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How HSE University Is Developing Distance Learning

How HSE University Is Developing Distance Learning

© Daniil Prokofyev

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, HSE University, as well as other universities around the world, has had to  quickly transition to online learning. How have students and instructors adapted to distance learning? What are the challenges that the university has faced?  How have assessment mechanisms changed?  HSE administrators and instructors answer these questions for the HSE News Service.

Anna Korovko 
Senior Director for Full Degree Programmes

Transitioning to Distance Learning

First of all, we identified the courses that cannot be held online, or would be better postponed to a later date, because an online format would greatly reduce their quality. Mostly, these were practical workshops by the HSE Art and Design School or some courses of our natural science faculties—chemistry, biology, and physics. It turned out that these courses make up only 3% of all classes at HSE. These courses have been postponed till next academic year.

We also analyzed what subjects can be taught via our existing massive open online courses. Today, 19% of courses in the fourth module are offered with the use of MOOCs. The rest of the classes are conducted synchronously or asynchronously via LMS, where teachers post information and the links to the class. We are utilizing the e-timetabling system, where we publish active links to upcoming classes, so that the students have a clear sense of their schedule.

We have also increased the number of our teaching assistants. Teaching assistants are a huge resource that helps faculty members with online teaching.

Online Assessment

Since we have a cumulative grading system, a student’s course grade does not just depend on final exams. The teachers are already developing and implementing various methods to ensure the integrity of their assessment processes with the use of online technology. Supervising the students during exams or testing is called ‘proctoring’. The teachers are developing their own ways of supervising students in order to prevent dishonest conduct during exams.

The upcoming exam session will take place from June 10 to 30, and it will be for both the third and fourth modules. For the session, we will use proctoring technologies, including external ones. Proctored exams will be administered in several disciplines. We estimate that 20% of exams will be proctored—mainly courses with large enrolments. We are organizing not only the third and fourth module final exams in this way, but the Final State Certification as well.

Alexander Zimovets
Head of the Office for Digitalization of Education

Support for Students and Staff

We have made some targeted purchases of the necessary equipment to support university community members in need. In addition, Zoom licenses have been procured in two stages. At the first stage, we bought 1,000 licenses. They were given to staff members who needed them the most. Later, an additional instalment of 2,000 licenses was purchased, so today the university has 3,000 licenses for Zoom software, which can be used for conferences, online streaming, and seminars. In addition to Zoom, all staff, students, and teachers have access to MS Teams, which can be used for small group communication. We also provide Webinar service, which caters to the needs of big events with large numbers of participants.

To provide unhampered internet access in HSE dorms, we have added a new channel with ample bandwidth, which should be enough for continuous online work. Our statistics show that, at present, about 30% of the channel capacity is being used, so this means that we will have plenty of capacity to handle peak traffic loads. There are some problems with outdated infrastructure in the dorms, but these problems are infrequent and fixed quickly.

The current situation compelled us to transition to distance learning more rapidly than we otherwise would have

Not all users and systems were ready for it. For example, during the first day after the transition, the LMS system had trouble managing the new level of traffic and crashed. But since we had prepared for this to happen, we were able to ensure we had all the necessary capacities in advance, and we managed to restore system operation shortly after that.

Challenges Faced

The transition to distance learning raised a lot of questions among users of our existing services. To address them, we created a hotline to collect user feedback. IT Office staff answer users’ questions, offer advice about how to use the systems, help install software, and provide solutions. In addition to answering questions, we help teachers organize events, from helping them choose a suitable platform (being aware of the specifics of how each platform works), to providing support during the online session. Our digital assistants are student volunteers, and they also provide assistance on the HSE digital hotline service.

Dr. Christian Fröhlich 
Assistant Professor in Sociology, Academic Supervisor of MA in Comparative Social Research 

The past two or three months have been a very multi-faceted experience for both lecturers and programme management. Speaking about the experience of our programme in Comparative Social Research, all people involved have been very energetically engaged and have worked hard to make the transfer to online education work. And on the one hand, that has meant and still means more work, because new software has to be mastered, the amount of online communication grew, and the work sphere has been intruding into all participants' personal life space. This is also psychologically hard for both students and lecturers.

But on the other side, it also has shown positive aspects: a higher attendance rate in the online seminars, new knowledge, skills and possibilities also for research and inclusion of students, as well as less time of the day spent in crowded public transport

Many processes around education at HSE were digitalized before the pandemic. But the biggest challenge now is to recreate some kind of "classroom experience" for both students and lecturers. In particular, what kind of social relations do we have with students (and they with us)? How do we create (online) space for real discussions?

Many of my colleagues and I believe that real education—learning skills and something new about our world—needs personal contact to teachers and among students. How do we do this? This challenge materializes on all levels of distant learning—during a particular online seminar session, in planning of what material to choose (texts, videos, prerecorded lectures) and how to give it (direct discussions, asynchronous written tasks, long-term projects), including the choice for the right communication software and etiquette for all participants (with/without camera?).

Exams and Supervising Student Projects

As for exams, they haven't been an issue for our programme because mostly we have not used them for many years. A MA programme is about applied knowledge to problem solving and answering complex questions by doing research. Our students write essays, conduct long-term projects, solve complex tasks over several weeks and submit the results online anyway. This has not changed because of quarantine. The only issue I see here is that the workload for students goes up because lecturers' expectations of student assignments have gone up regarding extent and quality.

Talking about supervision of student projects, I see two problematic issues. One is that the pandemic and resulting quarantine have seriously impacted the type of research projects students are able to do.

It is now necessary to redirect research interests and topics towards data that is not coming from offline interviews with respondents. Here we search for and find very individually tailored solutions, which are still experiments

The other issue is how to conduct supervision of student projects (MA theses or others). Supervision of student projects mainly consists of personal communication with the student and review of her/his text production. For the text review, the distant regime is not a problem all. Personal communication, however, needs the real-life face-to-face in order to establish a trust relation. ZOOM and Skype can of course substitute for some period of time, but this is possible after a student and lecturer have shared a room and talked offline.

In the current situation, which is new and challenging for all involved, my only advice for students is to be patient and trusting

Patient, because everybody is new to this and is trying to make it work. And trusting that lecturers and supervisors also want this to be happening well and in the best interest of students. We are all in this big experiment together. And we need to talk about our difficulties with this. So, I also advise students to be open and transparent about their problems and struggles, so that we all understand each other without hallway talks and after-seminar conversations. 

Marie Arsalidu
Head of the Laboratory for the Neurobiological Foundations of Cognitive Development, Assistant Professor at the School of Psychology

This term I was teaching a Master's course and an undergraduate course. Although challenging, especially at the beginning, I had a positive experience with distant teaching.

Positive aspects include that the students’ turn out (i.e., it seems that more students were attending online classes). Another positive aspect is that we could record the online sessions and students could view the recording later, if something was unclear.

However, we have had some difficulties with internet connection especially for students who were staying at the dormitory.  In interactive sessions, challenges include creating an encouraging environment for students to feel comfortable in communicating.  Although distance teaching provides additional options of learning it should not fully replace in-person classroom teaching and research activities.

My suggestion for students when interacting in an online classroom setting is to be extra kind and considerate to others, because a lot of information from situational factors such as facial expressions may not be visible

We didn’t miss a beat with the course work projects of undergraduate and graduate (MA and PhD) students. Thankfully, my students had already collected data (in-person) and could proceed as planned with their data analyses and defences. Actually, distant supervision led to more frequent individual meetings than when in the lab.

However, I do hope that we can return to the lab soon because we do miss in person lab meetings and we need to resume in-person data collection with equipment (e.g., eye-tracking) that cannot work remotely.

Changing the Exam Tasks

For the undergraduate course we worked very hard with the teaching assistant to create an online exam that students could do from home. We changed the format so that it is an open book (i.e., we didn’t need to penalize if they looked at course material during the exam) as we could not have the same control as in the classroom. We used randomized order for questions and answers and limited the time the students had available. The students found the exam challenging and in terms of overall performance the class average was comparable with the previous year. The MA course is not finished yet. For this course we have a take-home exam, which is an essay that students complete on their own research topics. 

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