From practising English on WhatsApp in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan to a “flying university” streaming lectures by public intellectuals blacklisted in Belarus, an array of homegrown online educational platforms are changing the way people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia learn.
To bolster these projects, the Prague Civil Society Centre (PCSC) hosted the inaugural Bistro.edu, an accelerator programme for multimedia online learning projects, in Kyiv June 18-21.
“Bistro,” which translates from Russian as “fast,” was a fitting title, as participants were challenged to shift the intensity of their project development into high gear.
While online learning has empowered people around the world to learn on their own terms, think critically, and develop their ideas, relatively few platforms have been accessible to learners in Eastern Europe and Central Asia—until now.
Bistro.edu organisers invited 20 of the most promising online learning projects under development in the region to a three-day intensive round of workshops led by experts in the fields of online education, product management and marketing. The five best projects were selected to receive a cash injection and several months of additional expert advising and support to usher the project to the next level.
Special attention was paid to online educational projects produced in indigenous languages (rather than Russian or English, the two most commonly spoken second languages in the region), as the dearth of online learning tools in local languages is especially pronounced. Populations speaking only local languages also tend to be spread across the countryside, far from brick and mortar higher learning institutions.
Among the winners was a program from Kyrgyzstan that teaches English to Kyrgyz speakers via WhatsApp, one of the most popular messaging services in Central Asia. Language learners can watch video lessons, submit homework assignments and get feedback on their work, all on their phones, making it an invaluable learning tool for people in the most rural parts of the country.
Another standout project drew inspiration from the Polish “flying university” model of underground education that flourished under the Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century and again under Communist rule to provide young people with access to lines of academic inquiry closed off by authorities in state schools. The project’s Belarusian creators devised a platform for streaming video lectures from Belarusian and foreign thinkers whose scholarship and ideas clash with the country’s official ideology.
Participants most valued the individual attention paid to their projects by experts in marketing and product management. They said the input from the business sector helped them view their projects as products they must develop with the consumer’s needs in mind.
Workshop leaders encouraged participants to “create their own reality,” and develop products for the society they would like to see, rather than dwell on the constraints of the society they live in. One participant, who has faced repeated setbacks in marketing an online educational resource for parents of LGBTQ teenagers in a culturally conservative society, was especially inspired by this message.
PCSC looks forward to watching these and other emerging projects take off and set the pace for the future of online learning in the region.