Young people in Turkmenistan miss out on educational, professional development opportunities. The government of Turkmenistan should act fast to catch up with the educational outcomes in the region.
The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of digital connectivity after having brought most of the world to a near stop in early 2020. People in Turkmenistan were among the most effected as pre-pandemic challenges with Internet connectivity got even worse. The government, companies, healthcare facilities and schools were unequipped to shift to online mode and continue providing the essential services. Given that education, healthcare and public services are all delivered in person, with limited to no access to remote option, pandemic has negatively impacted Turkmens’ ability to learn, work safely and use government services. This article discusses the role of Internet in education and ways to make Internet a cornerstone of education and development in Turkmenistan.
What is the role of Internet in Turkmen educational system?
The sole Internet provider in Turkmenistan – Turkmentelecom state run company, blocks social media and alternative news channels, but also those serving educational purposes such as Wikipedia – the online encyclopedia, Zoom – video conferencing service, GitHub – development platform for IT professionals, cloud services, access to all or almost all online libraries, and Apple and Microsoft update services. Such restrictions result in poor educational outcomes. For example, only 8% of Turkmenistan’s youth attend university and vocational schools while in Kazakhstan its 62%. Similarly, 21.8% of youth aged 15-24 in Turkmenistan are not in employment, education or training while this number is only 10.5% in Kazakhstan. These young people could be learning, studying or working if they had access to quality Internet.
It seems that Turkmen youth, educators as well as the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Economy are not aware of the wide spectrum of possibilities Internet provides both for personal and societal progress. For many Turkmens Internet means only social media such as IMO, Instagram or YouTube. Those of us who have Internet know that it provides unlimited possibilities for educating oneself, learning languages, taking online courses, complementing classroom learning, watching educational videos, searching for and applying for universities and jobs and much more. However, in the absence of computer and digital literacy in Turkmenistan, young adults miss out on these opportunities while using Internet only as an entertainment and communication tool.
There is no to little understanding among the youth and public in general that Internet:
- Provides access to wealth of information and knowledge – teachers and students can access diverse educational resources and opportunities for learning inside and outside the classroom. Teachers can use online materials to prepare lessons, find innovative teaching techniques and make learning more engaging for students. Meanwhile, students can learn on their own and at the comfort of their home by accessing open online resources and courses from the world’s leading universities.
- Enables shared learning – students and teachers can collaborate online with each other and with other Internet users through shared learning. They can join and follow relevant forums and blogs to discuss specific topics, share best practices and exchange ideas. Internet enables learners and educators to connect and co-create with peers from all around the world.
- Facilitates further learning and employment – Internet is not only a virtual space but it also connects people to opportunities in real life. Through Internet individuals can search for and apply to universities or enrol in professional courses to advance their skills and competencies. They can also find employment opportunities including online or remote jobs.
- Empowers creating content – in addition to using the already existing materials, teachers and students can create new content in the local language. This can help enrich and promote the Turkmen language and culture and make it part of the world heritage.
However, these benefits are difficult to achieve in the absence of Internet connectivity. Turkmenistan suffers from digital divide, the gap between those who have and do not have access to computers and the Internet. This divide exists when comparing access to Internet in Turkmenistan with the rest of the world as well as when comparing access to Internet among Turkmen population. The major challenges Turkmen people face with Internet connectivity include limited access, slow speed, high cost, increased censorship, state monopoly and lack of awareness.
How to use Internet for Education?
To make an effective use of Internet in education Turkmen government needs to consider the following policy options:
Developing an Internet strategy – the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Finance and Economy of Turkmenistan should make Internet an integral part of their respective policy areas and use Internet to build human capital, to promote Turkmen language, to improve country’s international competitiveness and to advance its long-term economic growth.
- Create content in Turkmen language – given that Internet is a relatively new phenomenon in Turkmenistan and people there have limited access to it, there is not much information available online in Turkmen language. For example, on Wikipedia there are only 6,281 articles available in Turkmen language compared to 231,688 articles in Kazakh language. Hence, policy makers in the field of education and culture should encourage creation and dissemination of content in Turkmen language, both by educators and students. This can enrich and promote the Turkmen language and culture and make knowledge widely accessible, especially for those who do not speak any foreign languages.
- Make Internet in education part of economic agenda – starting from the design of education policy all the way to the design of curriculum and teaching in the classroom should take into account the national development priorities. To contribute to these goals schools and universities in Turkmenistan should train students and future employees for a knowledge economy and digital workplaces. Internet has tremendous economic potential because when access to Internet is blocked for 1 day the Turkmen economy loses USD 348.000, which annually adds up to USD 127 million.
- Promote access and use of Internet in the entire education system – starting from pre-school, primary and secondary education all the way to vocational and tertiary education, learners should be able to access and use Internet to complement and advance their learning. The goal should be to improve the digital literacy and digital skills of everyone throughout society, starting from children to young adults.
Building Internet infrastructure – among the former Soviet countries Turkmenistan has the least developed telecommunication system. This is due to state monopoly, limited market access to investors, lack of legal guarantees for the rights of private telecommunication companies and high dependence on foreign satellites. Studies show that countries with robust connectivity infrastructure can mitigate up to half of the negative economic impacts resulting from global pandemics. To address these shortcomings, the Turkmen government should,
- Create an enabling environment for broadband access by encouraging investment and innovation. Government can enact supportive laws, provide tax incentives, promote friendly competition and collaboration among Internet providers. For now, the sole Internet provider in Turkmenistan is Turkmentelecom, a state-run company which has complete monopoly in the market. Government should encourage private entrepreneurs and telecommunications companies to invest in the sector and remove any legal or administrative barriers for market entry.
- Equip schools with technology – digitalization of education requires availability of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) such as computers, tablets and Internet. Turkmen media reports that over 97% of schools in Turkmenistan are equipped with multimedia tools. However, having digital tools does not mean they are widely and meaningfully used. As UNESCO reported, the use of ICTs including Internet in the education and research sectors in Turkmenistan is still at a relatively low level. During the COVID-19 pandemic only 2 out of 21 higher education institutions provided distance learning to fourth and fifth year students. Through partnerships with the private sector the Turkmen government should supply schools and universities with modern technology and offer free or affordable prices for Internet connection.
Making Internet accessible – by January 2021 Turkmenistan had only 2.01 million people using Internet leaving 61.9% of country’s population disconnected from the digital world. Turkmenistan has the slowest Internet connection in the world where Internet speed is only 0.50 Mbps while in Russia it is 35.73 Mbps. For example, to download 5GB movie, on average, it takes 19 minutes in Russia and 22.34 hours in Turkmenistan. Turkmen government should make Internet accessible to its people by implementing the following:
- Ensure universal access to internet – anyone in Turkmenistan, regardless of their geographic location, socio-economic status, gender, or any other differentiating demographic, should have access to affordable services and devices to connect to reliable and safe internet. This also means diversifying Internet providers and simplifying bureaucracy in signing up for Internet.
- Ensure affordable prices – Internet is very expensive, costing Turkmen users from 10.4% to 20.9% of their monthly salary while in Russia it only accounts for 3.75% of monthly income. The Turkmen government should introduce regulatory framework and financial incentives that can attract private telecommunication companies and stimulate competition among Internet providers to lower Internet prices to individuals, including students, schools and households. Government can also consider providing special rates for schools and universities so Internet can be used for educational purposes easily and affordably.
- Provide cheaper and high-speed mobile Internet – over 90% of Turkmenistan’s population access Internet through mobile phones. This is not surprising given that majority of people (80,4%) use mobile communication. However, the high price, the poor quality and the slow speed of mobile Internet make it close to impossible to enjoy the benefits of wide access to mobile connection.
Improving Internet literacy – this includes raising awareness and knowledge of how to use ICT at schools and at work places both for personal and professional purposes. While many young people perceive Internet solely as an entertainment and communication tool, many adults do not know how to use modern technology. Hence, the Turkmen government should develop and provide a training program on digital literacy to people from diverse ages and backgrounds. In particular, the government should,
- Build Capacity – Turkmen government should invest in developing the digital literacy of its people, their ability to use online applications, search for information, evaluate its quality, and make use of it. It should start with training teachers so they can make productive use of Internet for teaching purposes. Both the secondary schools and universities should develop digital skills of students and young adults to enable them to productively engage in employment and create technology driven innovative solutions to societal challenges.
- Provide free computer and Internet literacy programs to adults – everyone should have the right and opportunity to learn how to use modern technology for their personal and professional use. Particularly, the older age population in Turkmenistan does not have access or know how to use computer and Internet. Government’s previous efforts to provide computer training were criticised for being short-term, limited in scope, focusing on computer basics and forcing participants to pay for these courses. Hence, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population in cooperation with the Ministry of Education should develop a digital literacy program for adults that can be delivered at the local branches of the ministry. Such courses can particularly benefit those seeking employment, wanting to learn new competences or upgrade their skills. In addition to being free of charge, courses should develop core skills necessary in work places, be tailored to the needs of particular sector or employment and grow in complexity so people can advance from basic to advanced levels.
Turkmenistan should make sure it does not miss out on digital future and makes use of myriad of critical opportunities Internet has to offer. By working together policymakers, Internet providers and educators in Turkmenistan can create a tailored approach to building the required infrastructure, providing widespread access, lowering Internet costs, ensuring inclusion, building capabilities, and facilitating access to content. According to the World Bank a child born in Central Asia is likely to reach only 50-63% of current human capital. This means that Turkmen people, especially the youth are not living up to their full potential. This limits not only individual wellbeing but also inhibits Turkmenistan’s ability to progress and compete in the global market. Turkmenistan is not simply stagnating; it is actually going backwards. The more the government restricts progress today, the harder it will be for Turkmenistan and for Turkmen people to catch up with the rest of the world in the future.
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Progres.online, 2021. “Türkmenistan iň haýal internetli ýurt.”