Senior Director for Digital Transformation Alexey Chukarin spoke with HSE University Life about whether the University is ready for a possible transition to distance learning, what new services and apps such as Smart LMS and HSE App X have to offer, and what kinds of new products employees can expect in the near future.
If HSE is forced to go online again, is the IT Office ready?
Yes. We did a lot in the spring, when the University had to urgently transition all operations online. The systems and channels we developed haven’t gone anywhere—they’re still up and running. I can’t say that we have an utter abundance of resources and that we can give every student and employee a laptop or extend HSE’s WIFI network to your apartment. Give us 10 years, and maybe we’ll be at that point. But in terms of HSE services and online platforms, everything is ready. The necessary technical capacities are already ready to go.
In the spring there were many complaints about the Internet connection in the dorms.
This summer we completely rebuilt the Internet hub in Dubki, HSE’s largest dormitory. The WIFI network has been reconfigured, and the Internet connection is now available via radio relay channel at 1 GB/s. In addition, an optical channel is being laid, which will ensure uninterrupted high speed Internet provided by MTS (Russian telecom company)—at least 20 megabits for an authorized connection. All the hardware has been installed and minor bugs have been fixed. Currently, authorization is configured with users’ mobile phone numbers, but there will soon be an authorized network, and the network that uses mobile phone authentication will be transferred to a guest category.
In other dorms, the channel capacity has been increased. We monitor in real time how busy the channels in the dorms are. Recently, there has been a sharp increase in traffic in four Moscow dormitories. In two of them, the channels have already been expanded, and in the two others we will expand them within a week. For the rest, the peak does not exceed 60%. There are problems with Dormitory 6. If the project in Dubki is successful, this dormitory will be the first candidate for the implementation of the new scheme.
Naturally, students can always contact us, and if local problems arise, we respond promptly. It’s important to indicate the room number in the request form, so that the request is not anonymous.
Whom can students contact?
All contact information is available on our website. Students can either email us at email@example.com, or call us at 55555 (on campus) or +7 (495) 625-50-15. We are available from 8 am to 10 pm Moscow time, Monday through Saturday.
We have introduced a strict system for registering all requests, and three times a week I look through the summary of all the requests and inquiries received. Currently, the most pressing issue is resetting the passwords to HSE online services and platforms. Yesterday we received about 600 requests, and today there are 200 more (this interview was conducted the day after the system-wide password reset was completed – HSE University Life).
For questions regarding Internet service in the HSE dormitories, we have a special channel. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and your request will be sent directly to our engineers.
It seems possible that the University will once again have to hold the exams online. In June, many students were not quite so happy with how the process was organized.
I think this was primarily due to the fact that online proctoring by definition makes taking an exam more unpleasant. Even if a student is taking a traditional exam with a very strict teacher, they are still in a familiar environment. Proctoring systems are still far from ideal in this sense, and, in my opinion, HSE uses the best of those that exist in Russia. This is the Examus system. There were also organizational problems due to the fact that our internal processes had not been fully rebuilt. Our colleagues from programme offices had to solve many problems at the same time, and they did it, it seems, 28 hours a day.
What kinds of technical problems were there?
There were two types of problems. First, there were issues related to the sustainability of the Examus infrastructure. The whole country was not ready for the fact that education would be completely online, and Examus, together with us, as one of the largest clients, was building a load balancing system.
Their system works great when 500-1000 people are taking exams at a time. But then HSE comes along and says, ‘We need to be able to administer an exam to 8,000 students at a time, or better yet, 10,000 students.’ We worked with them to increase the server capacity so that Examus could handle 4,000 students at a time. If this number is not exceeded during the exams, there will be no technical problems in this area.
The second area in which we experienced problems was security. Not just HSE, but all large universities, including RANEPA, RUDN, and Moscow State University, experienced DDoS attacks. During HSE’s entire spring-summer exam session, there were only two cases when an attack was successful. Of course, this should not have happened at all, but you need to understand that during the entire exam period we were subjected to more than a thousand attempted attacks, and the total time during which our systems were not being attacked amounted to less than 40 minutes.
We understand that thinking about something theoretically is one thing, but for a student for whom something doesn’t work at the last moment on the exam, it is a real problem. But, as far as I know, in these cases, teachers did their best to accommodate students.
Do you now have mechanisms to prevent such attacks?
We have completely transferred operations to a so-called demilitarized zone. In general, we do not have any servers used for final exams or thesis defenses that would be vulnerable to outside attacks, except for the servers used by HSE.Online, since they have many external users. All of our internal users are protected by firewalls. In the spring, we replaced the edge firewalls with more efficient ones, and we will soon replace them again.
We now experience three or four major DDoS attacks every night, and during the day attacks occur during exam periods, major conferences, and events. For example, during the Brand New HSE Day festivities, we were on the receiving end of attacks for two and a half hours, but these attempts did not have any effect on the event.
During the pandemic, the IT Office launched a Digital Assistant programme. Does it still exist?
Yes, and it is in great demand. Currently, we have about 60 people working in the programme—students from a wide variety of departments and fields of study, including more technical ones (such as MIEM and the Faculty of Computer Science) as well as areas in the humanities and social sciences (such as the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs and the Faculty of Humanities).
Basically, their task is to provide prompt assistance to teachers using digital video services such as Zoom, MS Teams, and Webinar, as well as in other simple, common situations, for which it would be inefficient to engage professional engineers from our second line of support. These situations include, for example, password changes or the submission of electronic documents for admission.
The students take their work seriously and serve as the IT Office’s first line of support. They do an excellent job—they are my favorite unit.
Another area with which the students assist is project work at the IT Office. At the moment, we have about 20 people working in this area, and they are actively involved in projects of interest to them. We do not force them to get involved; we simply give them the opportunity to participate. We have students working in in the supercomputer modelling department, and others are engaged in educational services and integration solutions. In general, this is a promising area.
This past summer, the rector instructed that we have not 60, but 300 digital assistants, and that they serve as university digitalization ambassadors at the faculties and provide assistance to teachers or employees who need it. There are faculties that are already doing this themselves, like MIEM or the Graduate School of Business.
Will you use the experience you gained and the technology you developed during the distant learning period once the pandemic is over?
Yes and no. Much was done in extremely tight timeframes, and the decisions were not always consistent. For example, we had no more than eight hours to develop and test some services. Can and should they be used next year in the form in which they were made? Absolutely not. We will now catch our breath a little after September 1, and by the next admissions campaign, we will change many technical solutions that were made frantically under extreme conditions, and we will replace them with industrial quality models.
Why did you have to stop the enrollment campaign for elective courses on September 3?
We, together with the programme offices, decided to postpone enrollment, because there were a number of technical issues that still needed to be hammered out. Objectively, from the standpoint of technical implementation, we needed more time for testing. Custom models are not always as good as they seem, and testing can reveal their flaws. Unfortunately, we did not have time to complete everything by September 3 and decided to postpone the enrollment period until September 8.
Will you take this experience into account in the next course enrollment period?
Of course. We do not interfere with the educational process, but nevertheless we have formulated some proposals that programme offices considered possible to accept. Firstly, our proposal gives students the opportunity to view all possible options in advance, before the enrollment period opens. Ideally, students will be able to put a preliminary selection of courses in their baskets online. Once the enrollment period opens, they will then only have to confirm their choices. Secondly, these are presets—sets of programmes and academic disciplines that are inherited from year to year.
What are the benefits of Smart LMS for students?
The main advantage is that in this system it will be possible to conduct classes, select courses and academic programmes, use last year's materials, and manage groups (merge or split them). In general, we are trying to move everything that is done by hand into the new LMS. We have several dozen enthusiastic teachers who are already using Smart LMS. In general, we are quite optimistic and think that by as early as September 1, 2021, we will completely abandon the old LMS.
Do you have any other innovations in store for students?
We are starting to test electronic gradebooks. The system already has online student record books, but teachers nonetheless still transfer all of this information to a paper format. This session, we will begin experimenting with an electronic format, and by the end of the academic year, we will transfer all of HSE to an electronic test and exam format.
In the coming days, we will be launching a completely updated HSE App X, made by the same team that made the HSE App. It will be fully integrated with all HSE systems. For example, there used to be periodic delays in schedule updates, but now this problem has been resolved. The app also has some nice new features: schedule management, the ability to plan a route around the campus, and more. Students will have all aspects of HSE academics at their fingertips.
At the end of September, the IT Office conducted a massive reset of student passwords. Why was this necessary?
We are migrating to a new account system. For example, during the distance learning session, teachers complained that they could not create an event directly in MS Teams and add students from their group there. This problem was due to the fact that the teacher accounts were in one account, and the student accounts were in another, cloud-based one, which was hosted by Microsoft many years ago. To solve the problem, we combined all accounts into one system.
At first, we wanted to launch this process in early September, but then we thought better of it, realizing that at the beginning of the year, when students are choosing their courses and getting to know the new systems and services, it would be a pain to also start changing everyone’s passwords. In addition, as of September 1, only 3,500 student phone numbers were entered in the system, and instructions regarding the password change were going to be sent via SMS. If we had started the process then, most student would have had to change their passwords manually. By September 26, the system had 36,000 phone numbers entered.
We received about 600 requests for assistance after the password reset, which is about 1% of students. I can say that as far as large corporate systems go, we went through this shift painlessly.
Will there be new services and applications for employees?
We have already launched a new personal account (SmartPoint) this year. After the New Year, HSE will move to a new electronic document management system. This is a tectonic shift and the first element of our new back office platform. We are moving slower here than in academic support solutions, because many accounting and legal issues are tied to federal legislation.
Our back office platform is built entirely on 1C solutions. The first major module, which will be launched in mid-February, is 1C-Document Management.
Is there going to be an app for employees, too?
Yes, and it will be launched by the New Year. This will be your personal account on your smartphone. The new MyHSE Services Account is designed in such a way that the adaptive layout allows you to work on a smartphone, but there are always some nuances and limitations. From the application it will be possible to call, write, search for employees, submit administrative requests, approve applications, and so on.