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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Linking Russia Together

Washington, 10 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Internet and television are providing long-distance educational opportunities for Russians in communities that are too small, too poor or too isolated to otherwise gain access to such training. And this new educational form is thus playing an increasingly important role in linking the far-flung regions of that country together.

Aleksandr Tikhonov, a former education minister who is spearheading the drive to introduce long-distance learning, said last week that some 300,000 students currently receive all or part of their instruction via these electronic channels, up from 10,000 five years ago and far fewer than the one million he projects over the next two or three years.

While even those numbers seem small, Tikhonov points out just how important long-distance learning is for his country. It "is more important than for Belgium, say or the United States because we have no roads." Moreover, even where roads exist, many people in Siberia or the Far East cannot afford to travel to educational centers. And consequently, their ability to receive instruction via television or the Internet is critical.

Building on the Soviet-era external correspondence programs, the new Russian long-distance learning effort focused first on the Internet but increasingly is based on satellite television. Few Russians especially outside of Moscow or other major cities have access to the Internet, although a Siberian university in Tomsk has promoted precisely that kind of teaching, supplementing this with cassettes when the lines are down.

Satellite television as a delivery vehicle for instruction has begun to take off and appears likely to dominate the situation at least over the next several years. The Modern University for the Humanities, set up in 1992, has used satellite channels rented on the American LMI I satellite to reach advanced students. And last year, Teleshkola, a commercial satellite learning channel for school-age children, went on the air.

The Russian government has announced plans to invest $140 million to help support these and related efforts and is actively seeking funding from the European Union, the World Bank and other international bodies.

Not only is this long-distance learning giving new opportunities to people in areas with few or no good alternatives, it is linking together the Russian state and the Russian nation. The Moscow University for the Humanities, for example, takes pride in the fact that its broadcasts reach not only Russians in the former Soviet republics but also Russian speakers in Israel as well.

But if long-distance learning has an increasing number of enthusiastic supporters, it also has its critics and faces some potentially serious obstacles to realize its full potential.

Critics of long-distance learning in Russia make the same points that the critics of this educational tool have long made in the West: Education requires interaction with the faculty, something that television and the Internet as it exists in Russia do not easily allow, and even more with other students, an even greater challenge for this medium.

Russian defenders of long-distance learning respond, again as do supporters of this kind of educational arrangement in the West, that they do not view long-distance learning as a replacement for traditional schools and universities but as a supplement, especially for those who might not have similar opportunities any other way.

More serious than this debate, however, may be the obstacles this form of learning must overcome if it is to succeed. As elsewhere around the world, many people, skeptical of the method, tend to view its graduates as second-class citizens in the educational world. That view is reinforced by certain government polices: the state gives draft deferments to students enrolled in physical universities but not to those in virtual ones.

But given Russia's enormous size and current resources, the advocates of such long-distance learning appear certain, there really is no other way for much of that enormous country to jump start itself into the high tech world of the twenty-first century.