Photo: UCA's undergraduate curriculum is designed in partnership with top tier global universities in growing industry fields. Credit: The University of Central Asia (UCA), - Photo: 2020

CENTRAL ASIA: Turning COVID-19 Calamity into an Opportunity

By Hamid Ali Khan Eusafzai

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (IDN) – The University of Central Asia (UCA), along with many other universities across the globe, suffered the effects of COVID-19. Being forced to close the campus and send students back home, for the health and safety of both students and staff, it also opened a new opportunity for the university to develop digital learning. But, with most students coming from remote rural mountain communities, the challenges were more daunting.

UCA is an international university located along the Silk Road in Central Asia. Currently, the university has two fully functional residential campuses in the mountainous remote areas of Naryn in Kyrgyzstan and Khorog in Tajikistan. A third campus will soon be up and running in Kazakhstan. The university was set up by the Aga Khan Foundation in association with the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to provide tertiary education to mountain communities in the region, including northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Starting this academic year (2019-2020), the UCA leadership took a futuristic decision to develop digital and distance learning in the university. The aim was to connect the remotely located campuses of the university in the two countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This connection was to achieve the objective of sharing of knowledge and expertise located in one campus with other campuses, as well as the mountain communities they serve. To move staff from one campus to another involve a lot of costs and travel hassles in these mountainous regions.

At the beginning of the year a digital and distance learning office and a steering committee were formed to provide the human resource infrastructure for the digital learning initiatives of the university. At that point it was not foreseen that the need for such digital learning would come sooner than later.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the government of Kyrgyzstan introduced a policy in March of closing all educational institutions. The UCA campus in Naryn – about 350 km from Bishkek – had to be closed and all students were sent home. This forced the discontinuity of the spring semester study for all students on the campus.

The university however, decided to continue spring semester study in the Khorog campus, as so far there has not been a single coronavirus case reported in Tajikistan. However, despite this, the Khorog campus was also not immune to the impact of the pandemic. Some faculty members, who needed to travel to the campus for delivering their courses in the second half of the semester, were not able to arrive in Tajikistan due to global lockdown and disruption to airline services. Even some students were quarantined in their dorms and not allowed into classrooms as they arrived back on campus from other pandemic-affected countries.

The university needed to complete the disrupted spring semester at both campuses, and the only way possible was shifting teaching and learning online. Thus, it was decided to use this opportunity to further entrench and develop digital learning in the university.

For a university whose two campuses were located in remote areas, and most of the students who were forced to go home, are also from rural communities, the job was not as easy, compared to universities that are urban based. Majority of the UCA students come from remote mountain villages where the terrain is difficult to traverse, and taken-for-granted amenities of the urban areas are not available. In such areas, any internet service is a luxury rather than a necessity.

Further, the university started delivering its undergraduate academic programmes only in 2016 and the curriculum was designed for in-class delivery rather than digital delivery. Converting a curriculum originally designed for face-to-face teaching for delivery in online mode can be difficult. This conversion can even be more challenging when it is done in a hurry and without investing considerable time, thought and effort.

Another challenge was the faculty members’ preparedness. Not everyone has teaching experience in an online environment and adapting one’s practices of teaching to online mode was found to be stressful and challenging for many teachers.

Thus, to turn a calamity into an opportunity, three main challenges were lying in the way of UCA’s aim of digital learning. The first challenge was ensuring internet connectivity for all students in their remote villages so that no students were left out in participating in their courses and complete their spring semester study. The second was to convert and prepare the curriculum for online mode of delivery, and the third challenge was to prepare faculty members for teaching in an online mode.  

All students of the university are provided laptops for their studies. In this way, UCA, despite its locational disadvantages, supports a state-of-the-art IT infrastructure for its students, faculty members and staff. This futuristic approach to digital and distance learning and IT, places the university at a certain advantage than other local universities. Thus, when the need for shifting and developing digital and distance learning (DDL) in the wake of COVID-19 disruption, UCA already had the essential IT, human and administrative infrastructure available to implement this shift and development.

Once the study on campus was abandoned due to closure and the semester was disrupted, the university leadership declared the period of disruption and closure as summer vacations. Usually the summer vacations start in May, but now students are due to return to campus in June, to resume their spring semester studies. It was also decided to resume the semester online if the lockdown continues.

In the period preceding the resumption, the academic departments and the faculty members were asked to prepare plans and convert their courses for online delivery if the on-campus study could not be resumed in June. This involves a lot of teamwork between all sectors of the university – especially faculty members working closely with DDL office. An advisory group was formed to support and steer the entire process of developing digital learning with UCA Rector and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences closely involved in the planning to ensure a smooth resumption of the spring semester.

UCA’s Central Information Office (CIO) teams have surveyed the towns and villages of the UCA students and established internet access points for students. This step ensured that all students could connect to online learning while staying in their villages and homes – if the need arise in June. As a social responsibility, a plan was also prepared to support the internet access costs of the students. A total of 70 percent of the students come from locations where internet access is slow or unstable.

Meanwhile, the DDL office is working with faculty member in converting and adjusting their courses for online delivery and adapting their teaching for online mode. The faculty members have embraced the change and are eager to take the risk of online teaching and learn the pedagogical use of technology.

The development of digital learning in a university set up to serve remote communities was initially seen as a gradual and perhaps arduous task. But, COVID-19 has helped to fast-forward it as a matter of necessity. It has come to remote mountain communities of Central Asia sooner than envisaged, showing that a crisis could have a silver lining.    

* The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Central Asia based in Kyrgyzstan and he has been a part of the team (as Head of Digital and Distance Learning) working on digital delivery of courses to remote communities. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 April 2020]

Photo: UCA’s undergraduate curriculum is designed in partnership with top tier global universities in growing industry fields. Credit: The University of Central Asia (UCA),

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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