In an interview with HSE News Service, HSE Vice Rector Sergey Roshchin discussed HSE University’s transition to distance learning, what changes students can expect in the next academic year, and why digital skills are important even for students in the humanities.
— How did the University handle the transition to online instruction?
— Transitioning to online instruction posed a serious challenge for educational institutions both in Russia and all over the world, and HSE was no exception. However, we were able to fully transition to an online format without causing any course interruptions.
There were several things the University had already been doing that allowed us to make a smooth transition. Firstly, the University had already been working with various digital tools for a long time and actively developing its online educational offerings.
A second factor that eased the transition was our staff—our teachers, managers, and administrators. Many teachers were proactive and began learning new online tools on their own volition. We also created a school of teaching excellence where colleagues can share their experiences and give tips on how to develop online courses.
Thirdly, the University’s digital infrastructure, as well as our staff who develop and maintain it, greatly aided the transition.
The transition to distance learning not only requires a functioning digital infrastructure, but also streamlined business procedures and regulations that support the learning process. The University promptly introduced changes to the rules and regulations in order to clearly outline how teachers, students, and administrators would continue their work or studies remotely.
We can see that students have generally assessed the University’s online transition positively.
— Are there any changes that can students expect this coming academic year?
— HSE University’s new bachelor’s programme in geography has launched and is now accepting applications.
Another big change involves new standardized online features that we developed as a result of the transition to online learning. Next year, HSE will try operating in a single format shared by all four of its campuses.
This means that some courses will be available to students of all campuses. We plan to implement most of these courses in a conference format—the courses will be taught offline in a classroom but will also be available online to students of other programmes.
Beginning January 1, lectures and courses taught by our professors, partners, and friends will already be integrated into the curricula of many educational programmes. This will further enhance the quality of education, as well as provide students with access to researchers and distinguished faculty from various universities around the world. We will also expand intercampus activities.
The next major change is expanded undergraduate study opportunities. In December 2019, we adopted a new undergraduate academic standard and an accompanying curricular format that allows students to pursue academic tracks that are more flexible. We have taken a step towards developing educational platforms on which students will be able to take courses in various educational areas and programmes.
Also, for the first time, we have included two requirements in this new educational standard: we will work to ensure that every student who earns his or her bachelor’s degree from HSE University graduates with a proficiency in English and with certain digital competencies.
In 2017, the University began implementing a Data Culture programme. It is designed to provide students of all undergraduate programmes with training in data analysis. We are now taking the next step in the realization of this project.
All this time we have been working to create a system for assessing and measuring these competencies. At the moment, it has acquired its final form. Students will be assessed in three categories: digital literacy, data analysis, and programming. Students in all undergraduate programmes will receive appropriate training at various levels in all three of these areas.
An additional change is the expansion of our project-based approach in the classroom. We are now taking a decisive step by redesigning all bachelor's and master's programmes for project-based learning. In some areas, we have already done this. For example, the entire curriculum of the HSE Art and Design School is project-based. Currently, we are laying the groundwork for bolstering project-based learning in the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Humanities, and the Higher School of Business Informatics, which was launched within the Faculty of Business and Management.
From this perspective, project work is an integral part of education. It is a required component of programme curricula. Project work allows students to gain crucial applied skills and learn how to conduct research. As part of this initiative, we are also restructuring some faculties so that teaching and research staff can form project-based teams that focus on common areas of inquiry in their research, teaching, or other professional endeavors.
— HSE will be introducing a new system-wide standardized timetable. How will it work?
— The question of introducing a standardized timetable for the entire HSE University system arose in conjunction with our initiative to introduce intercampus courses. If an instructor is teaching a course to students in Moscow but students at our campuses in St. Petersburg, Perm, and Nizhny Novgorod are also taking the course and including it in their individual curricula or vice versa, then we need to have a system-wide standardized time table for all campuses. This allows students to select intercampus courses without any scheduling conflicts.
The new schedule was chosen based on the results of a survey of faculty and students
We have to keep in mind that St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Moscow are in the same time zone, while Perm is in another. But even on campuses in the same time zone, classes begin at different times. Therefore, we need the timetables of our campuses to be synchronized, and the University will be doing this in the next year.
— Why do students in the humanities need digital skills?
— We have entered a new era of automation and big data. It's not just about numeric data—we're talking about visual and textual data as well. Many subject areas that once seemed divorced from digital tools or technology now have new opportunities.
I am not even referring to developments in the social sciences—such as in economics, sociology, and political science—because these fields directly relate to the behavior of people in various social processes.
Digital skills are important in the humanities as well. Take linguistics for example. Linguistic study often involves working with big data. The digitization of the accumulated data on certain languages allows linguists to form a corpus of a language in a whole new way. These skills are in high demand in both linguistics and business.
We see another example of the importance of tech skills in history. The digitization of historical materials and texts allows scholars to reach new heights in their research and use different analytical tools for data processing.
— So will HSE not be returning to in-person instruction?
— We will of course return to our offline format. Thanks to the experience of the past three months, we have identified a lot of advantageous practices that we will adopt and develop further for our digital infrastructure. The ability to communicate with people in other cities without traveling is an invaluable innovation of our age—it has been actively developed all over the world, and, in recent months, at our university especially.
Of course, face-to-face teacher-student interaction is also extremely important.
Firstly, there are skills that are developed only with the hands-on use of equipment. This cannot be replaced by virtual tools. Secondly, communication between a teacher and a student remains vital, especially at a research university, where new ideas are born from dialogue.
In the near future, I envision a model of education that will be built on a combination of distance learning tools, offline communication, and project-based learning. Both our university and the global educational community will need to find the right combination, as well as find a reasonable balance that meets the goals and objectives of this or that university.
Vice Rector Sergey Roshchin discusses why three HSE Faculties are being restructured