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Lessons from the Gobi Desert

Nigel Russell

With the Gobi Desert men off to the army, or into the cities looking for jobs, or killed while attempting to ride through blinding dust storms, or having left their families for alternative pastures, the women of the Gobi Desert and their families are finding that they need support in learning the basic agricultural and economic techniques required for survival in this post-centralist era. A UNESCO mission to Mongolia late last year identified that broadcast radio could provide support and practical advice to the nomadic families of the desert. Radio would also provide a means for the families to share their concerns and to rebuild their collective skills. A basic technology providing education and support in a harsh environment. In this learning environment with weather conditions that may vary from 30 C degrees above to 30 C degrees below in one day, and with facilities which are primitive to say the least, ingenuity would be key to the success of the mission. Nigel Russell was selected by UNESCO in Paris to take on the project. In a collaboration between Australia and Norway, Nigel's role was to develop radio programs with Mongolian teachers in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and train them in using radio for distance education. At LETA Nigel will have just returned from a second mission to Mongolia and will report on the strategies that he took to stay alive in this remote country, and the results of his work with the Gobi Desert nomadic families.

1. Introduction

In a project sponsored by Denmark, UNESCO is coordinating a 3 year distance education program targeted at the nomadic women of the Gobi desert, Mongolia.

As part of this project it was my task (and that of one other international expert) to undertake a mission to Mongolia. In cooperation with the resident Project Coordinator and the national authorities and experts, the aim of my work was:

Map: Location of Mongolia

Mongolia is land bound, lies above China, below Siberia, and is due west of Japan. It often is used as a metaphor for "the end of the earth". 700 years ago the Mongol empire covered most of China and Russia. Today the border stretches only 3,000 km across and 1,000 north to south. Mongolia would fit several times into Australia. For the past 60 years Mongolia has been run by the centralist Russian Government. In the past 4 years Mongolians have commenced their challenging task of reclaiming their own identity, and learning how to run and develop their country on a market rather than a centralist economy.

Today, 2 million people live in the independent, democratically governed country of Mongolia. The population in Mongolia is 2 million. Outside its borders, in northern China live about 3.5 million Mongolians, and in Russia live about half a million Mongolians. These external regions are often referred to as inner Mongolia. Some Mongolian nationalists would like to return to the Genghis Khan days and capture lost territory from the Russians and Chinese. This is not a priority though, or a practical solution for this country.

The fascination about Mongolia often centres around the Gobi. This desert region forms about 50% of the country, The nomadic population of the Gobi live in tent like structures called gers, are independent, move their ger and their family and herds several times a year and spend most of their time working for their subsistence. The nomadic families have no phone or two way radio. They rarely go to the local township, and are only occasionally visited by health workers, vets or their local district representative. Most of the families have a short wave radio.

It is a life increasingly being "enjoyed" by city dwellers who are moving away from the towns to a nomadic existence.

The nomadic families put most of their efforts into basic survival and have little opportunity to change and improve their life. There is real isolation, and education is a fragile commodity. The development of distance education programs specially designed for these isolated families will provide them with relevant educational opportunities, help reduce their sense of isolation and support them to improve their living conditions and participate in the new market economy.

List of abbreviations
Aimag    Province -similar to a State
Bag(Rural) sub-district. The smallest administrative unit of the province.
GerNomads' moveable home; a circular tent, made from felt and canvas, with an easily dismountable internal wooden frame.
SomonA large Council district

2. Activities

2.1 Distance Education Seminar

In collaboration with the half dozen National and Provincial Coordinating Committees, seminars and workshops on Distance Education were planned and carried out between 22 March and 2 May 1994. The main purpose of the seminar was to establish a common understanding of the basic elements of distance education and create awareness of methodological and pedagogical considerations. The seminar was planned as a combination of lectures and discussions. The seminar was lead by two international experts Mr S. Waast (print specialist from Denmark) and Mr N. Russell (radio specialist from Australia). Free and open discussion was encouraged as a means of articulating and confirming and refining points which were made during presentations. Such discussions also started the process whereby the international experts could help prepare uniquely Mongolian distance education methodologies.

The participants in these seminars and workshops included representatives from the six Gobi provinces (Aimags) involved in the project, the Ministry of Science and Education, the Mongol Script Centre, the Institute of Curriculum Development and Methodology (ICDM), Mongolian Radio and Television (MRTV) and academics from the Universities. The participants also included the people who would form the core materials development teams and the trainers and administrators of future distance education programs.

The seminars and workshops took the opportunity to develop and review a detailed plan for the 6 month pilot distance education program for 1,500 Gobi Women (January -June 1995). The main seminar was especially designed to be the starting point for a subsequent 3 weeks of workshops.

An overview of the Gobi Women Project was provided. Also presented were the results of questionnaire surveys which identified main topics for the pilot project and basic conditions of the Gobi women and their families.

The seminar participants also heard from the Aimag representatives who reviewed their special needs and conditions for each of their provinces. Group awareness was achieved by discussing conceptions of distance education with the group and giving international examples of distance education.

2.2 Workshops

The 15 days of workshops added to the seminar the practical experience of designing and developing some actual samples of distance education materials. The workshops provided a balance between theoretical and practical exercises, and supported the continuing process of defining distance education in the Mongolian context.

The workshops also:

It was very important that the development of a model of distance education in Mongolia was not just a blind adoption of foreign models and experience - however attractive they might be. Local resources and methods needed to be developed according to local needs and aspirations.

Setting up a distance education program in Mongolia was not only a question of showing a number of alternative opportunities, but more importantly to change the basic ways that the individual media producer actually produces the materials, and views their target audience. It was a difficult process for the participants to see that they themselves could take responsibility to define the content of the materials being developed.

Workshops week 1

The participants were divided into two groups -radio group and print group. For the first half of this week, the two groups stayed together, continuing the discussions from the seminar, but now with a focus on the practicalities of actually putting together the pilot distance education program. In particular the two groups recognised how print, radio and face to face activities must be integrated and coordinated.

The discussions centred on how to structure the individual media (print, radio and face to face meetings) and how to plan for the pilot project The workshops were presented through as a number of open exercises, lead by the two international experts and the involved participation of the two groups

At the end of the week the two groups split up to concentrate on the chosen sample topic of "Processing of sheep skin and its relevance to price". Each group developed the educational outcome and the outline for their sample distance education program.

During this time the groups assisted in the development of guidelines and production schedules for the making of distance education materials.

Workshops week 2

The radio group went to the South Gobi to participate in radio workshops, record interviews and visit single Gobi women and their families.

The print group started the actual design and production of a booklet. Issues were discussed including editorial structure, integration of subject matter experts, collaboration with graphic designers, and production planning. It was reinforced that a clear pedagogical structure must be placed on printed material used in distance education.

Workshops week 3

With the radio group back from the South Gobi a sub-editorial group was formed to discuss and adjust the interaction between the radio material and the printed material. A radio program was recorded in the MRTV studio, and a booklet was produced in the Nomin printing house. This sample distance education educational package has been used as a demonstration of distance education for other administrators and educational methodologists.

2.3 Visits to the Gobi Region

During the mission time was spent in the Gobi Desert.

Visit One - Central Gobi

The first visit to the Gobi was made by the "official party". That is by the international experts, and the two key ministry men, plus translators and the project's Mongolian national coordinator. The UNESCO project coordinator was unable to go because of illness.

The principal aims of the visit were:

Due to a very well planned itinerary, the participants extended their understanding of the special problems in relation to distance education. The group visited and spoke with about a dozen nomadic families, spoke at a dozen district and sub district official functions, rode camels and Gobi horses, and gave about 100 vodka toasts to the success of the project and other good causes.

The mission identified a number of issues for the future planning and implementation of the pilot project. In particular:

Visit Two - South Gobi

This visit to South Gobi, half way through the workshops, was made by 8 members of the radio group. (The print group remained in Ulaanbaatar to continue the development of their print materials). It wasn't until the second Gobi trip that the busy life of the single Gobi woman was fully appreciated. The aims of this second trip were:

The aims were achieved. An adventurous live to air educational program, with listener phone in was broadcast with the local radio group. Prior to the broadcast, the MRTV technician spent over 6 hours making repairs on the local station equipment, while the international radio expert worked with the local radio group on programming formats and educational broadcasting techniques.

Several Gobi families were visited, and an extensive interview recorded with a single Gobi women. A dozen other interviews were recorded for the distance education sample and for broadcast on Ulaanbaatar radio. Two meetings were held at the transmitter establishment to discuss the transmission problems, and options to resolve these problems. Support for the Gobi Women project was consistently positive despite the technological challenges and expense. A visit was made to the Aimag printing house to inspect the facilities and collect examples of past productions. These examples were later given to the international print expert.

2.4 Discussions on radio station equipment and radio training

Visits made to MRTV in Ulaanbaatar and a regional radio station assessed the strengths and weakness of these stations to make distance education programs and broadcasts. Discussions were also held with producers and technicians from other regions - in particular Gobi Altai and East Gobi.

The discussions lead to suggestions for upgrading of equipment, and the need for further training for MRTV and regional radio personnel. These suggestions were provided to the Chief Technical Adviser (CTA) and plans put in place to provide some equipment and training before the end of 1994

2.5 Discussions on solar radio

One of the problems for the Gobi family has been identified as the lack of batteries for their radios. This is being addressed in the immediate term by some Aimags offering to supply batteries, and the commencement of a battery manufacturer in Ulaanbaatar. An alternative to batteries is solar powered radios. The radio consultant, with the MRTV technician, drew up some technical and functional specifications for locally produced solar powered radios. These specifications were provided to the Chief Technical Adviser. A meeting was held with the Mongolian Technical University to assess their progress in developing a locally designed solar radio. They were well underway with efforts to source partners for this initiative

3. The main challenges

3.1 Developing the Mongolian distance education methodologies and practices

The consultants brought into the discussions several international distance education methodologies and practices. This international perspective provided a basis for developing the practices which would be appropriate to commence distance education in Mongolia. At the end of this mission, many aspects of the international models were found to be relevant to Mongolia. The Gobi Women Project will provide raw experience to find what works well and what needs to be refined.

The evaluation of the Gobi Women Project will provide a basis for the development of other distance education projects in Mongolia. Other distance education opportunities include support for school drop outs, in service training and continuing education for teachers and other professionals, schools broadcasting and formal and non-formal adult education.

In order to support such ventures and build up a national capacity, Mongolians will need to gain experience and education through intensive courses, training abroad, and through participating in distance education programs with international experts.

There will need to be coordination for these capacity building activities. We support the setting up of a Monitoring, Promotion and Planning (MPP) unit within the Ministry of Science and Education. The MPP unit should also take the responsibility to identify opportunities, needs and resources and gain experience and initiate future training activities.

3.2 Overcoming technical constraints

Radio station equipment.

When the Aimag studio broadcasts programs to the Province, there is often distorted sound This appears to be because of the poor quality of the equipment in the Aimag studio, and the lack of adequate technical training of the station personnel Equipment and training is being addressed by the Project.

Lack of receiver batteries.

While there are radios in most nomadic gers, many are not working because of lack of batteries, and broken ariels. The use of solar electricity, and the provision of locally produced inexpensive batteries (and new radios) will help this problem.

Radio transmission and reception problems.

The poor quality sound coming from the radios in the gers is not conducive to good learning. The causes for the poor quality come from:

3.3 Identifying relevant Mongolian expertise

Expertise in print.

The mission had only limited opportunities to investigate the national printing capacity. Printed materials are generated for daily consumption (daily newspapers) as well as book and booklets for schools, and other organisations. But on a number of occasions the Mission nevertheless identified basic problems. Such problems covered not only the poor technical quality of the old printing machines, but also the whole production process, the cooperation between the manuscript writer, the graphic designer and the printing house, the reprographic production, the paper quality and binding.

The Mission observed the following areas of intervention:

The foreign agencies should take into consideration how they can support the build up of more modern production facilities in the public and/ or private sector. The need for sufficient and adequate printed material will continue to increase.

Expertise in radio

Mongolia has a well established radio network, nevertheless the expertise required to produce the necessary quality for a rigorous distance education campaign, was difficult to find.

The MRTV establishment in Ulaanbaatar appeared to be producing radio programs of a high technical quality. Studio equipment was old but still generally functioning. Portable cassette recorders for voice were in poor condition.

The MRTV technician who joined the mission to South Gobi was able to undertake some repairs, but required spare parts and special servicing equipment to complete the repairs. The Aimag technician was not trained to carry out such repairs. The technicians also did not know the full capabilities of the old studio mixing console. A retired engineer from the community may have been more familiar.

Expertise in radio program production appeared to be based on a philosophy of pre-recording all programs. There appeared to be little expertise in producing programs which went live to air. (Live to air programs can be very cost effective ways of providing learner support, information and an encouragement for active learning which is often difficult in pre-recorded and highly produced programs).

Non formal distance education in Mongolia is likely to need considerable radio support, with a high proportion of the education and information coming via live magazine style programs. That is, programs which contain mostly live interviews, and which cover topical issues.

Expertise in relevant educational methodologies.

In each of the state centres there has been a Methodology Centre. The people who work there are teachers and educators whose job is to develop learning materials for all organisations in the state, including schools and community groups.

These methodologists were practitioners, and are expected to provide a base core of educational expertise for the design and implementation of distance education activities at the state level. The Methodology Centres are being renamed Education Centres.

Two major institutions will play a significant role in the building up of expertise: The Institute of Curriculum Development and Methodology (Pedagogical University) and the Department of Educational Development in the Ministry of Science and Education.

The decentralisation of the educational system should also provide regional authorities and teachers with opportunities to develop new methodologies based on their particular needs and available resources. Support from MOSE to facilitate this regional development is important.

Expertise in distribution of materials (print).

The distribution of printed material to the regions is particularly difficult in Mongolia because of the often rough terrain, the lack of sealed roads and the lack of sufficient suitable vehicles, and the wide disbursement of the nomadic families.

Distribution of distance education print materials must be planned well ahead in order to minimise any delays in delivery, with an estimated 1-2 months being allowed to deliver print to the target Gobi Aimags and Somons.

Expertise in distribution of materials (radio).

The distribution of radio to the regions is more reliable than print. To provide the best listening conditions for the target audience, the distance education radio programs will require careful scheduling and monitoring. Most of the programs will originate in the MRTV studios in Ulaanbaatar. Some of the programs will be distributed and broadcast ONLY to the regions - with Ulaanbaatar listeners hearing their own local program.

There will need to be a building up of experience in the planning and switching for the two networks, and the scheduling for local Aimag stations to break into the Ulaanbaatar broadcasts for their own programs.

MRTV have the expertise to carry out accurate signal surveys to see exactly how well the signals are being received by the target audience, and which frequency is best for each Gobi family.

Expertise in face to face meetings.

The districts arrange many face to face events and meetings, and in some cases they bring together nomadic people for training and exchange of news and ideas. In distance education the face to face meetings are a very special opportunity to provide support for the isolated learner.

Expertise in face to face meetings is currently being developed by the special training of Aimag and Somon family "visitors". These people (health workers, veterinarians, teachers, bag leaders, etc) will be able to provide support to the nomad distance learners, and gather information from these learners. The Somons and Bags and Aimags also organise occasional gatherings and activities which could be planned to include special support for learners.

The mission did not look into this face to face area as a special task although the issues were discussed. These face to face encounters though will be an integral and necessary part of the distance education program, and will need to be coordinated and planned and integrated into the overall design of the print and radio programs.

Expertise in the organisation of distance education programs

The design, development, delivery and the maintenance of learner contact in a distance education program are all new activities for the Mongolians. Some sub-elements (eg. recording of an interview for a radio program) are known.

It is the understanding of the whole, and the interrelatedness of each of the elements which is totally new. It is for this reason that so much time was spent in the workshops going through how distance education programs are organised.

There are presently several distance education initiatives being planned in Mongolia. The major problem at this stage is that there is no-one who is trained to undertake coordination and organisation to support a variety of distance education programs.

It is the clear to the mission that there is a significant need for a unit which can support and assist the range of distance education programs in Mongolia. At the final meeting with MOSE, the mission had the opportunity to discuss the suggestion that a Monitoring, Promotion and Planning Unit be established. The Unit would be based in MOSE, but work closely with Government educational organisations and MRTV.

The mission supported this initiative and sees it as an important instrument in the development of a distance education system in Mongolia.

4. Conclusion

After 6 weeks in Mongolia the mission achieved: I was proud to be part of the Mongolian entry into distance education, and was pleased with the high level of support and planning that went into this, the first of my missions to outer Mongolia.


Aabenhaus, O. & Kenworthy, B. (1993). Development of Distance Education for "Education for all" Needs Assessment Study Mongolia 1993. UNDP/UNESCO.

Castro, A. (1993). Distance Education in Mongolia. Report to AIDAB.

Bond, D. Non-Formal Education to meet Basic Learning Needs of Nomadic Women in the Mongolian Gobi. A Preliminary needs Assessment study. UNESCO/Danida.

Author: Nigel Russell, 59 Wallalong Crescent, West Pymble NSW 2073, Telephone: (02) 498 6648 Facsimile: (02) 498 1786

Please cite as: Russell, N. (1994). Lessons from the Gobi Desert. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 275-281. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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