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Vera Buldakova: Russia’s Education Crisis

Note from editor:  These days, those of us who haven’t yet fallen into a catatonic stupor listening to the procurators’ voices droning away in a dingy courtroom in Moscow have been hearing a litany of fantastic crimes supposedly committed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky in violation of all the known laws of physics and economics, not to mention the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.

So it comes as a refreshing change of pace for us to hear something nice about Khodorkovsky for a change. We recently received this guest essay by someone who has benefitted directly from Khodorkovsky’s vision, and who is keeping the faith and continuing the spread the gospel.

Vera Buldakova is an ordinary Russian schoolteacher. Or rather, she WAS one until she went through a training program on using the internet in education, offered at no cost to teachers out in the remotest Russian provinces through the Federation of Internet Education, a pet social philanthropy project of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s. Back in those days, the Russian Minister of Education was personally thanking Khodorkovsky for this massive work, while regional governors were begging to have such training centers set up in their regions.

The two-week training course changed Vera Buldakova’s life. It opened up a world of opportunities, it showed her that free thought and creativity, which were taboo in the Soviet educational system, are possible and welcome and can be an incredible force for good. This was Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s vision in setting up the program in the first place, and Vera Buldakova is a shining example of its success.

Today, thanks to the internet, Vera Buldakova is a citizen of the world, and continues to work in the field of distance learning through the internet. And even though the Federation of Internet Education has lost its primary source of funding, the die has been cast: some of the regional centers have managed to remain alive thanks to securing local funding, while in other areas the newly internet-savvy teachers – like Vera Buldakova – have continued to stay in touch through the internet and to teach others their arcane craft, connecting remote Russian village children with the wider world for the first time in history.

The impact of this achievement will be felt in Russia and the world for decades to come.

The following two articles are also available in Russian.  Если Вы хотите прочитать оригинал данной статьи на русском языке, нажмите сюда.


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Khodorkovsky, the global crisis of education and the future of Russia

Part 1

Vera Buldakova, instructor, INTEL training system tutor

KIROV — I recently re-read an article I had written seven years ago.

I was dismayed: time has once again come to a standstill, nothing is changing! True, out in the street there’s the global economic crisis, everybody is waiting for it to manifest itself, nervously stuffing their hands in their pockets. They’re feeling their wallets, waiting for when the crisis is at last going to crawl in there, into the wallet, to pull it out into the sunlight and take a closer look at last.

All around, everybody’s expounding about the causes of the economic crisis, but I – about education. For some reason I’m thinking that the global economic crisis is connected with the global crisis of education. Russia – is a superb experimental test-site. Since the y ear 1985-87, we have begun to «build capitalism», that is we gave the world an opportunity to go back a hundred years and take a look from the outside at how it all used to be, under «wild» capitalism. Everybody thought they were pulling us forward, but this was simply a laboratory experiment.

And what does Khodorkovsky have to do with any of this? He was one of the first not only to want his business to work the way business works in the West. You know, civilized, transparent, and all that… He actually tried to accomplish this.

The first thing he ran up against was the shortage of skilled personnel. The company’s workers had no time for study, they were busy working. The idea of distance learning or internet learning was the most efficient way out of the situation that had evolved.
With his typical systemic way of thinking, Khodorkovsky understood that a scheme for the education of adults would be ineffective if formal school education isn’t touched. We understood: you’ve got to start with the teachers, there’s no time to wait until a new educated generation arrives in the natural way. But a teacher who possesses new information technologies will teach others how to fit into the modern world.

This idea coincided with the principles of the activity of Bill Gates, for whom people work for the sake of the granting to a person of opportunities for access to world information, which by rights belongs equally to each and every one. It seems there is a solution of the main question, what to teach: methods for seeking information, for selecting, assessing, and assimilating it. For generating new ideas and bringing them to life. For example?

Let us recall Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s superb educational idea, brought to life with Yukos’s money. For its realization in the end of 1999 – beginning of the year 2000 is created a Federation of Distance Learning, a non-commercial organization. The objective of the project “Pokolenie.ru” [“pokolenie” means “generation” in Russian–Trans.] – the informatization of Russian education.

YUKOS reaches an agreement with the Ministry of Education and Science of the RF, which attaches state status to the work of the federation. Already by the year 2004 in the composition of FIO [the Federation of Internet Education, another state-sanctioned teach-the-teachers project initiated and funded by Khodorkovsky–Trans.] there are 42 regional centers of Internet-education, training in which over 100 000 workers of general education have undergone. According to the data of an article by Irina Komarova in the magazine «Narodnoye obrazovanie» No. 2 (1355) for the year 2006, more than 70 centers were training teachers throughout all of Russia. RCDOs exist today as well.

Regional distance learning centers (RCDOs) are founded rapidly, outfitted with new equipment, and soon in modern interiors (this is important!) the instructors begin to work with the attendees on what are for us new teaching technologies. Here is an example of the work of such a center.

The opening in the year 2003 of the Kirov RCDO at the institute of skills upgrading for teachers was festive. This bright event was attended by the entire Oblast leadership. Twice Hero of the Soviet Union pilot-cosmonaut Viktor Petrovich Savinykh, who uses his renown to support the best educational and cultural projects in his native Vyatka, also came.

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Khodorkovsky, the global crisis of education and the future of Russia,Part 2

Vera Buldakova, instructor, INTEL training system tutor

KIROV — A strong interest was formed towards this center throughout all of Kirov Oblast. Graduates of the course enthusiastically shared impressions with colleagues, and these signed up to the waiting list for training at the RCDO.

In that period, a teacher’s salary wasn’t enough for even the most modest PC. And at first, the attendees were simply taught how to work on a computer. I saw with what interest people discovered a new world for themselves, were liberated from their own lack of confidence: «I’ll never learn, I’ll never be able to!». But they did learn and they were able to! This is a rather lame comparison, but no doubt this is how the sailors of the Renaissance era, having lost three vessels out of four, having returned home with a sack of spices, learned to believe in their own strengths. Those who don’t know what kind of pressing Soviet teachers were subjected to will never understand what newly acquired internal freedom means for a teacher!

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For a long time, computers in our country were accessible to a small quantity of people, thus was formed the «computer elite», speaking its own computer slang; the elite looked down on the «dummies» all around, not troubling itself to explain the simplest things. Such a position of «exclusivity» is inherent to certain specialists even today.

The system of training in the RCDOs broke this malign tradition. The directive was: the machine for the person, and not the person for the machine. It is not shameful to learn, it is shameful not to know, you can do anything, everything will work out for you. The training took place in the most benevolent atmosphere of cooperation.

Here it would have been impossible to apply medieval repressive methods of education according to the principle: the cadets listen to the lecture, pass a test, if they don’t pass, they don’t get the corresponding document.

Training in activity, work on joint projects that continued after the courses in the schools with children, released the creative energy of the teacher, and people displayed such a level of creativity that I, for example, was simply amazed. If not for the experience first of being trained at the Kirov RCDO, and then as an instructor there, I would not have been able to imagine how capable our teachers are of embracing and generating new ideas.

In five years of existence, the Kirov RCDO has trained approximately 10 thousand teachers, librarians, educational administrators. Almost right away, a network of Rayon resource centers began to get formed; they were headed by those who had themselves just mastered this science.

In such a manner, in the system of Oblast and Rayon centers, training became accessible to teachers from the most remote villages and hamlets. And the ideology of teaching in cooperation spread very rapidly, simply because it is effective and organic; it did not have to be implanted «from above».

The year 2004-2005 became special – the year of cooperation with the company INTEL. It was precisely then that the idea of distance learning receives real incarnation. Inna Vylegzhanina, a person intelligent and creative, a capable instructor, takes the matter into her own hands. Unlike many, she never wastes the time of the attendee on nothing. Thanks to the work of Inna with colleagues, INTEL’s motto «Yesterday we didn’t know this yet, today we’re teaching it to others» was realized in practice.

As a result, educational establishments are creating their own websites, training and interaction is moving into the virtual world. It is the work of the RCDOs that has made possible talk about the participation of Kirov Oblast in a new project in Perm Kray. This is a project of the openness of school life for society on the internet: the schedule, performance progress, discussion of the most varied questions of education. Today, Vyatka governor and experienced blogger N. Yu. Belyx is talking about this project with interests. In Vyatka there are schools working in such a mode.

The RCDO which successfully celebrated its five-year jubilee in the year 2009 was disbanded on the strength of different reasons. But the community of people close in spirit continues to function, as they say, in other formats. Being implemented now is the internet project «Small towns of Vyatka». Teachers in Vyatka villages far from the city, having mastered informational and network technologies, are getting the opportunity to step into the global virtual world. And this means, they will be able to work in an open world and will teach the children this. And the new generation will have a different world view, based on an understanding of the community of people in the whole world, of openness and tolerance, of independence and creativity.

The company «Yukos» is no more, but the system that was created turned out to be viable, self-developing. For example, internet communities of teachers are being created in different social services: www.vkontakte.ru, www.letopisi.ru, and a host of others.

It was through this system that I’m attempting to describe that 5 years ago I stepped into the virtual world, and now I can’t imagine how one can live and work without this. Now I’m a tutor of the INTEL training system [“Training for the future”], a reviewer of electronic educational publications, my students and I (I’m an instructor in a college) are engaged in educational projects in social services.

So everything’s fine? There is no global crisis of education?

The West, it seems, has rejected Marx, but in actuality lives by his teaching: an economic base and then some kind of superstructure. The manifestation of disregard for this superstructure, for example, for the educational system, still repressive on the part of the older generation (study well, or else!), has plenty to do with world global crises, including economic ones. And it is not by chance that their start are marked by student unrest. This time in France, then in Greece, and not only there.

So what does Khodorkovsky have to do with any of this? He tried to initiate changes in the country starting with the sphere of education. Would that this experiment be carried through to the end!

However, the project was not supported by the successors of YUKOS. The human and moral factor interfered.

And is M.B.Khodorkovsky right, discoursing in letters from Chita about the level of morality of contemporary society, and saying that the future of Russia (and of the whole world, I’ll add parenthetically!) depends on this level?

It’s an open world. You can’t close it. We are in this world and we’re together. How we depend on one another!