Kyrgyzstan’s educational system, devastated by the post-Soviet shift in 1991 to a free market economy, continues to suffer from a severe shortage of qualified teachers and modern text books.
Alarmed by this shortage, Internet Society Kyrgyzstan Chapter member and engineer Erjigit Imamov created a prototype of an inexpensive microcomputer that could be safely used by students for self-study in schools where shortages are most prevalent.
The device, called ‘Bilim Bulagy,’ which translates from Kyrgyz into ‘Spring of Knowledge,’ gives students fast, easy offline access to Khan Academy and Wikipedia in Kyrgyz, Russian and English. In some schools, it can also connect to WiFi to provide online access, as needed, to a ‘whitelist’ of other approved learning sites, and allows students to take tests and store files, such as ebooks and audio and video files.
Imamov and his prototype quickly captured the attention of the Internet Society Kyrgyzstan Chapter, which realized that the device, at a cost of around USD$10 apiece, could be scaled to provide students with an affordable option to augment the existing educational system.
The Chapter, with the support of a Beyond the Net Funding Programme grant from the Internet Society, launched a project to develop the prototype, partnering with the Kyrgyz Ministry of Education and Sciences to run program pilots and help negotiate with other government stakeholders. The project will be implemented in 50 pilot schools and libraries in the country in 2019.
“The provision of textbooks in schools during the 2013-2014 academic year was only seventy-three percent,” explains project manager Isabek Asanbaev, adding that the Kyrgyz Republic was ranked last in mathematics, science and reading among nations that participated in the 2006 and 2009 rounds of the Program for International Student Assessment. “The National Sample-Based Achievement Test showed the same trend of underachievement.”
Meanwhile, not only is the Chapter building microcomputers — it’s building a network of partners with the same goal: to strengthen opportunity and improve educational outcomes for Kyrgyz students. The organization has received additional support from the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, and is fielding interest in partnership from the Soros Foundation and USAID (the United States Agency for International Development) to serve rural areas.
By reaching rural areas, the device could have an ancillary but important benefit: to preserve Kyrgyz culture.
“In our communities, many people with understaffed schools resort to migration to give their children a chance at a better education in the capital or a major town,” notes Kyrgyzstan Chapter Chair Talant Sultanov. “This project can give them the opportunity to not abandon their homes.”