How did the COVID-19 transform the Bulgarian School System overnight?
Author: Dessislava Usheva
The shift towards electronic school education in Bulgaria happened overnight in response to a declared state of emergency in the country on 13th March 2020 due to the Coronavirus outburst. It was officially announced by the Minister of Education on 16th March 2020 with an emergency briefing on the closure of schools and the introduction of e-teaching as an alternative measure.
Over the period 13 March– 13 May 2020, the Ministry of Education postponed the return to schools twice, as it finally decided to complete the 2019–2020 school year online. The transition towards distance learning necessitated a major digital transformation of the whole education system, as its effectiveness is still to be analysed.
The transition to distance learning caused a major digital transformation of traditional school-based learning. It triggered significant digital behaviour from both the school community, and other stakeholders such as education institutions, NGOs, companies, and the media.
Overall, there were many challenges to be overcome, as, for example was the ensuring of equal digital education access to all. This was additionally dependent on factors such as personal possession of a mobile device, pupils and teachers’ digital skills, availability of reliable Internet connection, and access to suitable e-lessons. As an aside, the transition also considerably changed the importance of key education stakeholders such as parents and e-resource providers, which will be our major focus of attention.
This research will focus on one of the major changes caused by the transition to online learning — namely, the enhanced prominence of new educational stakeholders. In this respect, it will see the role of some leading e-learning providers and the way they built their online authority during the period of emergency.
Despite the challenges, the transition to digital education was seen as the only possible alternative to school education during the pandemic, which was able to prevent the introduction of a gap year for all grades. It was largely acknowledged that all reorganizational changes the pandemic necessitated over a weekend would have normally taken months. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Education reported as early as the first days of its introduction that despite technical difficulties, it has managed to reach as much as 89% of all pupils.
Formally, the transition to distance education was launched simultaneously with the state of emergency by a Ministry of Education’s letter distributed to all schools in the country. Subsequent orders were issued by the Regional Inspectorates of Education . It took immediate effect, as the specific education format, resource selection and process organisation were delegated to the school level.
A story of the school teacher Gergana Cholakova casts some light on the way their school transitioned to distance learning. The story is summarized from a blog post published by the local chapter of Teach for All.
In practice, the Ministry of Education gave schools full freedom to choose their distance platforms, e-resources and communication means. Provisionally, it arranged for the use of Microsoft Teams for everyone, encouraged the application of Google Classroom and Moodle, and the e-resources of Mozza Book, The Khan Academy, Shkolo BG, Уча.се. In addition, it cooperated with the national television broadcaster to launch daily television lessons for selected grades. Thus, it facilitated the entry of key educational stakeholders into the moment of policy shift.
Although still ongoing, the move to distance education attracted the interest of some preliminary surveys. This section presents a quick review of their key observations concerning teachers, parents, and pupils.
Let’s begin with teachers. A survey from early April 2020, launched by the Teachers’ Syndicate with The Podkrepa Trade Union, attempted to see the changes caused by the pandemic in a teacher’s workday. The main survey conclusion showed that the introduction of distance learning has brought an increased workload, as 94.4% of teachers worked more than 8 hours daily.
Also in April, one of the leading sociological agencies in the country, Market Links, published its conclusions on the Attitudes of Parents towards Distance Learning. Its findings showed that overall, three in four parents (75%) thought that since its official launch, distance education had improved (see below).
Further, around 60% of all parents declared that during the state of emergency they were engaged with their child’s education to a greater extent than before. The majority of parents perceived the present situation as temporary, which is shown by the low number of parents who support the idea to incorporate distant education tools into future learning processes (see graph below).
Finally, on 19 May 2020, The Institute for Educational Research published the results of its report on Distance Education: Readiness of Schools and Families to Study in An Online Environment .
The analysis acknowledges that it is far too early to assess the effectiveness of the e-learning transition against the lack of a nationally representative survey. That is why, it reviews the preparedness for e-education in the country based on the internationally legitimate surveys of PISA 2018, PIRLS 2018, TALIS 2018, and The Survey of Schools: ICT of Education of the European Commission. Some of its main observations highlight:
- The majority of Bulgarian pupils have access to a computer or a laptop and an Internet connection. However, schools do not provide such devices for individual work. Only 25% of primary school, 28% of secondary school and 36% of high school pupils study at a school, which provides the necessary number and quality of digital devices with the needed Internet connection.
- About 35% of Bulgarian schools have their own virtual learning environment. In 90% of those schools it is accessible outside the school. 15% of secondary school teachers say that they do not need further professional training on the use of ICT in their work, whereas 23% think they do need more training.
- Half of the parents support their children when they have to complete a task on the computer or online (they help every day or every week). At the same time, about one third of children use a computer or the Internet on their own with no control from their parents.
Although only presenting data from 2018, these observations emphasize some of the challenges which have accompanied the transition to distance education.
OVERVIEW OF E-LEARNING RESOURCES
Recognizing the need for accessible e-resources, in April the Ministry developed a National E-library for Teachers. This allowed for the preparation and exchange of e-materials and teaching aids, often developed by the teachers themselves.
With the new situation in the country, however, many specialized e-resource providers as The Khan Academy, Shkolo BG, Уча.се saw the chance to become daily resources for teachers, pupils and parents, which helped them build and self-assert a new online authority.
Faced with significantly increased attention, all e-learning providers used the momentum to reach out to new subscribers. To this purpose, many of the paid providers, for example, granted free access to their e-resources. They additionally designed and launched targeted communication campaigns to keep users engaged with their activities.
PROSVETA PUBLISHERS, for instance, assured full free access to all of its e-schoolbooks and video lessons for all obligatory school grades during the whole period of distance learning. It launched a daily campaign on its website and corporate Facebook Page „We study online with a teacher “. It consisted of live daily learning sessions moderated by a teacher. Finally, it shared its resources with the public television broadcaster to launch daily television lessons for selected grades. No matter that the television invited other e-learning publishers to also take part in the initiative, this project made Prosveta’s presence, accessibility and authority really important.
Another e-education publisher — KLETT — also followed the example of free resources. During the first week of the state of emergency, it reported over 140, 000 visitors to its new educational platform IZZI (see below). It further initiated: 1) an online library in support of pupils and parents; 2) an intensive series of webinars within a specially designed initiative “Support for the teacher working from home”, 3) it integrated its contents with Microsoft Teams, and 4) it opened a hotline in support of the teacher. Thus, over the first 20 days of the pandemic, the publisher promoted a special infographic showing more than 2, 000 users per minute.
Likewise, УЧА.СЕ, an educational platform with interactive video lessons and tests, entered the state of emergency with free fortnight access to all of its materials. This naturally increased its users, who were additionally taken care of with regular customer support, Facebook engagement and supplementary video projects. Although it faced criticism upon its free license expiry (as manifested in the Facebook comments of its page), it managed to overcome negatives with personalised customer service and additional video projects.
Finally, the local chapter of The KHAN ACADEMY reported that during the pandemic, its registered users doubled, whereas the time spent studying on the platform increased 4 times. Besides translating world learning resources into Bulgarian, the local team invested their efforts also into: facilitating platform access by localizing platform guidelines, integrating resources with other local educational platforms such as Schkolo.bg and the Centre for Educational Initiatives, launching a mastery competition for pupils (gamified), and introducing a series of free webinars to parents and teachers on topics of common educational interest on its Facebook page.
*Being a world learning resource, The Khan Academy’s educational content has presently been streamlined with the Bulgarian educational programme only for the subjects of mathematics and physics.
COMPARISON OF THE PROVIDERS’ COMMUNICATION MEASURES
As mentioned above, each of the presented e-resource providers looked for a distinctive way to build on the increased interest in their products. Thus, they further offered special communication initiatives to retain the attention and engagement of their supporters. The three key target groups of pupils, parents, and teachers were addressed on an equal par, as among these, teachers were given a special priority as a key promoter of e-resources. The most popular communication tool among all four providers appears to be the webinar, video and live e-lesson, often delivered in thematic series. Other examples of the utilised communication instruments may be found in Annex II.
Although the previous section outlines key communication steps taken by the four e-resource providers, we will now compare them by groups, and further look into their approach for maintaining their Facebook (FB) pages as a key personally owned communication channel. For this purpose, we have divided the providers into two groups — “the platforms’ group” represented by The Khan Academy and Уча.се, and ”the publishers’ group” represented by Prosveta and Klett.
An immediate look at the Facebook pages of the platforms’ group shows a regular posting calendar, consisting mostly of daily posts targeting teachers (in the case of The Khan Academy) and pupils (in the case of Уча.се). The posted content may be generally differentiated by the promotion of live webinars and video triggers (e.g. The Khan Academy), and interactive tasks (e.g. Уча.се). With respect to The Khan Academy, the focus fell on new initiatives, media interviews and webinar series, whereas concerning Уча.се, the pupils were engaged with video content, interactive tasks and queries.
On the other hand, the publishers’ groups laid their emphasis on the live daily lessons moderated by a teacher (e.g. Prosveta), or on support campaigns for the teacher working from home (e.g. Klett). Nevertheless, the two companies differed considerably from one another in terms of shared content volume, generated interest and overall page interaction. Here, the indisputable lead was taken by Prosveta.
Overall, Prosveta has been the most active brand in the social networks of all four companies with more than 400 posts published over the whole emergency period. It achieved the greatest level of audience interaction via commenting, sharing and viewing of live sessions. Its authority has been further strengthened by the sharing of daily television lessons of the national television broadcaster, and the thousands of live viewers it reached. The live presence of a teacher the company assured in its daily learning sessions made its posts widely likable, commented on and shared. Thus, it managed to gain new expert authority in the undergoing digital transformation.
When compared to the other three, Prosveta’s FB presence is second only with respect to the number of page followers. The top place here has been taken by Уча.се, whose followers have been almost four times more than those of Prosveta. What caused this fact however is a matter of another research.
Further details concerning the Facebook behavior, audience interaction and the main content types of the four entities may be found in Annex III.
The two charts below compare the basic Facebook page metrics of the four providers.
The state of emergency due to COVID-19 caused a real digital transformation of the whole education system by necessitating a shift to distance education. Despite the challenges of its beginnings, it had been run for over three months. Its introduction changed the authority of the various education stakeholders, and that of e-learning providers in particular.
Although all four considered entities reported serious increase in the number of their users, the lead was taken by Prosveta Publishers. Its prominence was strengthened by its close involvement with the expert community of teachers and its joint project with the national public television.
All e-resource providers granted either initial or full free access to their e-learning resources, with The Khan Academy taking pole position in this regard. Nevertheless, the best private providers Prosveta and Уча.се chose as a key target group of theirs the pupils, to whom they could target their e-lessons in a straightforward manner. As a general observation, all four entities established partnerships to increase their prominence, accessibility and authority.
Digital Communication Network begins the series of publications on Digital Challenges in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis.