The shift to distant learning in Armenia was as shocking as in many other countries during COVID-19 breakdown. The main platform that was recommended by the Ministry of Education of Armenia to provide all types of education was Zoom. Learners were lacking social communication with peers and this is what made them become slightly indifferent to the classes. While teachers had to put more efforts and adapt to a completely new educational environment.
For 15-year-old Gyulnara Gareginyan, it was really tough to stay at home for such a long period of time that’s why she dreams about real classes to come back from September.
Schoolchildren believe that online classes affected their motivation more negatively rather than positively. One of the main arguments they bring about motivation loss is that there were problems with internet connection which was caused because of the huge number of users. “As the connection would fail, all the children would quit the meeting in Zoom”, Artashes Hakobyan (15) says. Another classmate Levon Margaryan (15) says that he himself was not taking it serious because he had thought it wouldn’t bring any positive results. In addition, Gareginyan mentions that in case they have to continue online classes from September, it would be better to be taught by specialists who have enough technical skills to use Zoom. Although they think that attending classes from home and having a chance to spend breaks with the family was a benefit. Another positive side was that distance learning helped them stay safe from the pandemic and they were feeling protected.
During a short discussion with schoolchildren who are going to high school in Autumn 2020 several questions were discussed about the new educational platform and its related themes.
As to evaluate the results of the school semester a half of which was conducted online, teachers agree that the difficulties and challenges were more or less overcome and they are satisfied with the results. Armine Nalbandyan, an English language teacher and Armine Mkrtchyan, a teacher of Armenian language and literature speak about advantages and disadvantages of distance learning including its technical and contextual sides.
Mkrtchyan mentions that both students and parents were very supportive and were doing their best to complete the assignments. “They were so enthusiastic about sending the assignments on time so that to be the first in the group and be praised by the teacher,” she says. According to Nalbandyan both children and parents were not interested in marks as much as they were before, and even those children who used to have a low academic background stood out with a good progress during distance learning.
Mkrtchyan recalls that in the beginning it was really hard to get adapted to the new methodology of education as they had to use different types of apps such as Viber, WhatsApp, etc., before they finally went for Zoom.
Nalbandyan mentions the risks of low level of awareness on using Zoom among teachers who didn’t have an idea about simple activities up to children’s security of personal data in the online space. She has taken part in a training course about Zoom as an online platform of education where she studied the toolbox and found out much more. The 10-hour-long training had been organized by the British Council in Armenia and was mandatory for all teachers of the English language. “There were many things that we closed our eyes on and started Zoom classes but in fact we didn’t know anything about child protection issues in the platform. Anyone and anytime could easily hack the children’s accounts and we might not be aware who was the listener as the video image was off (children preferred not to show their faces). We should have followed several rules such as having the video image on, children’s names and surnames instead of their parents’, so that you as a teacher are sure about the identity of the children attending the class. All these regulations had been developed and transferred to us during that training course”, Nalbandyan says.
Both Mkrtchyan and Nalbandyan think that the spring semester in school was effective in spite of difficulties. All students got passing marks and the quality of education didn’t suffer.
Media and communication expert Alexander Martirosyan says that no any guarantees were created by the state to provide information security during distance learning period. “In terms of protecting the system from information leakage nothing was done. This happened firstly because the state itself was not ready, secondly there were no skilled professionals in the field who could operate accordingly and thirdly there was no experience to cope with such a situation.” He highlights the state’s practice on information security issues by recalling recent cases of personal data attacks by Azerbaijani hackers including the data of 3500 citizens as well as hacking an email address belonging to one of the employees of the Ministry of Health.
According to Martirosyan it’s weird to be in the list of leading countries in the field of technologies and have such a poor mechanisms of data protection and information security.
Non-formal education expert Areg Tadevosyan denies the fact that distance education can result in positive effects and doesn’t imagine learning based only on online factor. “I can comment on the process only in an indirect way as I have not been engaged in formal educational activities. If I draw a parallel with non-formal education mainly on conducting trainings where I’m engaged in, I would say it was an interesting experience because we had a chance to experiment some things we had never thought about before. In a way we succeeded. But in general I don’t consider it’s possible to transfer the educational process absolutely online. This is a temporary alternative which helps not to fall behind,” Tadevosyan says. According to him online learning can only supplement face-to-face education especially when it needs to save resources, but never replace one with another. This is a kind of hybrid type of learning which gives the best results. Distance learning without any physical communication is even harmful from educational, psychological, economic and from any other perspectives. Lots of extra energy is spent on verbal communication as non-verbal communication in fact can’t happen.
As for the ability to adapt the new changes in education Tadevosyan thinks it happened rather quickly in a short period of time but in the majority of educational institutions the level of preparedness to distance model remains low.
"In the Armenian educational system, the use of technologies as a mean of learning was not a common practice, so distance learning offered a formula of overcoming time and space in that context. Therefore, people were adapted to technologies for learning and realized that they were not only for entertainment,” Martirosyan says.
Emma Baghdasaryan a mother of 8-year-old schoolboy, thinks that teachers did their best during quarantine to conduct online lessons. “They worked hard, day and night and I know how difficult it was when they were working with tens of children every day in spite of the constant obstacles such as a bad internet connection and intervention of parents in the process,” Baghdasaryan says. “Parents would help their children when they had to show the assignment. They would dictate or help children using different methods and teachers would get it and stop the process to ask parents to leave children alone at class. “I myself didn’t let my child use such tricks,” Baghdasaryan says. Based on her child’s experience she thinks that school didn’t fail and this is the most important.