Ulaanbaatar, 2004 © Tony Bates 2011


During July and August, 2004, the World Bank, in cooperation with Mongolia’s Ministry of Science, Technology, Education and Culture, sent a mission to Mongolia to explore the potential of low-cost rural distance learning (RDL). I was a member of the four-person team, headed By Robert McGough, a World Bank consultant.


Mongolia is a landlocked country in East Central Asia. It is bordered by Russia to the north and the People’s Republic of China to the south, east and west.

Mongolia’s current political system is a parliamentary republic.

The Mongol Empire was founded by Ghengis Khan in 1206 and at one time was larger than the Roman Empire at its height. Mongolia came under Chinese control in the 17th century, became independent in 1919, then became a  satellite of the Soviet Union between 1924 and 1990.

It is the 19th largest and the most sparsely populated independent country in the world, with a population of around 2.9 million people (less than the population of British Columbia).


Mongolian steppes © Tony Bates 2011

World Bank Rural Distance Learning Tool Kit

Prior to the visit to Mongolia, I had worked with same World Bank team to develop a rural distance learning (RDL) kit featuring low-cost, appropriate technologies and approaches, funded jointly by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the World Bank.

The purpose of the project was ‘to develop a process to identify, design, plan, and implement low-cost, appropriate technologies and approaches to rural distance learning in developing nations.’ There was heavy emphasis on low-cost, sustainable technology. It included sections on selecting appropriate pedagogy and technology, planning for electrical energy requirements, cost-benefit analysis, monitoring and evaluation. (The World Bank has developed many similar kits in other areas, such as business development, etc.). The target audience was government officials in least economically developed countries.

Three weeks in Mongolia

There were two main reasons for the visit:

  • to run a four day workshop for Mongolian participants from central and local government and teachers, based on the RDL toolkit (similar workshops were also organized in Thailand and Vietnam, on the same trip).
  • to use the workshop and meetings in both Ulaanbaatar and visits to rural areas to develop a proposal for a low-cost rural distance learning project.
The workshop


We spent the first week in Ulaanbaatar, mainly taken up with working with Mongolian counterparts to organize the workshop and meeting with Ministry staff and representatives from other related areas, such as the national phone company which at that time was the main Internet provider.



Nomadic herder and family


The second week we spent on the road, visiting a local non-formal education centre in a remote aimag (province), a local high school and a nomadic herder and his family and friends in their ger (yurt) (where incidentally, for the first and only time, I ate roast marmot. The hairs were removed with a blowtorch. It’s not a meat I would normally recommend. Fortunately it came with plenty of excellent vodka to wash it down.)

Roasted marmot

The third week we ran the workshop, in a teachers’ retreat about two hours drive from Ulaanbaatar. The workshop was used to test the toolkit and to develop ideas for a national rural distance learning project.

Teachers’ centre where the workshop was held

The proposed project

The context in 2004

First of all, Mongolia is not Afghanistan. It has a fairly high participation rate of around 90% in school (k-10) education up to age 16. The Soviets ensured universal access to education and most Mongolians have a good level of literacy and numeracy.

There was also a legacy of a strong network of non-formal education centres throughout the country developed by the National Center for Non-formal and Distance Education (NCNFDE) under the Ministry of Science, Technology, Education and Culture.

However, there were no Internet services outside the capital Ulaanbaatar, and even within the capital, Internet service was very limited. The Ministry had no technical capacity for media production, and the national telecom company did not anticipate rapid expansion of the Internet over the next few years (a mistake, as we shall see).

There had been two quite large non-formal rural distance education projects  previously. The Gobi Women’s Project (GWP), which ran from 1992 to 1996 in six aimags, was the first significant initiative of this kind, and reached over 16,000 women.

The Learning for Life (LfL) Project, an from February 1997 to the end of 2001.  It was the successor to GWP, and it took many elements of that project and built a network of NFE Learning Centers (“Enlightenment Centers”) throughout the entire country. More than 40,000 families were reached. Both these projects depended mainly on a combination of centrally produced print packages and visiting teachers who worked with ‘core’ families (often the head of the clan) who then supported other linked families.

The Improving the Outlook for Adolescent Girls (and Boys) in Mongolia Project (“the Adolescents Project”), which utilized the NFE structure put in place by LfL, focused on sex education, the rights of the child, career counseling and life skills, involving nearly 14,000 “direct” and 47,000 “indirect” learners between 2001 and 2004.

Mother and family

The Canadian IDRC project “Internet based Distance Education Project‘ initiated selected Mongolian institutions into the processes of research, development and experimentation with web-based instruction methods and technologies for distance education. This ran between 2001-2002, but was focused mainly on institutions in the capital, as there was no Internet outside Ulaanbaator at the time.

A more detailed description of Mongolian distance education projects up to 2007 can be found in Amarsaikan et al, 2007.

The proposal to the World Bank

The aim was to build on the NCNFDE’s network of ‘Enlightenment Centers’ to deliver rural non-formal distance education programs to remote regions of Mongolia. In particular, projects would be designed to provide non-formal education and training services to the following target groups (in order of priority):

  • herdsmen and their families
  • farmers and other agricultural workers¬ and their families in remote rural areas
  • out-of-school children in remote rural areas
  • students and teachers in remote rural schools requiring specialist provision
  • specialist support staff (e.g., agricultural extension workers, health workers, non-formal education coordinators) in remote rural areas

The project recommended the following technologies be used for this project:

  • print (used in conjunction with other technologies at all levels);
  • CD players for nomadic families;
  • computers with DVD drives for use in villages/local centres;
  • community radio as an experiment in one aimag
  • Internet for communication between the National Centre for Non-Formal and Distance Education (NCNFDE) and participating aimags.

Delivery of materials would be through rural health staff, who travelled regularly to more remote areas, and ‘core’ families. The project did not recommend the use of the Internet because although the Internet would eventually reach into most parts of Mongolia, at the time, the only connection to the outside world (out from Mongolia to other countries) for the Internet was by satellite, resulting in high user charges and limited capacity.  Where schools could already connect to the Internet (almost entirely in urban areas), Internet charges were very high (between US$80-150 a month for a single dial line connection), and the connection fee and equipment costs (where not provided by donors) were the responsibility of the connected school, which in most cases has no budget allocation for this purpose.

However, the project proposal recommended that all materials should be developed digitally so that later they could be distributed over the Internet. It also recommended the establishment of a high quality central media production centre at NCNFDE, and low cost media production centres at the aimag level, with the aimags developing or adapting distance education materials for local needs.

A copy of the project proposal can be downloaded from here

What happened

Basically, nothing. For the project to go ahead, two things were necessary. The Mongolian Ministry had to approve the project; and donors (either the World Bank or other agencies) had to put up at least the capital costs of the project. Although the project was deliberately designed to be low cost, the operating costs would be approximately $2 million a year, although many other projects, or different projects, could use the infrastructure once established. As far as I can tell, no donors have come forward for this project. Non-formal rural education was not in reality a national priority in 2004.

However, ICT projects have been developed in other areas of education, all of them very low scale and not targeted at rural areas. According to  Amarsaikhan et el. (2007), a national distance education centre has been opened using radio and video, and has developed post-graduate English courses. A Japanese and Asian Development Bank project put computers in 36 ‘poor’ schools, and the Mongolian National University has delivered some DE courses using educational television, but only in the capital region. Ramos and Triñona (2009) report on a small project using SMS on mobile phones combined with print for non-formal distance education funded by Canada’s IDRC.

The RDC toolkit was used for workshops in Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia and Sri Lanka, but does not seem to be available any more. A similar kit though has been developed for sub-Saharan Africa (Moon, Leach and Stevens, 2005).

The situation today

Although focusing mainly on ICT developments, Canada’s IDRC web site on Mongolia provides a good update on the current situation up to 2009. In particular:

Many Information and Communication Technology (ICT) developments have taken place in Mongolia since 2006. The fibre optic cable backbone has been extended by more than 4,000 kilometres and the overall international bandwidth has more than doubled. Various types of ICT services are now available and service providers compete not only in network coverage, but also in service delivery. The number of mobile subscribers is over 1.1 million, representing an increase of over 35 percent from the number of subscribers in 2006. Mobile content development is one of the fastest growing services and it is contributing to the expansion of the country’s ICT industry. Also, with the development of the ICT infrastructure, there is greater emphasis on ICT education at the secondary, vocational and tertiary levels.

However, there is a lack of policy to support effective use of ICT in education and to integrate ICT in teaching and learning.

Thus distance education for the vast areas of Mongolia that are not urbanized still remains undeveloped. This is a great pity. We were impressed with the quality of the Mongolians we worked with, many were really keen and interested to develop distance education programs, there was clearly demand for distance education from the rural people we talked to, and it would not require a great deal of investment now to produce great benefits through distance education, especially for rural adults.

Once again, timing is critical. The infrastructure was not in place for online learning in 2004. Now, in 2011, the mobile and land Internet infrastructure is at the point where major developments are possible. What is lacking are policies from the Mongolian government that will make rural distance education a priority, and turning this priority into a plan. I am confident that if this can be done, the money from donors will follow.

Mongolian horseman


Amarsaikhan D. et al. (2007) Online medical diagnosis and training in rural Mongolia Distance Education, Vol. 28, No. 2

Amarsaikhan D., Oyun S., & Zhang, W. (2009) ‘Distance education policy and practice in Mongolia’ in Baggaley, J. & Belawati, T. (Eds.), Distance education technology in Asia. New Delhi: Sage India

American Center for Mongolian Studies Non-formal distance education Mongol Studies Online Reference

Canadian IDRC Internet-based distance education project

Moon, B., Leach, J. and Stevens, M-P. (2005) Designing open and distance learning for teacher education in sub-Saharan Africa Washington DC: World Bank

Ramos, A.J., & Triñona, J. (2009) ‘Mobile technology in nonformal distance education’ in Baggaley, J. & Belawati, T. (Eds.), Distance education technology in Asia. New Delhi: Sage India

Robinson, C. and Otgonbayar, C. (2003) Non-Formal Distance Education in Mongolia: An Evaluation of its Impact, Ulaanbaatar: UNESCO, June/July



  1. Interestingly, an award-winning children and young adult author, Laurie Halse Anderson, just tweeted this week that she’s all set to Skype with students in Mongolia in a few weeks. I think that could be a good sign.

  2. Distance learning is not really a priority in Mongolia. We have all schools in place where children attendance is very high. What we need is to build more school facilities in Ulaanbaatar and Darkhan and Erdenet cities where population density is occuring. We need to direct donor fund to build school buildings and printing of textbooks.
    We had UNESCO distance learning project which were not very efficient. It was just waste of money…

  3. To the Mongolian man above,

    Distance learning is a priority, statistics show that since the early 1990’s number of school aged children in rural areas have dramatically decreased and although this number is stabilised in the last ten years it has not improved. This number applies to not only school aged children but also to adult learners. Also in comparison to urban schools, those in rural areas still suffer from resource deficiency and curriculum irrelevancy.

    I agree that we have many herders migrating to populated areas, increasing the demand for new schools/ colleges/ vocational training centres. An equal access to education calls for nationwide approach, not an immediate fix.

  4. You state: “Distance learning is a priority”: Could you please provide market research proof that when asked and provided the choice that rural people will prefer to have their children isolated from society and from equitable access to formal education. I do not believe this is true. We Mongols place the HIGHEST priority on educating our children.

    World Bank and other donors are playing with our children’s lives and reinforcing a government policy of under-educated new generation so that labour costs are kept low for the “mining boom” and construction and garment industry which wants not well educated people but low labour cost people. Remember: The government leaders are the owners of these companies.

    The PRIORITY is well functioning schools.

    • I am agree with Mongolian Woman. It’s true that International Organizations are focusing more on unrealistic approach which would lead to “under-educated generation” or low labor cost for the mining boom. So we have to be very careful with the education policy.

  5. Hello, It is very sad that project didn’t go well in Mongolia. Distance learning is very demanding in Mongolian infrastructure. It is true that people are moving from country side to cities. Main reason is they’re afraid of their children’s education, also those herders are not educated enough to work in any areas of business (they usually works for construction in the city). BTW thanks for good projects, I am from Mongolia.


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