Iron curtain's stuck on rails

May 16, 2003

Red tape and overambition have hindered online initiatives in the former Soviet bloc, writes Nick Holdsworth in Moscow.

More than a decade after the domino collapse of eastern Europe's communist regimes opened up the region to western-style distance learning, the promised creation of endemic virtual education has failed to materialise.

But information technology and the internet have provided established universities and colleges with tools to help academics and students respond to the fast-moving reforms brought by political change. Institutional relationships, European-funded programmes and academic opportunism, rather than technology, dictate alliances and provision.

Andras Szucs, secretary-general of the Budapest-based European Distance Education Network, says that for economies in transition, IT has to be managed alongside economic and social modernisation, and the requirements of European Union accession. The EU prioritised open and distance learning (ODL) in assisting former communist bloc countries in their transition. But overambitious projects and red tape have hindered progress.

Szucs was programme director of the Phare Multi-Country Programme for Distance Education between 1994 and 1996. He saw the difficulties at first hand. The Phare project, which worked in 11 central and eastern European countries excluding Russia in 1995-99, was "a good example of how an inconsistently implemented large-scale programme may result in confusion in an otherwise promising educational sector", he says.

The Phare project aimed to promote multi-country cooperation in developing education and training systems. It was successful in creating national contact points and 40 regional ODL study centres. But distance-learning experts have said they cannot be sustained.

"There was a very promising start with the project, which finished in an ambiguous state in 1999," Szucs says. "Perhaps the main mistake was to try to develop ODL on the basis of higher education institutions, which reacted quite conservatively."

Nick Farnes, who until recently worked with the UK's Open University, was involved in central and eastern European ODL initiatives in the 1990s. He notes that in the past two or three years his connections in the region have dried up, something he says is "symptomatic of the waning enthusiasm for major  programmes and the optimism that followed the collapse of communism".

There has been progress with curricular reform, expanded enrolments and increased use of computers - both on and off campus - but "the application of modern forms of ODL is not large scale, in fact the old-style Soviet type of distance/part-time learning  making a comeback. It is cheaper, and with fees and the lack of student grants is an attractive alternative."

In their paper Policies and Practice in Open and Distance Learning: The Phare Multi-Country Programme for Distance Education 1995-1999, Kay MacKeogh, of Dublin City University's National Distance Education Centre, and Hans-Peter Baumeister, of the Deutsches Institut für Fernstudien Forschung, Tübingen, in Germany, argue that the EU's top-down approach is the problem.

"The Phare programme demonstrated that it was possible, for a relatively small investment, to build a potentially sustainable infrastructure," they note, but "in the course of the programme the focus shifted from the multi-country approach towards assisting individual countries preparing for EU accession. There are no plans to continue the programme, instead open and distance educators in eastern Europe are expected to compete for funding under Socrates, Leonardo  programmes. This is an illustration of the difficulties in implementing change, using top-down, short-term programmes."

But despite the challenges such as lack of widespread home computer ownership - in Hungary internet access rates are less than 20 per cent of the adult population, in Russia less than 5 per cent - new learning technologies have been embraced by higher education institutions.

In ICTs and Higher Education - A Mirror of Europe (2003), Szucs argues that EU funds, World Bank loans and national programmes delivered "practically full access to computers and internet among  teachers" in central and eastern Europe. Most Hungarian students (74 per cent) use the internet to supplement lectures.

But a paper on e-learning in the region presented by the European Training Foundation at the ministers of education conference in Riga in June 2001 demonstrates the challenges ODL faces.

"While there are extensive plans for sustaining the development of e-learning, financial limitations are likely to slow down implementation... The dependence on the EU and other foreign assistance... remains high."

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