of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 4

April/May 2000

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Prospects of Distance Learning in Kazakhstan and Central Asia

by Irina Kirillova

"While the dangers of competing and failing in this new world of educational access may pose problems, the refusal to aggressively move forward may be the greatest risk of all"

--Gene T. Sherron and Judith V. Boettcher in "Distance Learning: the Shift to Interactivity"

The idea for this article came to me during a visit to Washington, DC, for the ASIS Annual Meeting where I talked with people from different universities, libraries, publishing agencies and software development companies, as well as from government and private accreditation bodies. I found great interest in my Republic and decided that ASIS members might be interested in the results of my research regarding challenges and opportunities for distance learning (DL) in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, former Soviet Union.

Approaches to Distance Education

During my stay in the United States, I studied the three most common approaches to DL delivery in this country and then analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Based on the results of my research and my knowledge of the demographic and communications situation and the social environment in Kazakhstan, I developed recommendations of how to initiate DL in Kazakhstan.

 The following three approaches were examined:

    n use of university TV networks (two-way audio-video connections) for delivery of on-campus courses to remote university colleges;

    n use of mixed technologies where students also have face-to-face lectures with professors for a full day once a week usually on Saturdays; and

    n online teaching, in which students enroll, participate in a course (or even a program), take their exams and even receive their diplomas without face-to-face meetings with the university-based instructors.

Table 1 presents the results of a SWOT (strength-weakness-opportunities-threats) analysis of these three approaches.

Table 1.  SWOT Analysis of Distance Learning Options





Two-Way Television Networks

Equal to traditional classroom environment.


Needs large initial investments or already existing high-speed communication media between colleges.

Increase number of students without increasing number of regular faculty.

Less convenient for working adults compared with online DL.


Professor does not need additional training.


No conflicts of interest.


Mixed Technologies

Provides face-to-face communication with professor.

Still need to be in a certain place at a certain time once a week.

Covers all the needs in training in the area of access by car or other means of transportation.

Less convenient for working adults compared with online DL.

Provides face-to-face communication between students.

Demands essential additional efforts from professor and students.


Online Teaching

Delivers education to the place convenient to any student in any place at any convenient time.

Results in lack of communication between faculty and students and among students.

Provides an essential expansion of customer market.


Reduces quality.



Requires high quality communication environment.

Delivers education to any point on earth.

Increases risk of cheating.


Poses additional costs for Internet access for students and professors.

Essentially reduces capital costs for teaching one student.

Needs control of course curriculum.


Library facilities are restricted.


Requires solving course intellectual property problem.

The Situation in Kazakhstan: Demographics

One can see that each of the approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses. The question is: What will be good for Kazakhstan?

Let's look at the demographic situation and other factors in our attempt to make a decision. According to official sources the demographic situation in Kazakhstan is as follows:

      16.8 m (July 1997 est.)

      Age Structure:
      0-14 years: 30% (male 2,536,307; female 2,462,742)
      15-64 years: 63% (male 5,219,618; female 5,480,693)
      65 years and over: 7% (male 392,374; female 790,059) (July 1997 est.)


Kazakh (Qazaq), which, according to the Constitution, is the state language of the Republic of Kazakhstan and is spoken by more than 50% of the population. In state institutions and local self-administrative bodies the Russian language is used equally with the Kazakh language.

Literacy, defined as percentage of the population age 15 and over who can read and write:

Total population: 98%
Male: 99%
Female: 96% (1989 est.)

From the data above one can see that literacy is very high, and the main language used in education is Russian.

Trends in Education

Any evaluation of the Kazakhstan education market must consider several different aspects. On the one hand, there is a tendency to close some educational institutions in the regions, while on the other hand there is a growing demand for higher education in prestigious colleges and universities with high standards of teaching. These trends will lead to a situation in which some universities will not have enough facilities to serve the growing demand.

Another important tendency is the fast growing interest in retraining for a better future: better-educated people tend to receive better jobs. Employers of big companies, as in the United States, are ready to update the knowledge of their staffs.

One more motivation for DL development in Kazakhstan is the need for universities to become financially self-sustainable. DL for them is a new source of revenue. So it is evident that development of DL in Kazakhstan has a great potential.

The question is: What is the best approach? How to start? How to apply the knowledge and experience of other countries, and the United States in particular, to choose the right approach for Kazakhstan?

Other Factors Possibly Influencing DL Development in Kazakhstan

Let us look at the Kazakhstan environment in terms of the evaluation of factors that might influence DL development in the Republic. Some of these factors are listed in Table 2.

Table 2.

Factors Influencing DL development in Kazakhstan

Unfavorable Factors

1. Lack of developed cable and microwave TV systems

2. Poor communication environment with tendency toward rapid improvement

3. High cost of Internet access

4. Low speed Internet access (provider's Internet backbone at present is maximum of 2mb/c on sputnik channel)

5. Most of the population Russian speaking (non-English speaking)

6. Autocratic methods of governing previously in practice for long period of time

7. "Cheating" as a usual practice among students

Favorable Factors

1. Extensive territory (Area: total: 2,717,300 sq km [1,049,155 square miles] slightly less than four times the size of Texas)

2. Demand for knowledge and high literacy of population

3. Many international companies' branches in the Republic

4. Declining costs of computers

5. Trend toward rapid reduction of costs for Internet access

6. State program for computer literacy for schools

Taking into consideration the existing poor communication infrastructure in the Republic, including the lack of a cable or satellite educational television or videoconferencing network, the Internet approach seems more feasible. The rapid development of Internet technology also points in this direction. Therefore one can assume the following:

    n DL in Kazakhstan will use the interactive Internet (online) approach with supplementary audio and video materials on CD-ROM and in hard copy.

    n Problems of security and identification will require much attention.

    n Guidelines for curriculum development and course design will need to be worked out to guarantee quality of teaching.

    n Consideration of other countries' experiences will be of great value.

I hope this discussion will help readers in the United States who might be interested in DL delivery to Kazakhstan and Central Asia understand the problems. While the United States has a well-established tradition of teaching DL programs through the use of cable TV and videoconferencing facilities, I must stress that in spite of all the advantages of this approach the Central Asia region does not have the developed infrastructure necessary for application of such methods. On the other hand, the results of my research show that high quality DL teaching and learning is possible using the online approach described above.

I, therefore, believe that the best starting point will be with the delivery of online corporate training programs in English to the personnel of large international companies in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. For this purpose collaboration of US entities, experienced in DL, has to be created with the aim of developing a suitable environment for DL. In my opinion, the best start will be development of a corporate training center with its own high-speed access to the Internet and highly qualified staff. This center has to provide the whole range of services to its clients, including consulting, software supply, courses, curriculum development, library supplies, software and course maintenance, etc.

This center will be a good base for further expansion of the idea of DL throughout the region.


Research for this article was supported in part by a grant from the International Research & Exchange Board (IREX) with funds provided by the United States Information Agency. Neither of these organizations is responsible for the views expressed herein.

Irina Kirillova, US Information Agency 1998 FSA Fellow in Contemporary Issues, is director of the informational and computing department at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KIMEP) 330, 4, Abai Ave, 480100 Almaty, Kazakhstan; phone: + 7 3272 644430 (office), +7 3272 325664 (home); fax: + 7 3272 643720; e-mail: i_kirillova@yahoo.com or I.Kirillova@kimep.kz

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