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Regular version of the site

University ‘at Home’

ILLUSTRATION: ICONS8 VECTOR CREATOR

Since March 17, 2020, HSE students and staff have been working and studying remotely. It's time to find out if online teaching and learning is as easy as it is commonly believed. This transition is a new and challenging experience for many. To survive this period with the least losses, and even with some gains, the HSE staff offers several recommendations for organising online delivery of knowledge. The HSE Look shares these lifehacks. 

Ulyana Zakharova, Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for Sociology of Higher Education, author of MOOC in Online Technologies in Education

Self-discipline

Working from home is not easy, since  our usual routine has gone astray, household tasks are looming, and time seems to flow differently, so all these things often make us fall into one of the two extremes - overworking or doing very little.

Several things can help to cope:

  • setting up a distinct workspace at home,
  • following our usual work schedule,
  • staying focused on the task at hand,
  • talking with family members about not being disturbed while we work.

Making a plan for the day and then assessing the results can help make the progress clear to both you and your supervisor.

If you find yourself suffering from procrastination, try finding which techniques to combat it work for you specifically, for instance, the Pomodoro Technique (alternating cycles of 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of rest), or the app Forest: Stay Focused (the longer you work without distractions, the more trees you ‘plant’).

You can experiment with time-tracking if you haven’t done this before: write down what you’ve done every hour, it might help you identify time leaks or and find out how long it actually takes you to complete specific tasks. These self-discoveries will also be useful when we return to a face-to-face work mode.

 

Work and leisure

We are shifting to working remotely for safety reasons. The most important thing now is to take care of your health and the health of your loved ones.

  • Follow social and medical  recommendations for the prevention and treatment of the disease.
  • Do not give up reasonable level of physical activity as they keep us healthy and increase our work focus. Naturally, going to a gym now is perhaps unsafe, but doing a series of exercises at home, in a well-ventilated room, can offer a good break from work, and if you go jogging around your neighborhood, make sure not to shake hands or give hugs to neighbors.
  • Working or studying from home is infamous for disrupting not only sleep patterns but also eating habits; keep yourself within limits, but listen to your body.

Creating a shared understanding of the new rules

For work from home to be effective, it is important to agree with your team and supervisors on the basics that we usually take for granted. For staff such rules concern our work hours, how often we hold meetings, what the main communication channel is, and where we keep track of tasks and their progression.

In case of students such agreements can touch upon: which web platform we use primarily and which is secondary, which channel we use to communicate and how (video, voice-only calls, texting, etc), what the deadlines and rules for submitting assignments look like, and what their assessment criteria are.

Whether you are dealing with colleagues or students, it’s important to not only name the tools and apps, but also link a guide or a or record a screen-cast (video from the screen) on how to use it.

Providing a template for a task or a couple of examples with comments on why they are good or bad can anticipate and help resolve many questions. You may find these measures excessive but in the absence of face-to-face meetings and visual contact it is very difficult to quickly see who needs assistance, especially if they are afraid to ask a ‘stupid’ question.

With online learning, it's always better to be more explicit than not enough. It’s important not to lose anyone, so we need to evaluate whether everyone has enough resources (i.e. a computer with a stable internet connection) and access to source materials for productive work or study. We should try to be flexible and set deadlines taking into account that overcoming technical difficulties and learning to use new tools will also take some time.

Keeping the community alive

A great advantage of face-to-face interaction is the opportunity to create a strong community. Do not neglect modern technologies for video and audio communication – try making the effort to hold project meetings, lectures and seminars via Skype or Zoom where you can see and hear each other.

Beware that instant messaging (the inevitable evil of our time) can negatively affect not only your work focus, but also the relations within the group, so it’s best to reserve chats for urgent messages that require everyone's attention, for instance, sending updates on the project or assignment deadlines. It’s good to keep using the usual channels for  the majority of communications – by email with colleagues, in LMS with students.

Keep in mind that now you need a space for informal communication as well, so creating a separate chat for relaxed communication and fun can help to smoothen the quarantine. Lecturers may find it helpful to create a student chat so that students do not experience a sense of isolation and connect with each other for assistance.

It is important to agree not only on the channel per se but also on the rules of communication, for instance, on not writing in the chat at night or not waiting for a quick response if a message is sent after a certain hour.

Many colleagues and students can be subject to seasonal colds or be otherwise unwell; their children stay at home since kindergartens and schools have been quarantined, together with elderly parents who are primarily at risk during the epidemics. We should respect each other’s right to personal time, but we should also remember that although we are working remotely, we are indeed working and email has to be checked regularly.

Learning new things and sharing experiences

It’s time to get to know your university’s LMS better and consult with colleagues about features you’ve never used before. The modern world is full of various digital educational technologies and different content but beware of ‘expert’ comments from non-professionals.

At the same time, an immense space opens up to share our findings and best practices, from collaborating in creating and editing documents (for instance, Google Docs, Sheets, Presentations) and task-management software (my favourite is Todoist), to video editing services and development of simple simulations. And yet we understand that it is important not to get too immersed into researching new apps and services and not to overload ourselves, our colleagues and students with them.

Remember the golden rule: the task determines the choice of a tool, not vice versa.

Be calm and…

Be sympathetic to possible inconsistencies and organisational difficulties and be prepared that your colleagues and students will write to you about their challenges. Perhaps, it’s worth taking the time to list potential problems you can predict at the very start, and bring them to the attention of your team or class so as to work them out together.

Make suggestions and give feedback but stay constructive, mutually polite and proactive.

Collect feedback proactively since it’s easy for a person to fall through the cracks when remote work or studying is a new experience for them. Make it a rule to collect questions and suggestions for improvements on a regular basis, and approach this creatively rather than asking “Is everything clear to everyone?” which usually proves unproductive. For instance, you can use the easy-to-learn Kahoot or Menti tools, which will enrich offline classes when we return on campus.

Transferring all the processes of a large organisation online is a big challenge, but having coped with it we will become resilient and improve upon our practices of online learning and work, which are an integral part of a modern university. Let’s  stay healthy and productive!

A few tips for lecturers:

Boris Demeshev, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Economic Sciences

1. Do not be afraid to post your content in the public domain.

2. Organise a Telegram chat with students since many students already use it.

3. It’s extremely easy to make a video of a seminar. To do this, you just need a modern smartphone and a tripod for 1,000 rubles. Put the tripod on the table, turn off the mobile network temporarily so that the video does not interrupt, and then immediately upload the recording to YouTube. Each lecturer and seminar tutor can handle this.

4. I post all my materials openly on github.com/bdemeshev;

5. I communicate with students via Telegram (I will answer email as well but the main communication is the app);

6. I post videos of seminars on YouTube.

7. Some of my colleagues prefer piazza.com to publish materials and communicate with students.

8. For a remote tutorial, Zoom is better than Skype in my experience.

9. A marker or chalk board is useful to have at home. It’s also possible to tap a relatively inexpensive white film on the wall for the same purpose.

April 29