Teacher Training in the Time of Coronavirus: an Experience from Central Asia

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, educators worldwide have been forced to actively adopt new remote learning formats. Amnesty International’s human rights education team for Europe and Central Asia, together with Amnesty Ukraine, conducted two three-day blended learning courses  for teachers from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. These courses replaced the face-to-face trainings in Bishkek, which had been planned before the pandemic. 

From offline to online without loss of quality or group dynamics

In the autumn of 2020, due to the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Amnesty International’s human rights education team was not able to conduct offline trainings in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Therefore, the methodical materials for the programme on human rights and Write for Rights aimed at teachers of different disciplines had to be completely re-designed. We faced the challenge of moving the course into the format of a fully distance learning course, without losing quality, atmosphere and active participation.

As a result, the human rights awareness component and the information about the Write for Rights campaign were transformed into remote learning elements – an hour and a half long course “Introduction to Human Rights” was supplemented with a 15-minute course on “Write for Rights” on the Amnesty Academy platform. The trainings sessions devoted to learning the methodology of giving lessons on human rights and building a community of human rights educators were transformed into an interactive webinar, which consisted of three intensive sessions over three days, each lasting 3 hours.

As a result, instead of a planned one-day offline training, the online training took three days. Based on the experience of both holding and participating in many hours of online events, it was decided to do three three-hour intensive webinars, taking place on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, rather than all on a single day. Regarding the workload, the difficulty of preparation lay in the fact that instead of a standard training program, it was necessary to develop a minute-by-minute script for webinars with the distribution of roles between co-hosts, an expert and a technical assistant.

Stasya Denisova, Human Rights Education Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, explains, “It was important to us that this online course fulfilled the ambition we had originally for the offline course. We wanted to create a group of like-minded teachers who share the values of human rights and who would communicate with each other and us after finishing. We did not want our online course to turn into another online conference with hosts presenting slides all the time. Moreover, it should be an event as close as possible to the experience of a face-to-face training session, with the inherent group dynamics, interpersonal communication and most of all, active participation. That was why we paid attention to replacing the traditional elements of a workshop with adequate online tools. For example, the group’s routine evaluation exercises at the beginning and end of each day were replaced by “temperature measurements” using the MentiMeter online tool, which creates a real-time cloud of associations”.

“We had previously been in contact with teachers through other messenger services so that if they were disconnected or delayed for some reason, everyone was aware of what was happening to the group. This provided a sense of care and continuous communication with the members and maintained the group’s integrity, ” explains Aizhan Kadralieva, Human Rights Education Consultant in Central Asia.  

An important task was to create a ‘blend’ between the Amnesty Academy’s distance courses and the webinar sessions. Kahoot interactive quizzes provided an opportunity for participants to test their knowledge gained in the online courses. Moderated discussions about human rights values allowed for reflection on the relevance of human rights to values such as freedom, equality and justice in each teacher’s context. Working in small groups and creating a shared vision was done through virtual breakout rooms in Zoom and synchronized work in the program Miro. Flipchart presentations became PowerPoint presentations using the “share your screen” feature. After the course, a mutual exchange of experience and methodological peer-to-peer support continued in a closed group in a user-friendly social network.

Unexpected benefits of online learning 

Instead of the expected few dozen applications from Bishkek or Almaty’s teachers, we received 67 applications from teachers from ten cities and districts across Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. These teachers were from public and private schools, including the Academy of Education and the Republican Institute for The Excellence and Teacher Training at the Ministry of Education and Science of the Kyrgyz Republic. Due to the great interest and for better group work, we decided to divide the groups into two and ended up with not one, but two hybrid courses, one after the other.

For many teachers, these blended learning webinars were their first course on human rights, and indeed many noted that they had not previously been familiar with Amnesty International. “For me, reaching out to new audiences with basic information about human rights norms and values is very precious,” says Stasya Denisova. “One teacher said that she even ‘dared for the first time to sign an electronic petition to support a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist’. That’s an important and positive shift in attitudes for us.” 

We were especially pleased to read the reviews in which teachers said they had learned new techniques and tools and those praising the course program to be so engaging and interestingly designed that it almost did not feel like online work. 

Anna Vitalyevna Tolstosova, an event manager, citizenship teacher and organizer of the debating society at the “Bilimkana Bishkek” school said, “I liked the methods used during the webinars. Given the circumstances – that it was an online event, I think we managed to do everything: we figured out ways to work using different programs and received important and necessary information.”

Irina Nikolaevna Yesina, history and citizenship teacher for years 9 – 11 at Novopokrovky middle school No.1, shared: “I especially want to mention the online course “Introduction to Human Rights” on the Amnesty Academy platform. The course is very compact, both theoretical and practical and well-designed too. I was impressed by the materials supplied, the electronic design and the use of electronic testing methods. Conveniently, it is possible to take it at any time, and sums up everything learned at the end of the course, and you automatically obtain a certificate.”

Another unexpected benefit of going entirely online was the possibility for teachers from very remote areas of Central Asia to fully participate in the course. Their experiences enriched group discussions about the relevance of human rights education in schools outside of big cities. Teachers from Southern parts of Kyrgyzstan said that lessons about women’s rights would be especially relevant for their high school pupils. Notorious “bride kidnapping”, when very young girls are being abducted for forced marriages, is still widely spread in that part of the country. Another teacher gave an example – at one rural school, boys can have mobile phones starting from junior school. In contrast, girls are not allowed to have phones even in graduating classes. Aside from striking inequality, the teacher thought that schoolgirls were thus more vulnerable to bride kidnapping as without access to mobile phones they had no means of communication in case of abduction. 

Added value of online that would be scarcely possible in a traditional format was the sharing the experience of Amnesty experts and teachers from Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan and the Netherlands who have conducted sessions on Write for Rights in their schools and communities for many years. Many participating teachers noted that the stories and work done by fellow teachers from Ukraine and Moldova inspired them to scale up ideas to introduce human rights education in their schools.

In the end, all 67 teachers received a pack of methodical materials and engaged with the courses on the Amnesty Academy platform. More than 35 took part in one or more blended learning course elements, and 29 teachers completed the blended learning course with a certificate of completion. These teachers developed and presented their human rights and Write for Rights lesson plan.

Overall, 95% of all teachers reported improvements in their ability to teach human rights in the classroom, particularly the right to peaceful protest and the inadmissibility of discrimination against women. 92.5% of all who passed the course confirmed that they will be able to apply this knowledge and skills in their classrooms to support Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign and have joined our Facebook group “Human Rights Educators”.

As a result, in November-December 2020, 2084 pupils participated in a Write for Rights lesson and wrote a letter or posted a message on social media in support of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and Chile.

Burul Uvaidullana Kozubayeva, a teacher trainer for the subjects of citizenship and history, praised the translation of Write for Rights HRE materials into Kyrgyz and added, “In the future to expand Amnesty blended learning course, I propose to include Kyrgyz-speaking schools and teachers.

Irina Maslova, a history teacher and citizenship teacher at Kara-Balta Middle School – Gymnasium No. 6, shared that: “The lessons about the featured individuals who need help in the Write for Rights campaignare wonderfully thought out. The website is just great, and its educational materials are too. You can download and use informative cards, worksheets and exercises. It seemed to me that this is exactly what is needed to present to high school students. I’ve already drawn up a plan of 4 lessons for my 9th-grade citizenship class.” 

We continue to work with teachers and receive inspiring results and feedback both from teachers and students. Letters that students write in support of Write for Rights heroes are very moving and stunning drawings will lift the spirit of those who suffer from human rights abuses. We are very grateful for the courage and strength of the teachers who took part in this intensive course despite the disruption caused by the pandemic.   

Traditionally, blended learning is defined as a pedagogical method that combines face-to-face learning with online instruction. For example, it can be the use of a combination of online courses, where students can gain the necessary knowledge and face-to-face classes that can be devoted to acquiring new skills. It requires both the coach and the learner’s physical presence, with some control over the time, place, course of study or pace. Blended learning has proven to be a successful approach to improving understanding, interaction and inclusion in education.