adoption found support in Hofstede’s evolving research on cultural dimensions a hundred years later. Hofstede’s quantitative six-year study of the values of 117,000 IBM employees in 50 countries resulted in categorizing country-level cultural responses on four dimensions: a) Power Distance Index (PDI), b) Individualism vs. Collectivism (IDC), c) Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI), d) Masculinity vs. Femininity (MFS). (Hofstede, 1983a) Hofstede’s later work in China resulted in adding a dimension he originally called “Confucian dynamism,” (Hofstede & Bond, 1988) but later renamed as e) Long Term Orientation (LTO) after finding it to be a key characteristic in many countries that had not been exposed to the teachings of Confucius (Fernandez, Carlson, Stepina, & Nicholson, 1997). After further study, he added the category of f) Indulgence vs. Restraint (IND) (Hofstede & Minkov, 2010). Numerous quantitative studies since Hofstede’s original reports have supported his theory and indicate that the categories can be used to allow predictions of behavior on a national culture level in many cultural contexts (Hofstede, 1983b, 1986, 2003, 2003; Tausch, 2013).
The DoI and TAM identified general principles that guide the diffusion of innovations, and Hofstede identified cultural elements that may also affect adoption of innovations, but two other factors should be considered to account for the lack of adoption of distance education technologies by Central Asian states. Sachs approached the issue of diffusion from an economic rather than sociological or anthropological background (J. Sachs, 2008). He recognized the importance of culture in adopting systems, but says that “Culture does not explain the persistence of poverty in Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, or Tibet” (J. D. Sachs, 2005, pp. 57-58), pointing out the relation of geography to socioeconomic and political life. To the assertion that culture remains the dominant variable in examining adoption of innovations, Sachs pointed out that “culture-based predictions of social change are fragile and often incorrect,” due to the dynamic nature of cultures over time and the circular reasoning often used by those arguing for cultural causes, i.e. “People are poor because they are lazy. How do we “know” they are lazy? Because they are poor” (J. D. Sachs, 2005, p. 317). To compensate for this tendency to discount non-cultural barriers to adoption of social change, Sachs argued for embracing “clinical economics,” in the same way that medical doctors employ “clinical diagnostics.” This includes recognizing that a) all perceived problems are parts of complex systems, b) particular problems may have myriad causes, c) prescribed actions must account for the complexity of the system, d) the number of variables and systemic dynamism requires regular monitoring and evaluation, and e) advising in such complex and far-reaching systems should conform to ethical and professional standards (J. D. Sachs, 2005).
Sachs’ repeated cautions to be aware of the complexity of systems rings especially true when examining the issue of adoption of educational technology. Educational choices involve decisions of governments, curriculum and materials developers, course designers, school boards and administrators, individual teachers, and students as classes and individuals. As the number of decision makers in a complex system increases, the likelihood of unexpected conclusions also increases. In a growing literature since the 1940s (Von Bertalanffy, 1972), researchers in General Systems Theory have reasoned that, with complex and dynamic systems, every adoption of an innovation creates a risk of unknown probability or severity of unexpected negative consequences (Banathy & Jenlik, 2003; Hammond, 2010, 2010; Montuori, 2008; Vancouver, 2013; Von Bertalanffy, 1972). Therefore, inertia tends to promote conservatism because for most people the desire to avoid loss is greater than the desire to increase good (Erev, Ert, & Yechiam, 2008),
This paper suggests that, in agreement with Tarhini, Hone, Liu and Tarhini (2017), “e-learning implementation should focus on the social and cultural contexts rather than just the technological solution” (p. 320). The purpose of this paper is to apply Rogers’ DoI, the TAM2, Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, Sachs’ Economic Diagnostics, and the General Systems theory, to two questions:
- First, given the social, cultural, economic, and political similarities that Central Asia, shares with many developing nations, why have Central Asian states, particularly Kyrgyzstan, avoided ODL as a means of development?
- Second, could a case study of Kyrgyzstan’s failure to adopt other innovations result in identifying cultural values that could be used to identify educational technologies that would be diffused quickly?
This paper suggests that such an analysis is possible, and that such a study will indicate that a) open badges are a technology especially suited for the culture of Kyrgyzstan, and that b) the diffusion of this concept will occur most effectively it implemented first in the professional development of teachers.
Historical Background: Distance Education in Developing Economies
Distance education began in many areas of the world nearly a century ago. The Soviet Union started its first distance education program in 1922, at a time when it was just emerging from a revolution and had not yet fully entered the industrial age. The program declined after the fall of the U.S.S.R., but open and distance education is now increasing in popularity (Zawacki-Richter et al., 2016) despite perceptions that such training accommodates students who lack “appropriate education and examination” (Cherkasova, 2015).
Most African countries have national distance-learning programs, and many have joined multinational universities. Distance learning programs that began in Africa in the 1930s (R. Perkins, 2003) now train hundreds of thousands of students each year. The University of South Africa (UNISA) enrolls more than 400,000 students in online courses (“The leading ODL university,” 2016), the African Virtual University has trained nearly 70,000 students since its founding in 1996, (“Facts and figures,” 2016) and the U.N.-mandated Euclid University was established by multi-national treaty and exists solely online (“EUCLID (Euclid University) – Legal Status”).
In South and East Asia, Indonesia’s exclusively-online Universitas Terbuka has over 650,000 students. China has over 3.5 million students in distance-learning higher-education programs. India’s for-profit university NetVarsity, operated by the National Institute of Information Technology, enrolls over 100,000 students, while its Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) enrolls 3.5 million. In fact, 25% of all higher-education enrollment in India is now through online courses (Jung, 2009; Jung et al., 2011; Jung & Yoo, 2014).
In short, while there are reasons for concern about the quality of education provided by these programs, and much discussion about the definition of the term “quality” for ODL contexts, (Lockee, B., Tech, V., Potter, K., Burton, J., Tech, V., & Kreb, S. G., 2011; Hope, 2014; Jung et al., 2011; Lockee et al., 2011; R. A. Perkins, 2011; Umemiya, 2008) there is no doubt that the programs have found a market in many cultures. Why, though, have these programs failed to find an audience in Central Asia?
Why not Central Asia?
The people of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have a long history of city-states, but, despite historically-dubious events designed to build national identity, such as Kyrgyzstan’s celebration of 2,200 years of statehood in 2003, the Afghans, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks have primarily been nomads or villagers who aligned themselves based on regional and tribal affiliations rather than as nation states (Bauer, 2010; Gullette, 2007; Meyer & Brysac, 2006; Thubron, 2006).
Geography’s influence on the development of these countries since they attained statehood in 1991 cannot be over-emphasized. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are primarily plains and deserts, depending almost entirely on irrigation for their agriculture. However, reliance on of irrigation to support cotton production has been the primary source of drying the Aral Sea, which had once been one of the four largest lakes in the world, and desertification of the Karalpakistan region (P. Micklin, 2007; P. P. Micklin, 1988). North of the growing deserts, Kazakhstan consists primarily of massive flat, arid grasslands in the south and center, stretching to the Siberian forests. Slightly over half of its population lives in cities, leaving approximately 8 million people scattered across the vast steppes, and a population density of only 6.16 people per square kilometer (“Countries by population density 2015,” 2015; “The World Factbook,” 2017). To the south, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan are defined by mountains. Although the mountains may contain gold reserves, the difficulty of high-altitude mining and issues of ownership of the technology and mining outputs leave the mountains relatively untouched as a natural resource (Homeniuk, 2000; Kronenberg, 2014). The mountains divide the countries into regional tribes and block road transportation. They serve as water sources for hydroelectric power and irrigation for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but the shared reliance on water creates uneasy alliances between countries in the region as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan must trade natural gas and oil for Krygyzstan and Tajikistan’s water and electricity (Bernauer & Siegfried, 2012; Luong & Weinthal, 2002; Smith, 1995).
In terms of social, political, and economic development, these countries are diverse, but share certain traits that impede development. For example, Transparency International’s Perceived Corruption Index ranks countries on a 100-point scale based on expectations of corrupt practices in business or politics. From 2012-16, Denmark received the highest scores (90-92) and Somalia and North Korea received the worst (8-12). The countries of Central Asia received scores of 17-29, usually placing them between Iran and Iraq (“Corruption Perceptions Index 2016,” 2016). Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index places all of them except Kyrgyzstan among the 25 most restrictive countries for information. (Reporters Without Borders, 2016). In 2010, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) studied test results for fifteen-year-olds for reading, math, and science in seventy countries. Of the Central Asian countries, only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were included in the study, placing 61st and 70th, respectively (Shepherd, 2010). The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), however, shows some signs of hope, as none are now listed among the “least developed countries” (“Human Development Reports,” 2016).
Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, located on the north side of the country, is home to almost 25% of the country’s population. Approximately 95% of the country is mountainous, and 90% is more than 5,000 feet above sea level, so population groups tend to cluster in the long Chui valley in the north, around the large Lake Issyk-kul, or in several other valleys (Allworth & Sinor, 2017). The height of mountain passes makes it impossible to move from one region of the country to another by road in winter, isolating the valleys from each other and increasing senses of regional identity. This dispersion leads to high center-periphery tensions (Fouberg, Murphy, & Blij, 2012), as people removed from the capital do not feel the benefits of the economic developments in the capital, particularly with regard to education. Although Kyrgyzstan’s general education level is low throughout the country, it is higher in Bishkek than anywhere else, so much so that U.S.-government-funded programs to provide fellowships for Kyrgyz students pursuing higher education in the United States give an automatic two bonus points on a 12-point rubric to any applicants with a permanent address outside of Bishkek (“Edmund S. Muskie graduate fellowship program,” 2017, “UGRAD,” 2017). In 2006, the Ministry of Education reported a shortage of over 2,500 teachers for K-12 programs outside the capital, and 66% of the schools had insufficient teachers, resulting in teachers at all levels often assigned to teach outside of their specialties (Silova, 2009). This dispersed geography and teacher shortage, combined with an increasingly stable electrical infrastructure and Internet access, and relatively high freedom of information, would seem to make the country suited to ODL.
Failures to diffuse
However, cultural issues have created unexpected barriers for the diffusion of innovations in Kyrgyzstan’s recent history. For instance, in the 1990s and early 2000s, waves of evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslim missionaries entered Kyrgyzstan, intending to fill the ideological gap they expected to find after the loss of Soviet ideology. Although both Muslim and Christian missionaries tended to use an apologetic that separated religious beliefs and cultural identity, the Kyrgyz people responded with relative indifference to both (Pelkmans, 2007). As Nazgul, a young woman interviewed by anthropologists McBrien and Pelmans, said, “Look, we are atheists, but of course we all believe in God. We always did. I do. Now we are free. We build mosques, people pray, that’s good. But those, those who wear scarves like this [tracing the shape of a hijab around her face with her fingers] and keep their women at home, they are bad” (McBrien & Pelkmans, 2008). After twenty-five years of proselytizing by evangelical Christians and Muslim fundamentalists, the Kyrgyz people seem indifferent to the diffusion of either institutional belief. Demographic studies show no major changes in religious identity other than those caused by emigrating Russian Orthodox Christians (World Population Review, 2017).
Similar unexpected cultural resistance to a seemingly useful and easty-to-use innovation has been demonstrated in the slow adoption of the concept of Rule of Law. In another attempt to fill a vacuum supposedly left by the loss of Soviet legal systems, Western countries sent advisors to observe and instruct new governmental leaders on basic principles of Western legal systems, only to nuanced messages lost in translation as new laws were written in Kyrgyz and Russian, but the legal experts had been trained only in Russian and all of the commentaries were written in Russian (B. K. Puckett, 2016). Rule of Law ideally exists only when several conditions are in place establishing states with stable governments and populations that “rely on the existence of justice institutions and the content of law in the conduct of their daily lives” (Center for Law and Military Operations, 2009, p. 6). In the effort to speed translation, the advisors had forgotten to analyze the cultural relevance of their product. If they had, they might have noticed that people who had just undergone the destruction of their socio-political ideology and identity and come through a revolution, and who had no indigenous tradition of written law, may not rely on “the content of law” in their daily lives.
Similar culturally-related failure to diffuse situations occurred during the same period with educational reform. As many have pointed out, textbooks, software, and other educational artifacts are effectively designed for students in one culture and may lose meaning in translation (Griffiths, Heppell, Millwood, & Mladenova, 1994; R. A. Perkins, 2009; R. A. Perkins et al., 2003). When instructors suddenly found that the 50% of their curriculum previously devoted to Communist Party ideology was no longer relevant (Joldoshalieva, 2007; Misco & Hamot, 2007), but had no training or funds to produce new materials, as education budgets were cut by over 50% and teacher salaries dropped to near subsistence level, teachers tended to leave the field, supplement their income through the shadow economy (Silova, 2009) or make photocopies of imported textbooks and translations. The American Headway and Interchange English-language-learner series, for instance, were imported in 2001-2, photocopied wildly, and used for private language courses throughout the region. However, the materials were designed for immigrants to the United Kingdom and United States, and many Central Asian teachers found the chapters on topics like the use of vending machines or popcorn at the movies, both of which were unheard of in Central Asia, unlikely to promote communication (Soars, 2001). Meanwhile, as in the case of Rule of Law reform, education reform organizations brought in experts to give lectures on constructivist theories and distribute books based on constructivist methods. Teachers attended the trainings, as required by law, but returned to use the Soviet-era textbooks that lined their walls (de la Sablonnière, Taylor, & Sadykova, 2009; Sabzalieva, 2015; Shamatov, 2006)
Attempts to impose outsider-initiated diffusions failed in the religious, legal, and educational sectors, but they failed more gloriously when the sectors intertwined. Donor organizations for Rule of Law reforms gave massive grants to establish law schools and economics schools that would teach theories other than Marxism-Leninism. These schools were considered more prestigious than schools for education or technology, resulting in a 75% decrease in students attending higher education for construction engineering from 1991 to 2005. The implementation of new departments of economics and management at every higher education institution in the country required filling those departments with faculty who had recently graduated and had no experience in the field (Dzhaparova, 2005). Even more troubling, that same year saw “more than 20,000 people who are majoring in law and economics” in Kyrgyzstan (p. 84) – compared to 48,000 in the U.S. that same year; meaning that Kyrgyzstan had approximately 30% as many law students for 1.5% as many people as the U.S. (Ellis et al., 2016). In March of 2005, massive protests of corruption, tribalism, and economic problems led to a coup in Kyrgyzstan. From 2005-10, many of the same foreign donors continued to fund the same programs. However, in 2010, massive protests of the same issues resulted in a complete overthrow of the government and establishment of a new governmental system.
These attempted reforms have left Kyrgyzstan’s educational system in need of further development. As of 2012, there were 54 tertiary institutions in Kyrgyzstan, but 60% of the teachers had no academic degree (Tempus, 2012). By 2015, the higher education system served over 230,000 students, which is over half the target age group. However, 80% of the higher education institutions were in or near the capital, and there have been few attempts to provide distance education, but lack of effective assessment of distance education limited its support from teachers or students. Corruption continued to cripple the system. 40% of students were enrolled in law or economics. Less than 20% of students enrolled in scientific or technical fields, and less than 5% of that group enrolled in agriculture-related field, even though agriculture accounted for nearly 50% of the workforce and 18% of the GDP. 20% of faculty had associate professor or professor status, and their average age was almost 55 (Asia Development Bank, 2015, “The World Factbook,” 2016) The life expectancy for people in Kyrgyzstan born in the early 1960s is approximately 53 years for men, and 61 for women (“Kyrgyzstan – Life expectancy at birth 2015,” 2015), leaving reason to expect a greater teacher shortage in the near future.
Lack of qualified faculty, corruption regarding enrollment and assessment, lack of accessibility to education for people outside the capital, and lack of training relevant to workforce needs indicate that Kyrgyzstan’s educational system needs substantial changes in the very near future. Could emerging educational technologies provide a solution when other attempts to diffuse innovations have failed? This paper will argue that digital micro-credentials for professional development of teachers have the potential to be adopted readily by the Kyrgyz culture and profoundly impact teaching and learning at all levels, reduce corruption, and increase the validity and use of ODL.
Nomadic cultures and innovations
The people of Kyrgyzstan have a long history of being invaded, yet have maintained a cultural identity that has outlasted empires. This requires a culture that can bend without breaking, or acquiesce without adopting. The lack of awareness of this trait has contributed to the frustration of foreign religious, legal, and educational reformers. Their attempts to influence the systems often failed to recognize the complexity and interconnectedness of the systems (J. D. Sachs, 2005), as well as the fact that individuals within the systems are “people fighting for their lives… people whose first objective is not to take our money but to keep their children and themselves alive…. people who know and understand their situation and who have creative ideas, knowledge, experience, skills and commitment” (J. Sachs, 2008, p. 21). With that understanding comes a sobriety and gravity about the issue of educational systems change, and along with it, some ethical responsibilities.
First, presentation of the proposed innovation must begin by admitting that it will indeed probably result in systemic change. The missionaries, lawyers, and teachers cited earlier all presented their innovations as discrete changes: “You can change this one thing without changing your identity and culture.” However, in a culture that values a “secular Muslim” identity, a conversion toward high-practice Islam or Christianity is a conversion that changes identity (McBrien & Pelkmans, 2008). In a culture that values familial and regional loyalties and distrusts rules written and interpreted by foreigners in foreign languages, a commitment to abide by written rules is a change of values (Gullette, 2007; B. Puckett, 2009). Political scientist Blake Puckett reports an interview in which a western Embassy official working on judicial reform assured him that his organization’s work was “very apolitical” (B. K. Puckett, 2009, p. 297). Puckett concludes, however, that suggesting “that one can work on the rule of law—work to constrain officials’ power through the adherence to rules—without it being an eminently political act is astonishingly naïve” (p. 297).
In addition to avoiding the naivete of believing they do not have a political agenda, agents for the cross-cultural diffusion of innovations must avoid the arrogance of believing that they can predict the process and cost of the innovation adoption or define which parts of culture will change in the process. For instance, the active work of Muslim fundamentalist missionaries in Kyrgyzstan coincided with the growth of more extreme Islamist movements in 2001. Their association with active terrorist groups in the public mindset almost led to the adoption of laws that restricted religious freedom as greatly as those of the U.S.S.R. (Fletcher & Sergeyev, 2002; “Open Position” Public Fund, 2014). If an educational technology innovation truly encourages the use of constructivist methods, or reduces corruption, or increases access to education, there may be unexpected prices to pay. One might object that being open about an innovation possibly conflicting with cultural values, or producing change in a culture, or having unexpected costs and side-effects would prohibit its adoption. However, the worldwide adoption of technologies such as cigarettes, alcohol, television, and mobile phones would seem to sooth this concern: people can know the risks and still choose to adopt. In fact, cultural values studies over the last thirty years show a global movement toward traditionally-Western values despite vocal opposition from some cultural leaders to adopting these values (Beugelsdijk, Masleand, & van Horn, 2015; Fernandez et al., 1997).
After determining to present the case ethically, the next step would be to determine which type of innovation would be most likely to promote the type of change the target culture values. Hofstede did not include Kyrgyzstan in his cultural dimensions study, but this researcher’s experience living in Kyrgyzstan for over ten years, combined with analyses from by anthropologists and World Value Survey data (Minkov & Hofstede, 2012; “WVS Database,” 2016) can lead to some tentative conclusions.
The Kyrgyz people tend to pride themselves on their nomadic heritage. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions would probably rate them high in collectivism and indulgence, mid-range in masculinity and long-term orientation, and low for power distance and uncertainty avoidance. However, these terms have unique applications when considering a nomadic context. Nomadic cultures have lower power distance, but there is always a clear leader (Allworth & Sinor, 2017). The culturally-feminine trait of indirect communication patterns may make it difficult to identify the group leader at first, but rituals as simple as seating arrangements for a meal reveal the hierarchy. Nomadic cultures are collectivist, but within a small network of familial or regional relationships. These identities are fluid and practical, allowing one to quickly form alliances as needed or temporarily break alliances without causing long-term relational damage (Gullette, 2007). A look at gender and positions of power reveals a preference for masculine leadership in public, but most homes are dominated by matriarchs who are culturally permitted to use aggressive words and even physical violence to control the others in the home. In fact, Rory Gwin, M.D., and Laura Evans, R.N., workers at a primary care clinic, have reported frequent female-to-male abuse, especially when the woman is older (R. E. Gwin and L. Evans, personal communication, September 2016). The Kyrgyz people tend to have a long-term orientation and low uncertainty avoidance, but with a deep awareness of the need for adaptation to environmental changes. They tend to avoid large-scale or long-term initiatives, but respond quickly to an innovation that brings immediate benefit. Finally, Kyrgyz people often make enormous sacrifices for the sake of a family member or friend, but will also indulge joyfully in a massive toi, such as a multi-day wedding feast, a sheep roast for a child’s first birthday, another sheep roast for the circumcision, and a week of communal feasting and mourning at a death. These monumental indulgences are, unfortunately, also tied to other traits of high-indulgence cultures, such as high rates of binge drinking and alcoholism, resulted in the seventh-highest alcohol-related death rate in the world (“Alcohol death rate by country,” 2014).
Kyrgyz culture tends to desire close family ties and parental involvement; have flexible attitudes toward religion, philosophy, ideology, political alliances, or cultural identity; value personal time over career advancement; value individualized learning (e.g. mentoring) over formal education; value flexibility in scheduling; value spirituality with moderation and without hierarchies; and place little value on long-term financial planning or strategic change (Anderson, 2013; Pelkmans, 2007). As Graham Harden, a community-development worker in Krygyzstan since 2004 and the director of one of the country’s oldest non-government organizations remarked, “For a nomad, everything is about what can help me most now. They have five words for ‘unexpectedly happen right now.’ The decision that will pay off right now is what they want, and if it doesn’t pay off right now in a way that will help their close group of loyal family or friends, why not just relax?” (G. Harden, personal communication, July 6, 2017).
That observation brings up an unexpected parallel: this cultural description of a young Kyrgyz person looks a lot like that of an American Millennial (Rainer & Rainer, 2011). Rainer and Rainer’s qualitative and quantitative analysis of 1,200 surveys of people born between 1980 and 1991 in America revealed areas of strong disconnect with the Baby Boomer generation (born 1945-60), but several points of cultural overlap with the Kyrgyz people, specifically with regard to the value they place on personal relationships, personalized learning, flexibility in long-term plans, disregard for religious formality or extremism, lack of financial planning, and desire to balance work and leisure.
While, in the U.S., there is some concern that calls for radical change to pedagogy may be based on overstated claims regarding the distinctive “Millennial” characteristics (Donnison, 2007), there is no doubt that Millennial and Generation Y (born 2000-10) are making choices that impact American higher education. They are characterized as expecting “rapid advancement and perks,” appreciating quick feedback, and preferring “parallel careers” to specialization (Sandeen, 2008, p. 18). Those traits would also apply to most Kyrgyz college students. Millennials are also characterized as appreciating distance learning, customized education, collaborative learning, and openness as opposed to privacy (Nimon, 2007; Sandeen, 2008). Their strong family relationships often may often protect them from the natural consequences of bad decisions as children, leaving them immature in some areas compared with previous generations at the same age (Nimon, 2007), yet they are highly motivated to seek creative ways of career development (Rao, 2017), and are adept at adapting tools for multiple uses (Noguera Fructuoso, 2015), all traits that most Kyrgyz university students would also own.
Given the similarities of the groups’ values, it would seem reasonable to expect emerging educational technologies embraced by Millennials to also be embraced by the Kyrgyz if the technology does not violate the key TAM principles of perceived utility, perceived ease of use. Noguera Fructuoso (2015) identifies distance learning, MOOCs, game-based learning, augmented reality, semantic applications, social computing, virtual and augmented reality, cloud computing, E-books, and mobile learning as emerging technologies that are have special attraction to Millennials. Many others affirm items on the list, but with the additional motivation, assessment, and credentialing offered by digital badges (Grant, 2014; Moritz, 2017; Schneider, 2015). Given that most Kyrgyz university students pay about $400 USD per year for education, and most K-12 teachers earn about one fourth of that per month (Silova, 2009; Tempus, 2012), it seems unlikely that virtual and augmented reality or similarly high-priced innovations could be widely adapted. Also, given the cost of producing high-quality MOOCs and audience size required to sustain them (Baggaley & Cdie, 2008; Hope, 2014; Marginson, 2004; Sanchez-Gordon & Luján-Mora, 2014), it is unlikely they would gain a wide audience among the Kyrgyz.
However, mobile phone use is highly prevalent already on university campuses, and WiFi, 3G, and 4G have become available in many regions of the country, and both Internet and mobile phone usage grew faster in Kyrgyzstan than in the United States from 2000-2007 (Driesbach, Walton, Kolko, & Seidakmatova, 2009), and some libraries are already experimenting with E-books and OER (Bekbalaeva, 2017). Moreover, G Suite, a collection of Web 2.0 collaborative productivity tools, and a growing number of Open Source resources provides teachers and students with free tools that, when used properly, facilitate constructivist learning. Therefore, the basic technologies are in place to allow the implementation of the following program.
This proposal is to present the people of Kyrgyzstan with the possibility of revolutionizing their educational system, beginning with the teachers. which could have large impacts on the educational system: reducing corruption, alleviating the teacher shortage, increasing access to education, reducing systemic costs, increasing the competitiveness of graduates in the global economy, and reducing the number of brick-and-mortar universities. It would also shift the educational system from the top-down authoritarian model to more of an egalitarian, constructivist model. It would likely hasten the demise of the remnants of the Soviet educational legacy. However, the Soviet model was not based on Kyrgyz cultural values to begin with and may have been, in part, intentionally designed to conflict with those values (Ismailova, 2004; Misco & Hamot, 2007; Pelkmans, 2007). Instead, the training would eventually result in schools that promoted constructivist methods and adaptable curricula, reflective of Kyrgyz cultural values. As with all systemic changes, there could be unanticipated barriers or side-effects, but in the case of ODL and digital badges, the members of the highly-developed economies are piloting the project on their own children first.
The proposal will present this as the introduction of a small innovation – ODL assessed and credentialed through digital badges (Burns, 2015; Diamond & Gonzalez, 2014; Fields, 2015; Grier, 2015). This training would, in a self-referential style, present professional development lessons to teachers using G Suite tools and then require participants to document their use of the tool for educational purposes in the classroom. The short modules would result in both a digital badge, sharable across digital media, and printable certificate to increase perceived value of the credential and motivate participants to enroll in the next level of training (Dyjur & Lindstrom, 2017; Ellis et al., 2016). Since the process of completing the training to receive the badges requires implementing differentiated constructivist methods in the classroom, the teachers would begin applying the methods in their classrooms while receiving the training. This nearly eliminates the lag-time between hearing of a theory or method and applying it, and it gives immediate feedback and awards to those who apply the professional development concepts effectively (Diamond & Gonzalez, 2014). This combination of application-based instruction with the immediate feedback and credentialing offered by digital badges indicates that this type of training may be more likely than traditional face-to-face professional-development seminars to ensure application of the theories in classroom settings (Gibson et al., 2015; Grier, 2015; Hurst, 2015).
As the teachers become familiar with the technology and empowered through training to use the technology in classes, students would come to expect its use, resulting in increasing both social normative appeal and self-efficacy. As the first cohorts of teachers apply the methods and report their findings, the project would seek more active input from stakeholders in governmental, business, and non-government sectors for the development of contextually- relevant modules and courses for implementation in the tertiary sector (Crooks, 1983; Gulati, 2008; Munene, 2007; Rice, 2009). As the culture adopts the idea of increasingly personalized ODL and badged credentials in the tertiary sector, administrators and teachers in the secondary and then primary levels would feel more social pressure to use similar tools. Since many G Suite tools specialize in collaboration, the use of the tools would necessitate applications of constructivist theories, resulting in the long-sought move away from behaviorist educational systems.
Limitations of this proposal
The first limitation of this proposal is that it is only a proposal. The author of this paper has been unable to find any evidence of attempts to use online education to train teachers to use educational technology or any attempts to use digital badges for teacher training in Central Asia.
A second limitation to the study is that the author has lived in Central Asia for ten years and has experience working in K-12 schools and universities as a subject-area teacher and in teacher training. While this may allow unique insights into parts of the culture that visiting scholars may overlook, it also may provide skewed perspectives, as his experience should not be assumed to be typical of visiting scholars or indigenous teachers. Moreover, Hofstede’s research did not include Kyrgyzstan, and it is possible that the researcher and interviewees have not classified the culture correctly according to Hofstede’s categories.
Call for further research
Despite the proposal’s limitations, if research finds it to be effective, it has wide-scale implications not only for Kyrgyzstan, but for countries that share Kyrgyzstan’s cultural values as well as its desire to reform educational systems to increase accessibility, reduce costs, increase personalized learning, provide students with work-oriented skills, increase the use of constructivist methodologies, or reduce the corruption often associated with questions of access or assessment of education. Also, this type of program empowers teachers to become curriculum and materials designers, allowing culturally-relevant content that does not depend on translated materials from highly-developed foreign economies. At the same time, the digital badge format provides artifacts of specific accomplishments rather than often-untranslatable lists of course titles, grades, and credits. This allows members of developing economies to compete more directly with colleagues in the global marketplace based on skill sets rather than regional brick-and-mortar university name recognition (Bowen & Thomas, 2014). It is a long-term plan with long-term consequences, but the initial tests are low-risk and low-cost, so further research is highly encouraged.
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