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‘Keeping a Student’s Attention Online Is Harder Than in the Classroom’

‘Keeping a Student’s Attention Online Is Harder Than in the Classroom’

© Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

After a week off, HSE students returned to their online classes this week. HSE News spoke with instructors of the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism about what kinds of new strategies and approaches they are using in their online instruction.

Previous Experience

Before mid-March of this year when HSE transitioned to distance learning, instructors and students of HSE’s urban studies programmes already had experience with online coursework, albeit not much.

Bachelor’s students in the ‘Urban Planning’ Programme got their initial sense of urban environments by using geographic online apps. They ‘walked around’ cities of different continents with their instructors. They played Geoguessr—a game in which the app places you in a mystery city and you have to figure out where you are based on your surroundings and the structural features.

The curricula of the Faculty’s master’s programmes (English-taught ‘Prototyping Future Cities’; and Russian-taught ‘Urban Development and Spatial Planning’ and ‘Transport Planning’)

include courses featuring foreign experts’ expertise on urban development issues that are held on platforms such as EdX or Coursera. Courses are organized in a ‘blended’ mode: students take an online course that is previously recorded, and then discuss the material face-to-face in seminars with English-speaking instructors. This approach not only introduces the students to foreign experience, but also helps them expand their professional vocabulary in English.

© pixabay

In the Faculty’s continuing education programmes (such as ‘Geoinformation Methods of Urban Data Analysis’), online educational tools were also occasionally used. For supplemental consultations about programme products and methods for analyzing urban data, a remote format was particularly convenient in that participants could display their graphs and numbers onscreen, thereby making the meetings more efficient for both instructors and students.

And, finally, conducting applicant interviews online has been common practice for the graduate school, as it puts applicants from Moscow and from other regions on equal footing.  

The Transition

As for all departments of the university, the transition to a distance format for the Graduate School of Urbanism was unexpected. The Faculty acted quickly to put mechanisms in place to prevent any disruptions in the learning process. Within a few days, a website was launched to help instructors adapt their courses for an online format. The site provides updated recommendations for transferring classes online and explanations of how various tools work and how efficient they are. Graduate students assisted in building the site, and this made it possible to examine problems not only through the eyes of instructors or programme office staff, but students as well. During the first two weeks of the transition, the site helped systematize the flow of information.

When adapting your course for an online format, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the number of online tools that are available. MS Teams was recommended for programme office work, while Zoom was recommended for conducting classes online as well as providing supplementary functions for programme office work. Tech support has been provided by the programme office as well as master’s student volunteers. Instructors and students alike can get in touch with them with any technical question—even if it’s simply how to turn on your computer mic.

All classes are now conducted remotely (most are taught online, and some are pre-recorded), and virtually no classes have been postponed until the fall. However, Kirill Puzanov, Head of the Graduate School of Urbanism, explains that their programmes were just lucky—the master’s programme team ‘field’ projects that were being conducted in nearby cities (this year students worked in Noginsk, Serpukhov, and Borovsk) ended just in March. These projects required extensive field work that included interviews with experts and residents and traveling around the cities, which in the present conditions would be extremely difficult.

© iStock

‘Without first-hand impressions of the city, without face-to-face communication with the locals, without an emotional reaction, these projects lose their meaning. You can probably use Yandex.Panoramas, but they are not updated often enough and do not give you the opportunity to look into each yard and talk with passers-by,’ says Ruslan Goncharov, Academic Director of the Master's Programme ‘Urban Development and Spatial Planning’.

Easier or More Complicated?

According to Kirill Puzanov, online instruction puts higher demands on instructors. ‘Keeping a student’s attention online is harder than in the classroom,’ he says. ‘It is necessary to do everything you can to keep students absorbed in the material and prevent them from moving away from their screens. Otherwise, the session becomes less engaging and the student misses a lot of the material.’

The experience of the first two weeks showed that an online lesson can be conducted much faster than a face-to-face one: you do not need to wait until all the students arrive, you do not need to bother with a laptop to show the presentation — your presentation is immediately visible on the screen.

However, the amount of preparation that is necessary for the course takes more time — you need to weigh each word and more carefully monitor your own behavior, especially since a generally accepted ethics of online learning has not yet been formed. Questions about whether a student can participate in an online lesson lying on the couch and whether they are obliged to turn on the camera remain open.

‘There is a risk that the teacher will begin to overcomplicate tasks for themselves and the students for no good reason,’ says Kirill Puzanov. ‘One colleague had the idea that, instead of attending each seminar, his students could write essays based on the materials that he sends them. But, of course, such an option is disadvantageous to everyone. In one course, there are more than a hundred students. If they have to write an essay, they will likely spend more time on it than they would have on attending the seminar, and then the instructor will have to grade all of them!’

Exams and Graduation

HSE is preparing to conduct exams remotely using proctoring technology. However, Ruslan Goncharov notes, in some cases you can try to organize exams online so that the student simply does not have time to use external sources or external help (such as setting a minimum time for answering and proofing of one’s answers) or so that there is no need for them (such as assigning an individualized calculation task based on course materials with a strict time limit). The exam can also be an online presentation of a design solution prepared by the student in advance.

With theses, it gets more complicated. The Graduate School of Urbanism gives theses their utmost attention, and they involve a number of public events that are very important for students. In the master’s programmes, the thesis process involves not only a defense: students present a synopsis of their work (the project) and must pass a pre-defense before a commission consisting of representatives of different subject areas. At the intermediate stages, the student not only receives feedback and adjusts the further course of work, but can also find a consultant in a related discipline so as not to overlook certain aspects of the study. For example, if the work is devoted to the urban economy and involves extensive data analysis, the student is encouraged to get in touch with data specialists to fine tune their methodology.

By the beginning of the fourth module, students must complete the pre-defense and then the defense. It is logical that the jury members will either be together at HSE, or each at home, in turn connecting students to the broadcast. In keeping with onsite defenses, the commission chairperson moderates the process online as well, muting participants’ microphones if necessary.

Despite their willingness to conduct defenses remotely, instructors at the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism hope the situation will improve by mid-June and it will be possible to return to holding face-to-face master’s thesis defenses. In their opinion, the importance of this event for students cannot be overestimated—an online format cannot facilitate the range of personal interactions and spontaneous comparisons that participants enjoy face-to-face.

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