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Terra Incognita No More

Terra Incognita No More

© HSE University

Dr Sergey Roshchin serves as Vice Rector with responsibilities in development and implementation of degree programmes, continuous education, and eLearning. He also heads the Laboratory for Labour Market Studies. Dr Roshchin shared with The HSE Look his thoughts on the development of HSE as a digital university.

HSE University’s Development Programme for the period up until 2030 has a strong focus on the digitalisation of teaching and learning activities. To what extent are online formats already used at HSE University?

Over the past six years, HSE University has done a lot to develop various formats for online learning. On the one hand, our course offerings are significantly represented on Coursera and the National Open Education Platform; we are one of the leading Russian academic institutions in this area. We have also a large number of students and agreements with Russian universities that use our e-courses. On the other hand, we have done quite a lot to integrate online courses, both our own and those created by our colleagues from other leading research and educational centres in the world, into our educational programmes. There are currently about 500 MOOCs available. However, the situation is not static and continues to develop thanks to the concept that’s been given the provisional name of ‘digital university’.

The development of modern digital technologies has helped to blur the boundaries between what we used to call offline and online learning. In fact, we are now reaching a point where everything we do offline is also accompanied by various digital tools.

How does this differ from the already familiar MOOC format?

What we used to call a MOOC is now only a part of how knowledge from teachers is transmitted in new education products. In addition to video, there are other materials – printed, visual and audio – useful for designing courses. New opportunities for assessment tools are also appearing which can help students test their knowledge or confirm that they have achieved a certain level. In the future, this may be well associated with the creation of adaptive educational technologies, when, at a certain level of development, students will receive automated consultations on which sections of course curricula need to be further mastered or reviewed.

In addition to individual courses with online and offline elements, do you plan to implement fully online programmes?

If we look at Coursera as one of the most famous world platforms (with 65 million participants), we can see that, until recently, there were about 12 entirely online programmes. Now, there are 21 and this process is developing. In February of this year, we successfully enrolled the first cohort for the Master's programme in Data Science in cooperation with Coursera (almost 100 students), and in August we enrolled a second cohort. The number of countries represented by the students has also expanded. So, the movement towards online education, with a view to those subject niches where it is appropriate and efficient, began long before the Covid pandemic. Next year, there will be more than 10 such programmes.

Does this mean that further digitalisation will replace live communication between teachers and students?

Such a statement is rather absurd. Live communication will remain, but firstly, it will exist in order for a dialogue to arise between the teacher and the student. From this point of view, digital educational products absorb routine elements that can be alienated and transferred from the teacher, while the student can work with this content independently.

Will digital products only be created for certain areas of study?

The transformation will affect all disciplines at HSE University. In this way, we would like to improve the quality of education and foster a wider range of choice for individual trajectories.

In the near future, most of our teachers will be involved in the development of digital educational products. Education without digital technology has no future. This is a new part of the competences that are needed for university life, just as computer skills once became. Otherwise, it will be impossible to continue in this profession.

Will the creation of new digital education products be mandatory for each programme and to what extent?

At the moment, it is required to include the option for students to take a MOOC in each degree programme, both our own and those created by other universities. As for the development of new high-tech products, in the near future, the provisions of the 2030 Development Programme will be projected onto specific faculties and programmes. In this sense, there is still no ‘executive order’ that would say that every fourth or every second programme must do this. However, we are talking about the fact that, in the next three to four years, it will be necessary to get to a situation where the university as a whole will have such offerings for all of its programmes.

What will this mean for teachers?

All teachers are expected to digitise their educational routines. Specifically, this means using various approaches to testing knowledge, various games and simulators in order to transmit in digital format what we previously wrote in textbooks. It is impossible to insert all pictures, video and audio into a textbook, but now, there are much more opportunities. To use them for creating digital education products is a core task for both lecturers and programme leaders.

Does the University have plans to support teachers?

HSE University has already created a number of institutional tools. It has adopted various local regulations, which can stimulate the creation of high-quality MOOCs and new digital educational products. It has already created an infrastructure - these are studios where you can be filmed, as well as a one-button studio where you can make self-recordings. In addition, ‘factories’ for simulators are being prepared.

We have the major objective of accumulating and disseminating experience in mastering new technologies. For instance, there are interesting projects in engineering and design. After the forced transition to the online format, we immediately organised a virtual school to provide instruction in the best teaching practices, while also trying to ensure that those teachers who did it in an interesting and quality way can share their experience with their colleagues.

It is obvious that similar experiments in sharing experience will take place in the future. I think it would be impossible to say that there are those who know everything in terms of teaching in the digital world. We are all accumulating experience and this should be the subject of a separate activity.

What, at the moment, is the assembling point for accumulating of this experience?

Intuitively, this question reflects a dogmatic worldview: there is one point to which you need to ‘bring experience’, and then, at this point, the world will be a totally happy place. However, the world is more complex and, as such, these assembling points appear in various places. We are trying to build such an assembling point in the education department and digital department since many issues can be solved at the intersection of creating technological tools and its meaningful use. Plus, since there is specificity in terms of subject space, and the fact that you can never underestimate the possibilities of self-organisation within the academic community, such points can be formed within faculties and subject-focused subdivisions.

Has the pandemic changed your perspective of the digital university concept?

This year (2020) has become an unusual one for education. The pandemic, which introduced many technical restrictions on teaching and learning, undoubtedly influenced our understanding of how to deliver education. The massive transfer of all teachers to an online format forced even those who wanted to postpone this necessity to think about edutech. And they did start thinking about them and began to use them in practice. The pandemic has helped to lift many of the mental barriers for those who previously viewed online teaching as terra incognita.

Moreover, this affected everyone: teachers, researchers, students, administrators and university managers. From this perspective, the pandemic has been a catalyst for transitioning to new educational technologies.

We are still looking for a balance with the most effective combination of online and offline approaches, but the pandemic nevertheless has helped people realise that going online can remove many boundaries that once seemed unbreakable.

It turned out that partners and colleagues who are located in different parts of the world do not have to come to the university in person. They can take part in online conferences and lectures.

Also, it turned out that it is possible to build a teaching system within the four HSE University regional campuses, providing all students with the opportunity to take part in courses taught on any of them (we have over 1,000 of such courses). To do this, we synchronised the class timetable, which, taking into account the time zones, did not always coincide.

Moreover, it turned out that where it seemed that only offline laboratories were possible, in particular, in biology, quite adequate virtual instruments were created. So, there are no definitive answers on how we can better form certain competences online, but the speed of development in this area has accelerated dramatically. I think it will take another three to four years for the academic community to truly find the right balance.

What are the main challenges that we need to overcome in order to become a truly digital university?

I think there are three main challenges. The first challenge is to stop transferring offline knowledge that can be broadcast online. It is necessary to get used to the fact that in the past we used to write textbooks and give them to students as a reading, but now we can present many elements of information online.

Communication with students has become focused on problem-based learning, and this is something that is not routine and is, instead, associated with a teacher’s unique qualities as both a researcher and an expert.

The second is understanding that interactions with students and listeners take place not only here and now, within the walls of the university. They are happening outside the boundaries of time and space. Both 100% online and joint programmes, which we are now actively developing with other Russian universities, imply interaction with ‘virtual’ students. However, it will take some time to get used to the idea that there are no boundaries anymore.

The third challenge is that this is an opportunity to attain fundamentally new level in terms of variety and individualisation of students’ academic trajectories, e.g., in terms of adaptive educational tools and the opportunities offered by various new services. Like in my favourite story ‘Garden of Forking Paths' by Jorge Luis Borges, we are currently facing a similar situation, since it is easy to combine elements from different programmes. The teaching community must learn how to do this effectively.

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