Returning to the Classroom: How ICEF Handled the Challenges of Online Learning and What Has Changed
On March 29, HSE is fully transitioning to in-person instruction. However, since March 1 some departments, including ICEF, have been conducting seminars on campus while holding lecture courses online. Oleg Zamkov, Academic Supervisor of the ICEF Bachelor’s programme, spoke about how ICEF survived the rapid transition to online exams, what LSE professors have to say about the effectiveness of the online exams, and what digital innovations that were implemented during the remote period will be used moving forward.
Why We Are Returning Earlier
Throughout this year at ICEF, we conducted student surveys and questionnaires, consulted with the student council, and collected valuable feedback, which we used in order to make adjustments to the educational process and make it as convenient as possible. Students assessed the disadvantages as well as the advantages of remote learning. Student feedback served as the basis for measures we implemented to improve the quality and efficiency of conducting classes and exams online.
This week ICEF started conducting seminar courses for first-year and second-year students not remotely but on campus. We are doing this primarily to provide an environment for our students in which to develop their social skills. An important issue in teaching at the first- and second-year levels is the development of critical thinking and their worldview. This happens, as a rule, in the format of personal communication, teamwork, and direct social interaction. At the beginning of a student’s university education, the development of personal qualities lays the foundation for the development of flexible skills in the future. For example, in the third and fourth years of study, students are more organized, they have had sufficient experience with communicating in different formats and, judging by the surveys, they can cope with learning online without detriment to their social skills. For them, we are extending remote learning until the campus-wide return to in-person learning.
Why are seminars in particular held in person? In our opinion, it is the seminars that are important to conduct in person to help students further develop their communication skills. This is confirmed by the student surveys we conducted. Students said that seminars are really more convenient to attend in person. While classes are held two days a week for each of the newer cohorts, we left the remaining days for online lectures, since our survey results showed that holding lectures online was most effective.
The spring session exams will be administered in person. However, some students will still take them online. These are international students from countries with which flights have not yet been resumed, as well as students in quarantine. Despite having to study remotely, many of them are doing a wonderful job in the programme and performing brilliantly on the exams, which are administered online with proctoring.
Takeaways from Remote Learning
Although the transition to online instruction was extreme, in December 2020 ICEF became the only HSE division that managed to fully organize proctored online final exams in December without any troubles.
Together with the LSE, we analyzed student performance in the exam session in detail and came to the conclusion that moving the educational process online did not cause stress for ICEF
The LSE professors of the International Academic Council, which met in February 2021, lauded the organization of our online exam session. Everyone involved in the educational process, despite the extremely short timeframe in which everything had to be moved online, handled the challenges successfully, as evidenced by the performance assessments of the autumn and winter sessions of 2020.
For example, first-year ICEF undergraduate students took six exams administered with Examus asynchronous proctoring. These included an international exam with the participation of an external examiner for the course ‘Macroeconomics’, since it is designed for one semester. The students performed at levels comparable to previous years. In general, the average scores earned corresponded to those of 2018 and 2019. As for high grades, their number slightly decreased for all courses, but the share of low grades also decreased for most courses.
Interestingly, in October 2020, exams were held in person, while students who were in quarantine or abroad (about 5-10% of students) took exams online with Examus proctoring.
In contrast to the October session, all 57 ICEF exams in December were organized online with proctoring — they were held synchronously for Master’s students and asynchronously for Bachelor’s students. Several exams used the synchronization of Examus with Google Docs, Moodle, the ICEF information system, Canvas, and Gradescope applications, which helped improve the process.
ICEF, like other faculties, independently determined how to conduct our exam session. As a result, the exams were prepared and conducted very well, as evidenced by the high correspondence in student performance levels between this year and previous years. In particular, the range of students grades across subjects and within each subject has decreased, which in fact is a positive result.
The Challenge of Self-Organization
Student survey results showed that the main problem for students was being able to effectively manage their time while studying online. When transitioning to online learning, it was more difficult to remain motivated and self-disciplined. Thus, the need arose for instructors to provide personal support through communication via messenger apps, which helped reduce student anxiety. Students ended up requiring more opportunities for social interaction while studying online, such as small group assignments as well as individual assignments. The teachers took this difficulty with online independent work into account and began using various communication channels, both on social media and within the ICEF information system as well as the platforms where the classes were held. These forms of communication persist even now as we return to in-person classes.
The format of exam questions and the time at which the exams were held were the same for all subjects. For each exam, an online administrative and technical support team was available; in difficult cases, some students were transferred to Zoom and received technical assistance. Sometimes it was necessary for students to update the software on their personal devices — this issue was discussed and determined in advance. One exam was postponed due to suspicions of a hacker attack but was administered without a hitch on the appointed day.
Isolated cases of cheating were recorded, but they were discovered in time. In general, this did not affect the score level and correlation with the results of offline exams in previous years.
What Innovations Will Continue to Be Used After Returning to Campus
The lecture recording option was introduced at HSE urgently in order to ensure effective instruction online. However, student surveys have shown that recording lectures has proven to be a very useful option and a valuable resource that can be used effectively for independent study. We are recording the seminars in part for now — nevertheless, they constitute important files in the ICEF digital archives and will serve to further improve work at the intersection of technologies and traditional educational practices. This academic year we will continue to record lectures and upload them to the information system where they can be accessed by students. This will also allow us to receive constructive criticism and feedback from users.
The best lecture format, in the opinion of students and teachers, was lecturing in the auditorium while recording and broadcasting it for students at home. This format was widely implemented in the first module. This way we satisfy the needs of those who are comfortable listening to lectures on site, and those who, for one reason or another, prefer to connect online.
Dr Jörn Rothe, ICEF Project Manager at LSE
I believe that ICEF coped with the online exam sessions much more successfully than many universities I know, so in the coming exam session we expect to get the same objectivity as in the previous online and offline exams.
Despite the return to in-person instruction, we will retain the format of online exams using proctoring and Examus. It fully justified itself and in the future can be used in order to assess students remotely in the event that they are ill or are studying abroad.
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