Educators in Kosovo have been working non-stop to develop a distance learning programme for their students. A debate on BIRN’s televised programme Jeta ne Kosove on Thursday invited parents, teachers and education officials to discuss the challenges of developing a nationwide online curriculum in a matter of weeks.
While Kosovo’s schools closed their doors to students more than three weeks ago to protect them from the spread of the coronavirus, that does not mean they are lying empty and unused.
Since the government-mandated lockdown began in Kosovo, school halls have been filled with teachers, editors, camera operators and education experts, using classrooms, libraries and canteens as their base to develop Kosovo’s new e-learning programme.
Sitting in the library of the Qamil Batalli School in Prishtina, Deputy Education Minister Xhavit Rexhaj tells BIRN that helping children continue their education through online and televised distance learning has been a challenge. But with the help of educators and volunteers from civil society and the media, he says, they are beginning to iron out the creases.
“Things are going well with the lessons. We’re trying to improve the quality everyday, but let’s not forget – the main aim of our e-learning project is to protect everyone’s health. That’s our number one priority,” Rexhaj tells BIRN.
Since mid-March, the Ministry of Education has made more than 500 lessons available to students in Kosovo through the Ministry’s e-learning online platform, as well as BIRN Kosovo’s Kallxo.com platform and public television. Roughly 300 of these lessons have been filmed with Albanian teachers in Prishtina, and 200 with Turkish and Bosnian teachers who are filming the lessons from Prizren, where most members of these communities live.
“We weren’t prepared for distance learning,” says Education Minister Hykmete Bajrami. “This is the best we’ve been able to do in such a short period of time and with the support of many volunteers. Everyone involved deserves our most sincere thanks.”
While many are applauding the efforts of the ministry, the municipal departments of education and school staff for filming lessons and engaging with students while Kosovo is on lockdown, some concerns have been raised over the viability of the ministry’s plan in the long term.
BIRN invited parents, teachers and educations officials to participate in a televised debate on Jeta ne Kosove (Life in Kosovo) on Thursday to discuss the challenges of developing a nationwide online curriculum in a matter of weeks, and the myriad of technical and political problems that come with efforts to provide education to all in a multilingual country.
Development of distance learning in “early stages”
According to Minister Bajrami, Kosovo’s municipal departments of education have issued instructions to assist teachers struggling to adapt to the new online system.
“Teachers have received instruction to continue checking homework and giving pupils additional tasks, using Viber, Zoom, WhatsApp, Google Classrooms to do so,” she explains. “There have been no restrictions placed on what methods they should use, all we want is for them to stay in close contact with the children.”
In order to make sure teachers continue fulfilling their requirements to students, Bajrami said, the ministry has set up reporting mechanisms through school directors and the municipal education departments. Auditors are also continually reviewing and issuing recommendations to improve the online curriculum that is currently in development.
Xhenana Drini, a Bosniak from Prizren is one of teachers that began filming lessons for children to access at home after receiving a request from the local municipality.
“It was unusual at first, it was a challenge, but one that I wanted to take,” said Drini, explaining that while she encouraged her colleagues to do the same, many were reluctant. “In the beginning they didn’t listen, they didn’t want to leave the house because of the virus, or they were too afraid of being in front of a camera.”
Kushtrim Demiri, parent of a third grader at Faik Konica School as well as a member of its board of directors, said that continuing the year’s curriculum is going smoother than expected.
“We have acknowledged there are errors and improvements to be made, but everyone is contributing, we are taking remarks from parents into consideration,” Demiri said. “Thanks to the ministry, our attendance levels are sitting at 99 per cent.”
Faik Ispahiu, a director and producer who has volunteered to film these lessons together with a team of 15 people from BIRN’s digital anti-corruption platform, Kallxo.com, said that it was clear civil society had to mobilise and offer its services for free, as the Kosovo Ministry of Education would not have the capacity to complete the e-learning curriculum on its own in such a short time.
“We were logging 16-hour days for two weeks in a row, including weekends, to ensure we have enough lessons filmed to start broadcasting, so that kids would miss as little school as possible and have something to do,” Ispahiu told BIRN. “Now, the hours of work are getting more regular. We have established an effective system of preparing, filming, editing and auditing each lesson, while at the same time making sure we observe social distancing and other precautions to maintain a healthy production crew.”
Jehona Gjurgjeala, who runs the Kosovo Foundation for Youth Development, TOKA, said that her role coordinating the teachers in this process has been insightful. “The e-learning project in Kosovo has shown the positive things we can achieve when we work together for a cause,” she said. “However, it has also shown that more needs to be done to improve our quality of teaching.”
Could schools have been more prepared?
Educators in Kosovo have been under pressure to transform their style of teaching to fit within the constraints of the pandemic in a matter of weeks. However, this did not need to come as such a shock, debate participants noted, as developing distance learning programmes in Kosovo is not a brand new concept.
In 2014, the Kosovo Government allocated five million euros to develop an online teaching platform and train teachers how to use it. However, since the training was completed in 2016, the platform has been left empty of content and unused.
“There was an e-learning platform, but it existed just as a structure with no content,” said Bajrami. “To be honest, we didn’t deal with the documentation of the project, and we saw it as a platform that we didn’t know how to make use of. We were told 700 teachers were trained long ago how to use it, but it was all forgotten, we had to start anew.”
According to teacher and father-of-two Demir Markovic, while it is better than nothing, the haste with which the teaching programmes have been developed – lessons filmed where teachers lecture and the students simply observe – could have negative consequences for the future of the children they aim to educate.
“There is a lack of engagement, and I think that is the key to a quality education. This kind of communication, where the student is limited in their interaction, can fundamentally harm the impact of education,” he said.
Markovic noted that online applications do exist that allow for more meaningful engagement with students, such as Skype and Zoom, but that their potential isn’t being properly harnessed through the current methods the ministry is using. “We have the technology to enable proper interaction. Teachers know their students well, but there are psychological barriers here, no matter how engaged teachers are.”
According to teacher Blerta Hasani, it is up to parents to assist teachers when hands-on, interactive education methods are no longer an option. “The parents should serve as a bridge in this case, helping with homework and sending it along,” said Hasani.
Nermin Ibrahimi, a Turkish mother-of-two participating in the debate from Prizren, said that she’s had few problems helping her daughters follow the lesson programmes. “We’ve been following the lessons, and I know that this is an extraordinary situation for all, but I’ve been really satisfied with what has been broadcast on RTK, and what the teachers have done.”
Beyond everyday teaching programmes, however, plans for final assessments and exams are not yet in place, Bajrami admitted.
“A group of educational experts from different municipalities are working towards assessment for different levels,” she said. “We cannot be too ambitious regarding quality, but we are moving in this direction. If this pandemic stops us from going back to school, we will need to keep working towards it.”
Bajrami added that the ministry is expected to come to a final decision regarding how assessment will be conducted for Kosovo students “in the upcoming days.”
Overcoming language barriers to education
According to Deputy Education Minister Enis Kervan, who is from Kosovo’s Turkish community, the ministry coordinated teachers from Mitrovica, Prishtina and remote areas of Prizren to come together to film lessons, ensuring lessons in Bosnian and Turkish are available for students.
“Teachers have come together to get a lot of work done,” Kervan said. “Teachers and politicians are working together for the sake of the children, and we have had very few problems.”
However, Roma journalist from Prizren, Fatlum Kryeziu, while noting that the work teachers have done so far has been exemplary, raised the issue that no lessons have been developed in the Roma language. “In areas like Prizren and Gracanica there are students taught in the Roma language,” he said. “Is anything being done for them?”
According to Bajrami, the ministry has been operating under the impression that students from the Roma community are attending school in the Albanian language, and should therefore be accessing Albanian language distance learning programmes to continue their education. “If students are interested and teachers are willing, then we are happy to begin preparation for filming additional lessons in the Romani language too,” she replied.
For education in the Serbian language, however, responsibility for developing distance learning programmes has been under the complete control of the Serbian Ministry of Education since the pandemic began.
According to Sanja Vukovic, a primary school teacher in Viti, Radio Television Serbia introduced a programme aimed at elementary and high school students that was prepared by the ministry with the help of teachers that were already trained in digital education.
Vukovic believes that it would not be possible for the Kosovo education system to incorporate Serbian language programmes at this time.
“Simply put, there is not enough cooperation between individuals and political parties,” she said. “This has always been the case with education, though, so considering the situation we are in now, things are satisfactory.”
Vukovic emphasized how important it is that such programmes are available Kosovo-wide. “Let’s not forget, this is not education of Serbs alone, but in the Serbian language,” she said. “Through this, the Bosnian, Roma and Gorani communities are brought together, so this is like a second opportunity if they want to access education.”
While some Bosnians do attend school in Serbian, the Kosovo Government decided to film lessons with Bosnian teachers of Kosovo in the Bosnian language, so families have a choice to listen to their own teachers speaking in their own language and accent.
Bajrami noted that the absence of Serbian language education in the official Kosovo education curriculum is a political issue, the resolution of which reaches far beyond the current situation. She added that the integration of Serbian language teaching is a matter that must be resolved in the future following a final comprehensive agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.
Until such a time, Bajrami said, municipal departments of education will continue to have broad powers related to implementing education policy so that it can be adapted to the needs of communities across Kosovo municipalities.
“Education is decentralised, and municipalities are responsible for developing elementary and middle school education. Municipalities are deliberately granted this authority, and have discretion over educational matters derived from the rights guaranteed in the Ahtisaari Plan,” she explained. “While we don’t need a final agreement to develop this [Serbian language] curriculum, we need to ensure beforehand that we have the capacity for its implementation. We don’t have the luxury to deal with this issue now.”
Many challenges to the success of online distance learning remain: issues such as poor internet connection across the country and in schools, the absence of education programmes tailored for children with disabilities, and many teachers being unfamiliar with the technology required to fulfil their responsibilities to their students are still to be resolved.
With only three weeks since the distance learning programme was launched, however, parents and teachers are optimistic that things are on the right track, said Majlinda Nushi, vice president of the parent’s council for the schools in Prishtina.
“As a parent and a citizen, this initiative, the contributions and the sacrifices that have been made so far are really something to complement,” she said. “Keep up the good work.”
This series of debates has been supported and funded by UNMIK. The program only reflects the views of individuals.
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