Youth Solutions at EXPO2017 Astana: OpenShkola Focuses on Innovation and Education


In July, SDSN Youth member OpenShkola participated in the education & innovation talk at EXPO2017 Astana where the Swiss Pavilion and UNOG’s Perception Change project brought together innovators who change the landscape of education for sustainable development.

At OpenShkola (Online School of Sustainable Development) we educate Russian speakers about sustainable development online. Several years ago our founder Nelya Rakhimova realized that a lot of knowledge on sustainable development is missing in the Russian-speaking world. She travelled a lot and had seen transformative sustainable development practices taking place in Europe and the USA, so she felt the urge to tell the Russian-speaking audience about it by creating an online course. Since then we have run a major free online course on sustainable development three times, hosted dozens of webinars, participated to numerous international events and grew into a team of enthusiastic and extremely committed volunteers from all corners of Russia and beyond.

Thanks to support from SDSN Youth, this July we were invited to participate at the “Human Books” event and in the Education & Innovation talk at the EXPO2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, hosted by the Swiss Pavilion and the UN Perception Change Project. The EXPO focused on the theme of future energy and it was exciting to see so many innovative technologies showcased at more than 100 country pavilions. The events were held in one of the spaces at the Swiss Pavilion where children could learn more about Sustainable Development Goals and win the “Fairy Tales for a Fairer World” book, recently published by the Perception Change Project.

The first event, “Human Books”, focused on the stories of innovators who tackle various challenges in education for sustainable development. It was very touching to hear the personal story of Isaac Mustopulo, a 15-year old student from Kazakhstan with cerebral palsy and his efforts in advocating inclusive education. Sadly, inclusive education is not yet a reality in Kazakhstan and many other countries, but Isaac is very positive and I am sure his success in getting accepted to a university there will inspire children, their parents and also the government of Kazakhstan to act and redefine the ways we educate school kids.

My story at the “Human books” was about OpenShkola founders and how we created our first online courses. I emphasized the fact that all of our founding team members felt that it was our duty to do something about education on sustainable development for Russian speakers as we felt that this kind of opportunity was missing at the time in the Russia. The event attracted a lot of locals and especially local journalists who are very well aware of the sustainable development agenda, so our discussion quickly shifted to talking politics.

I have never been to Kazakhstan before. After talking with locals at the event I was surprised to realise that, apart from the same language, Russia and Kazakhstan also share the same frustrations. For instance, there, too, education on sustainable development at schools is almost non-existent. We at OpenShkola try to offer an opportunity to learn more about sustainable development for anyone who has access to the Internet and our main audiences are youth, educators and NGOs. However, we are really concerned about shifting the issue of compulsory education on sustainable development at schools to the national policy level, and so are Kazakhs.

It is not so clear for NGOs like ours, however, how to encourage politicians to pay attention to education for and about sustainable development and restructure educational programmes and strategies. Some of the attendees suggested that one of the ways could be introducing sustainable development as a separate subject at schools. Our conversation ended up as quite frustrating but it helped me realize that many countries are facing the same problems. Since there are people interested in making things better, this it offers us a fantastic opportunity to collaborate and share experiences.

The Education & Innovation talk was held in the form of panel discussion with the local representatives of UNICEF and ISO who spoke about tech innovations for education and developing smart city standards (by the way, Astana is a very interesting example of a newly built smart city). The message of my presentation was that in the modern reality everyone must be educated on sustainable development. The attendees from abroad were really excited to hear the story of OpenShkola and praised our enthusiasm and the fact that we do so much on a purely voluntary basis. However, let’s be frank - finding really committed and responsible volunteers is challenging, and so is getting funding, especially for NGOs in Russia which were lately affected by a new law that makes it really difficult to receive funding from abroad.

I also talked about why what we are doing is challenging in the Russian context. There is lack of information on sustainable development from an international perspective (partly due to the language barrier); teaching on sustainable development occurs within university programmes in ecology, for example, but it is largely outdated and misleading. Initiatives like UNESCO’s ESD or other UN initiatives are not recognized. Successful sustainable practices are either non-existent or not showcased. Worst of all, part of the scientific community still call sustainable development a “western agenda”.

Despite the challenges of volunteer work and the specificities of the Russian understanding of “sustainable development”, we are really excited to expand, ride the international wave of  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as those promoted by the SDG Academy, and create new online courses on different SDG themes. Recently we have started collaborating with Russian environmental NGOs that have great access to active locals in the regions, which is really important for an immense country like ours. Our big dream is that in a decade teaching on sustainable development will become a compulsory part of the curriculum on the national scale. However, this does not distract us from taking small opportunities - talking to youth, hosting lectures on SDGs at schools, creating online courses - because we believe that these are small steps towards raising awareness on sustainable development among interested people, defining our niche as an NGO and a team of educators, and finding a great leverage point to the education system which will later allow us to start changing it for good.