Distance learning, already popular abroad, has finally made its way to Russia. As many as 5,000 students will participate in computer-based learning from their homes when the doors to the virtual classroom open September 1.
The Rostsentroproyekt communication systems company, under the jurisdiction of the presidential administration's household department, is pushing the new project ahead with the blessing of the Russian Education Ministry. "The number of those learning by distance will soar further to 150,000 in three years, so the number of our subscribers will grow accordingly," says Igor Shlepov, Rostsentroproyekt's general director.
In addition to targeting handicapped students, the project aims to attract students living in remote areas without access to learning institutions and students wishing to follow courses of individual study.
The project will compete with educational Internet sites and CD-ROM programs as well as with existing correspondence programs that allow college and university students to study at home provided they attend examinations. There is already a network in place for secondary-level students.
"The technologies we have worked out and are going to use for distance school learning are pretty simple," says Shlepov.
With the help of the All-Russia Technology and Information Channel, satellite GALS can transfer any amount of information and in any format, be it text, picture, technical drawing or diagram. Although the telephone cable is still a luxury in some regions, programs can be sent out via satellite instead of the Internet.
Without Internet access, however, a distance learner would need an antenna, a satellite receiver, a decoder card and software. The whole system, not including the computer itself, costs some $530.
"Of course we are fully aware that only 10 percent of learners will be able to spare this money," says Shlepov. "But as there are a lot more potential students out there [the Moscow region alone has some 12,000 handicapped children] we are ready to offer our equipment on credit."
Shlepov says the first virtual year will be combined with an acting secondary school. Once hooked up, each subscriber gets an encoded number. The computer downloads course material on a daily basis, costing an average of 15 to 45 rubles per month for each course.
Specialists from the Education Ministry scrutinize each unit of the curriculum, compiled by the creme de la creme of Russian schoolteachers.
Students study according to a fixed schedule, and teachers continually monitor them. Parents are also be able to track their children's academic performances.
It's like a normal school in a way, says Shlepin. It has the same diaries with grades in them and a system of credits like in normal schools, only it is all done electronically.
In addition, the virtual school offers supplementary courses to prepare students for university exams, as well as special programs for honor students and support material for teachers.
The new program will be tested at a school for handicapped children in Zelenograd and the Moscow private school Retro.
At Retro, virtual classes are to be interwoven with the standard program, whereas in Zelenograd, virtual learning may be the only way of getting an education, as over 70 of its students are physically disabled. There are just not enough teachers to provide home schooling for all of them.
The curriculum has only been arranged for the 1st, 5th, 8th and 11th grades, but the gaps will be quickly filled by the start of the next academic year once the system is in operation.
Unlike other computer-based programs, the virtual school also offers a secondary school certificate entitling its students to further education.
Even with the obvious advantages of the virtual school, parents may still frown considering many children already spend most of their free time playing computer games.
There is another kind of distance learning available to those with health concerns. Many educational institutions offer correspondence courses, but only the "All-Russian Distance Multidisciplinary School," an open lycee affiliated with Moscow State University, receives state support. It has provided quality education for over 30 years now by means of correspondence, sending out monthly parcels with textbooks on mathematics, law, history, biology and other subjects across Russia.
Despite improvements in technology, the school is not intent on switching to more advanced methods of transmitting information.
"Even if we were to use advanced technologies, we would still be sending books along because of the scarcity of computers in some regions," says Vladimir Chernyak, teacher of economics in the lycee.
A six-month course costs 200 to 300 rubles, and a package of courses cost around 1,000 rubles. It is a worthwhile expense, however, as a 2 to 4 year course in the lycee guarantees entrance to a university.
Other forms of distant learning are available in Russia but are less popular. European language studies, which fall somewhere between free On-line learning and expensive private lessons, depend too much on self-education.
The same is happening on the CD-ROM market. The six publishing houses in Moscow specializing in educational programs offered on CD-ROM cover all the subjects. An educational CD usually costs $10 to $50, with a circulation of 1,000 copies a year at most. It requires 10 people about a year and a half to put such a program together.
With the virtual school launching at a federal level, Muscovites now have the opportunity to delve into yet another virtual network - the Moscow Computerized Informational Children's Network (MKIDS), which is to cover 70 percent of Moscow schools by 2005, says head of the MKIDS project Kirill Govor. "You can use the internet in so many ways," he says.
"Children's communication with virtual images can work wonders," says Georgy Pachikov, director of company "ParaGraf," supervising the MKIDS project.
"Our senior students from the club 'Computer' have thought up a virtual image of Red Square, which Intel then used at its presentations to show the capacity of their new Pentium."