In our first installment of a series that will sum up the results of the HSE Student Life Survey 2020, HSE Life takes a look at what HSE students thought of distance learning this past year. Students provided feedback about their online learning experience in a new set of questions that was added to this year’s survey in addition to the traditional sections. HSE Life breaks down the results of the survey below.
HSE Centre for Institutional Research conducted an annual survey in November 2020-January 2021. 7,646 students took part in it.
Assessment study conditions at the university
Centre for Institutional Research
On a five-point scale, students evaluated not only the traditional set of parameters (the quality of the education received, education informational support, etc.), but also the conditions for distance learning at HSE University (the infrastructure for conducting online classes and the timeliness and correctness of tech support for conducting distance classes). More than 70% of the respondents rated these conditions as good, 18% rated them as average and only 10% rated them as bad. Among degree programmes, ‘Applied Mathematics and Information Science’ showed the highest results: 81% of students positively assessed the conditions for online learning and only 3% rated rated them negatively.
Statements about distance learning
Centre for Institutional Research
Students were also asked to rate several statements that describe their impressions of distance learning in 2020-2021. Most of the students noted the good work of study offices and academic supervisors in solving problems that arise during distance learning. The students also agreed with the statement that they liked the schedule of online and offline classes and were able to use shared spaces for their studies. However, students also noted that distance learning required more time and effort. They also had concerns about being able to fully master course content when it is taught online and being able communicate with teachers and other students.
The complexity of distance learning by year of study
Centre for Institutional Research
The difficulties with distance learning directly depended on students’ year of study: 1st- and 2nd-year Bachelor’s students found it more challenging than 4th-year students. The opinions of third-year and Master’s students divided almost equally.
Students could also leave comments to explain their answer when negatively assessing certain criteria. The majority of students who noted that the workload increased noted decreased concentration and motivation as a result. It is more difficult for students to get down to work and focus in their home environment when there are many distractions. 758 people mentioned this point in the comments.
More than 500 people said that they spend more time studying and looking for information themselves while studying online, as they do not receive it in full or process information as easily during online lectures and seminars.
Students were also concerned about spending too much time in front of a computer screen (315 students indicated this). They noted that the lack of activity and constant use of electronic media negatively affect physical and psychological health and leads to a loss of interest in studying and worsened academic performance.
The students also noted technical problems, a lack of a clear division between study and leisure time, and a lack of live communication with classmates.
The lack of direct contact with teachers was also mentioned in connection with concerns about the study process. Students reported that technical problems occurred when they contacted teachers for consultations. The survey results showed that these problems are rather specific and relate to particular teachers or departments that do not fully comply with the policy of mandatory consultation established by the university shortly before the monitoring start.
All the data that we collected in 2020, whether it is sample surveys or the results of continuous teaching assessment, indicate a very high level of satisfaction of HSE students with the way distance learning was organized at the university. At the same time, I would not say that our students always evaluate everything well. Over the years, we have repeatedly received critical opinions about real problems with certain aspects of their studies at HSE University. In this context, more than 70% of those who highly assessed the conditions for distance learning mean a lot for us.
First, we should highlight the efforts of HSE faculty and administrative staff, who, without exaggeration, selflessly and often with a significant increase in their workload (we will talk more about this after analyzing the data collected during the employee surveys), tried to do their job well and respond to students' requests. Secondly, high grades indicate that HSE students, compared with the students from other universities, were well prepared for online learning. For a number of positions, we can compare the data of the Student Life Survey with the results of the Russian national survey conducted in spring by the Centre for Institutional Research, and the Institute of Education together with Tomsk State University. We see that our students were better equipped with computers, software, and had better Internet connection.
If we talk about the problems of HSE students during the distance learning period, they are consistent with difficulties faced by all Russian students. Everyone, especially the first-year students, wanted live communication, not endless video conferences. Interaction with teachers online did not always go smoothly. And, of course, self-discipline and the ability to manage your time were needed more than ever before.
Even before everyone faced the need to switch to distance learning, HSE University already had a good command of conducting work online: we use an electronic timetable, a single information portal for all students and employees, and electronic document management. Students had the experience of studying online courses. There were teachers at every department who had used LMS in their daily work, and had experience in creating online courses.
Most of the typical processes that are important to students, teachers, and study offices are described and posted in the Academic handbook, which is open access on HSE website. The results of the systematic work on digitalizing internal management processes were helpful: managing curricula or programmes of academic disciplines; applications for minors, for increased scholarships, for state-funded training, or for transfer to other degree programmes; and many other processes have been done electronically for several years.
Therefore, in March 2020, academic supervisors in cooperation with study offices managed to quickly and effectively adapt the transition of degree programmes to the new reality of distance learning: first, all information communication channels were involved, which were not something new for students and teachers, and students didn’t lose their bearings. The lack of timely information was one of the key problems in many universities. Secondly, the already proven hybrid learning technologies were quickly transformed into online format.
For HSE University, it is extremely important to put students at the centre of the education system. The system of study offices and academic supervisors, which has been operating for several years, focus mainly on student support. As we can see, this system has survived the pandemic.
Of course, there were also problems related to the speed and scale of the changes taking place. During March-May 2020, we jointly solved new tasks: organizing exams with proctoring, organizing remote state final certification, issuing diplomas in conditions complying with sanitary measures, and so on. We developed regulatory documents, met with students and teachers to discuss them, adjusted what we developed, and informed everyone who was interested in it.
Now we understand that the digitalization of routine processes of interaction with students and teachers is the right way, which we adopted long time ago. We do not plan to stop, we have a lot of new tasks to solve that are related to the organization of a more comfortable environment for all applicants and students of degree programmes.