Edward Gibbon, sailing off the coast of Albania in the 1790s, wrote of "a country within the sight of Italy which is less known than the interior of America". Two hundred years on, Gibbon's observation still holds true, despite the events of recent weeks having put Albania on the world's television screens. We may now know that Albania is the poorest country in Europe; Albanian jokes have perhaps been modified to include a reference to pyramid investment schemes. But that is about the extent of our awareness of the country.
Perhaps more than any other country, Albania has suffered from the distorted perceptions engendered by the Cold War. Majestic mountain scenery, an unspoilt coastline, and a rich history belie the image of coldness, desolation and secrecy that still colours western views. Albania's was the last of Europe's Stalinist regimes to fall, in 1991.
Enver Hoxha, an obsessive and brutal dictator, dominated the post-war period. Albania's leading literary figure, Ismail Kadare, captures the essence of Hoxha's regime vividly in his novel The Palace of Dreams. Exiled in Paris, Kadare wrote of the apparatchiks who decreed that even the dreams of the people had to be reported to a government ministry.
Albanian schools were inevitably entangled in the state bureaucracy, and as the regime crumbled in the student-led revolt of 1991-92, schools were targeted as symbols of the Hoxha era. The World Bank estimates that more than 60 per cent of schools were seriously vandalised or burned to the ground in the violence.
As one teacher explains: "Under the old system, students came into class, sat down and stayed still. The teacher took attendance, checked homework, and recited or read the day's lesson. No questions. No independent thinking. " Another comments: "The system was designed to make the student fear the teacher, the teacher fear the school director, the director fear the school inspector, and the inspector fear the ministry."
Reform is urgently required across the educational system, not just in schools and universities. Unfortunately, western aid donors do not appear to regard education as a priority.
The Open University team that first visited Albania in January 1995 (the OU has returned five times) found some of the worst teaching conditions in Europe. There are few books and little paper. There is no educational technology; indeed, in some schools slates are still being used. Buildings have fallen into disrepair. Many schools are without windows, let alone heating; sanitation is poor. But despite these conditions, almost 80 per cent of the population is literate, having completed at least four years of schooling, a remarkable achievement for such a poor country.
Albanians are proud of the varied traditions that have survived half a century of brutal oppression. Evidence of Greek, Roman and Ottoman culture is to be found at places such as Butrino in the south, with its magnificent Roman amphitheatre and fine mosaics, or in the tiny mosque at Kruja, perched high on a mountain wall, with breathtaking views across to the Skandenburg mountains and the Adriatic coast. And the Albanian language, Shqip, sole survivor of the Indo-European linguistic group, Thraco-Phryian, is probably the nearest we will ever get to ancient Illyrian.
Alongside these diverse cultural influences is a strong eastern European tradition which reveals itself in the Albanians' deep respect for teaching and educational achievement. On a visit to a class of 40 14 and 15-year-olds last December, we found the pupils huddled in old coats and anoraks in below-freezing temperatures, but discussing the relative merits of Racine and Shakespeare. And, despite the country's history of isolation, most of the hundreds of children we have met on our visits have been fluent in French or English.
But being cut off for so long has meant that educationists have been unable to keep abreast of developments in curriculum structure and teaching methods. As one professor of education told us: "We have both a need and a desire to change things in our profession. Our society is changing in many different directions. There are new requirements ahead of us." A colleague added: "A lot of work needs to be done; new steps are always difficult."
Staff from the OU are playing a leading role in the reconstruction of teacher education and training in Albania. "Project Kualida", funded by the Hungary-based Soros Foundation, one of the best organised of the non-governmental organisations working in Albania, aims to establish "open" and distance learning schemes for teacher education. (The acronym Kualida is made up of the Albanian for training - kualifikimi - distance - i distance - and teachers - arsimtareve - and is close in sound to the word for quality. ) We regard Project Kualida as the best solution for Albania for three main reasons: bricks-and-mortar institutions are unable to meet the demand for assistance with pre-service and career-long professional development; new technologies are in any case bringing about a convergence between open and conventional institutions; and in poor countries cost-effectiveness is all important.
Locally based teams, each working with an academic staff member from the OU's newly established Centre for Research in Teacher Education, produced resource packs to help develop primary classroom practice in the teaching of history, geography, English and French. These materials were transported by lorry to outlying rural communities and piloted in four areas: Elbasan, Shkod r, Tepelen , and the city of Gjirokast r (a Unesco heritage site) in the south of Albania, scene of some of the most violent unrest in recent weeks.
The Albanian television service filmed a linked series of programmes which were broadcast nationally. And classroom-based activities were overseen by local tutors, who had responsibility for clusters of schools.
At the end of the pilot phase in January 1996, teachers turned out in their hundreds in each regional centre to comment on Project Kualida. Enthusiasm for the programme was widespread. "Kualida has changed old concepts that were useless; it's the opening of a window that breaks the framework of the ex-regime," said a French teacher. "It is a programme for the future," added an English inspector involved in the programme. Others emphasised that it had changed relationships in the classroom and created a new atmosphere. One teacher said: "Communication between teacher and students has been improved. It is a good experience for us."
The project is being extended across the country this year, following a major launch conference in the capital, Tirana, last December. New development groups are extending the programme to other subjects, the teaching of Albanian, and the challenging theme of citizenship. The programme has also been extended to Albanian communities outside the national borders, including Kosovo in southern Serbia, where the Albanian community has been running an informal education system for most of the Nineties.
Kualida illustrates the need for international collaboration in promoting educational development, without losing local leadership. Sensitivity to culture and political context is vital.
Educational reform is high on the agenda of ordinary classroom teachers in Albania, and Kualida is an exciting phase in the early stages of such reform. The tragedy is that, just as it is becoming established, the country once again finds itself in the throes of civil unrest. One test of how much progress has been made will be whether schools once again become targets for the rebels.
The words of the contemporary Albanian writer, Natasho Lako, provide a perceptive analysis of the challenge facing Shquiperia (Albania). Shquiperia is derived from the word for eagle. Perhaps one day this eagle will be free, as Natasho suggests, to soar.
Bob Moon is the Open University's professor of education and director of its Centre for Research in Teacher Education. Jenny Leach is deputy director of the OU's PGCE programme