About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

The transition online required revisions to all of the long-fossilised branches of education and prompted universities to take new approaches to teaching methods. Asya Fursova, graduate of the HSE Sociology programme, School of Education Dean and team lead producer at Universal University told Success Builder how to manage cultural projects, what ‘horizontal pedagogy’ is and why schools don’t trust new educational practices.

Was it easy to get into HSE?

The choice of HSE was nothing new for our family. My mother earned her second college degree at HSE and really liked it there. I was in the 7th grade at the time. Standardised state exams had not been introduced yet and students had to choose their educational path early to take the necessary preparatory courses that would ensure university admission. My mother pushed hard for HSE, saying that it wasn’t ‘overgrown with moss’ like some other universities. I found all the information I needed on the HSE website. The site’s sections were well structured, making it quick and easy to get an idea of how my future studies would look. There was a schedule, programme descriptions, additional courses and university options. I liked that HSE worked according to the Bologna system: bachelor’s and master’s degrees and had flexibility in changing tracks.

Like any teenager, I was attracted to psychology, and when I saw the programme in sociology, I thought, ‘Bingo, that’s it — psychology plus mathematics! Although it actually includes much more philosophy.

Photo credit: Maria Kallas

In the 9th grade, I attended the HSE preparatory course that offered great career guidance for all the major faculties at the university. As I expected, sociology turned out to be more interesting than the others, and then I began preparing for admission. In the 11th class, I was focused entirely on the preparatory course and the workload was equal to what I had at school, and all my friends were at HSE. The transition to university life turned out to be very smooth and the admissions process did not feel like a turning point of some sort.

Once you started your studies, were you disappointed with your choice of a major?

I thought I would go work in advertising, that sociology was for understanding people’s actions in order to manipulate them. I wanted to be a creator, a manager of human desires, but the sociology faculty doesn’t teach this. You receive a theoretical foundation in sociology, methods and tools that you can apply in any field. For example, after graduating from HSE, one of my classmates earned a master’s in epidemiology from the University of California, Berkeley in order to study statistical methods and analyse virus and vaccination data.

Once I was better acquainted with the academic world, I became somewhat disillusioned with science. When I saw how easily people could do shoddy work when collecting information for scientific articles and processing data, and how that information was often of questionable relevance, I stopped trusting research and decided to switch to practical activities.

When you work in more responsible or managerial positions where you need to analyse product data and make decisions on how to develop it; the ‘general researcher’ in you suddenly awakens. I must have internally thanked my alma mater 50 times for having given me a foundation in research. And of course, we were taught critical thinking skills that are so much in vogue right now. These help you process the incoming flow of information properly.

Why did you continue your studies even after deciding to do practical work?

I wanted to continue working in cultural management, but I felt that I lacked certain competencies. When I was finishing my bachelor’s degree, HSE opened a master’s programme in applied cultural studies that promised to teach students how to manage cultural projects. I chose that in order to ‘retrain’ myself and start building a career.

How did this differ from sociology?

It was very nice switching from sociology to cultural studies because the two fields share a common theoretical basis. From the methodological standpoint, however, sociology is a much stricter science. Information is structured differently in cultural studies and less quantitatively verifiable, with the result that I could not get a clear sense of it after two years of study. This is more like something in the humanities, a rather chaotic area of discourse in which methods are not clearly defined. This was unfamiliar to me.

I was very surprised that the graduate thesis for my master’s in cultural studies could be any kind of study, anything from a TV series to games

My enrollment in the applied cultural studies programme was a test in many ways. Later, Dutch museums contributed to the curriculum, greatly transforming it from that moment on, in my opinion. And this gave me an excellent foundation for interdisciplinary communication: now, it is easy to interact with the curators of projects in different fields. We also had very interesting teachers, whom I later invited as guest lecturers, as well as strong recruitment of students. I also received an HSE grant to study art management at a summer school in the Netherlands, and this was later useful in my work.

How did you put your new knowledge to use?

While still an undergrad, I got a job at the Flacon design factory, and as a grad student, I worked with the Archpolis project where our team developed Nikola-Lenivets as a cultural and tourist attraction. Working with that team taught me some important things: how to find modern cultural and art trends at an early stage and scale them up. Almost all the new media first appeared at Nikola-Lenivets. Initially, only a narrow segment of the culture scene — those in the avant-garde of trends — understood them. I was very lucky to observe how cultural trends developed from a small group to the scale of a project by the Moscow Department of Culture.

What would you call such a profession — a ‘trend designer’?

I would call it a ‘general non-profit producer’. I got into the right environment and met some great artists, curators and musicians, giving me a pool of ‘executors’ of successful projects. I learned how and from where to get funding, learned the norms of business correspondence and the chain of command, document flow — everything that all people learn in their first full-time job.

Photo credit: Maria Kallas

Does your work involve you in the creative and conceptual aspects of projects?

The project curator mainly handles the content. With educational projects, this could be an expert, methodologist or course designer from the relevant industry. In this case, the producer develops the business model of the overall project, packages the marketing and the brand and puts together a team so that everything actually happens as planned.

Your job as project producer is to assess whether the curator is working up to speed, whether the proposed format is suitable for the target audience, who the target audience is in general and how to upgrade the curator’s idea so that it really works. A Hollywood producer looks at a book and understands which scriptwriters to bring in, who should direct the movie and who should play the main role so that the film adaptation succeeds. The creative aspect of this work lies in putting together a cohesive picture with an eye to commercial success or to fulfilling any other metrics of the plan, which do not necessarily concern money.

How did you end up in education?

I oversaw the summer school back at Nikola-Lenivets. It was a very hands-on survey project with one group of architects under the guidance of another group of architects. Then I was the PR manager of the Moscow International Education Fair in 2016, thanks to which I got a good idea of what is happening where government initiatives meet the new wave of the private sector. Next, I worked in the culture and arts education programmes directorate of the Moscow Department of Culture. This is a methodological centre of Moscow art schools that helps them develop programmes, certifies teachers and provides them with continuing education, and participates in the allocation of full state scholarships and specialisations in schools.

Photo credit: Maria Kallas

I came to the Directorate as a curator producing educational courses for an external audience. This was a series of lectures on the history of contemporary art, cinema and other creative fields of interest to the average Moscow ‘hipster’. We also conducted refresher courses for museum staff from institutions under the Department of Culture.

As a curator and producer, I had the necessary skills and contacts from my master’s degree years and previous projects to put together courses that combine academic knowledge and topical subjects that are in vogue. Then, when I became the head of the entire educational department, we began holding international summer schools, long-term professional retraining programmes and many other interesting formats. After the Directorate, I worked at Foxford where I launched their IT college, and thus completely left the cultural field for education, where I plunged into product management.

Now I am a producer transitioning to Product or even Head of Product

My role is changing as the School of Education itself gathers momentum and isn’t just a pilot project that was launched yesterday. Such a specialist not only launches some viable product or project but before that is also able to reformulate the strategy of a company or a specific product, putting it into the necessary metrics, then immediately design them, assess its prospects and further refine the product within the framework of the new strategy. This is the next stage of my professional path, towards which I am currently moving.

What is a ‘design course’? This was a hot topic when studies went online. Why has it become important?

The topic really came to the fore thanks to the lockdown. However, back in 2016, the new wave methodologists with whom I worked at the time said that designing educational experiences is a separate discipline. It is more complex and possibly more powerful than instructional design (pedagogical design is more familiar to us). Nevertheless, both terms gained recognition in Russia mainly through andragogy [the science of adult education – Ed.].

In the human-centred paradigm, the course designer does not work at all like a classical methodologist in a state school, although they both focus on the curriculum.

The teacher in human-centred education is not an authoritarian figure delivering directives, and the approach works just as effectively with children

But it seems to be necessary to design such a course in response to the demands of parents as the consumers of education. However, with age, the student himself formulates his desires more clearly and understands what he would like to get from his studies. A system of horizontal pedagogy is emerging and gaining in popularity. For example, all over the world, there are so-called democratic schools without a definite curriculum, but with an educational environment in which the children themselves choose which lessons to attend.

Yaacov Hecht, an Israeli educator and the director of such a school told how some of his students once came to him with a request to offer a Chinese class. He replied, ‘Okay, we’ll start on Tuesday’. The teachers were surprised because none of them knew Chinese. But Yaacov simply purchased audio cassettes for self-study of the language and put them in the classroom. The school continued to offer Chinese for another 10 years, and one of those students went on to study in China.

Yaacov Hecht says that countries with democratic societies cannot have authoritarian, directive-based schools. However, not all parents are willing to send their children to democratic schools that, as a rule, are private and do not guarantee academic results. This is an extreme example of the person-centred approach.

With Sonya Smyslova. Photo credit: Maria Kallas

In this type of educational model, there emerges the figure of an instructional designer. In Russia, this is called a pedagogical or didactic designer.

This is someone who assembles a course programme based on a given educational result, although he or she does not have a specialisation and could work in multiple subject areas. An industry practitioner comes to such a person and offers his expertise. The course designer helps to convert this into a programme so that students can achieve educational results. He understands that every lesson follows a certain dramatic line: there are moments at which the student gets tired, making it necessary to introduce a practical task, and then a game, etc.

The next stage for a course design specialist is an educational experience designer. This includes not only the curriculum but also the student’s learning environment, including the digital and sometimes even service components. The designer first studies his future student in terms of his habits, values, motivations and concludes which lesson format to develop so that students will, for example, open up and be creative. When this is the goal, the environment will not include assessment procedures or school desks and the curriculum will be flexible. Experience designer is the speciality we are currently teaching at the School of Education.

Does the School of Education project address this question? How, in general, did it come into being?

Sonya Smyslova, my School of Education co-founder and HSE graduate worked as the head of the Centre for Academic Excellence at the Universal University. Since 2003, this university — that includes the British Higher School of Design, the Moscow School of Cinema and others —has been noted for its unique ‘sales offer’: only working professionals from the design and other creative industries taught there. At some point, many such projects sprung up and this became the norm in adult continuing education, so the Universal University decided to improve its offerings by studying the demands of students.

Sonya’s task was to beef up teachers’ competencies so that they could better transfer their practical experience to students. In 2019, Universal University Director Katya Cherkes-zade and Sonya invited me to launch a school for education professionals. We developed a course for those who are already working in education: methodologists, designers and teachers. Our main audience was educational programme design specialists, but there are also many programmes for other audiences — school directors, product managers in education and tutors. We are gradually expanding our product line. We would like to become the next ‘Teachers’ College’, the place where future teachers, school directors and directors of adult continuing education projects come to study.

To what extent does the state find such ideas interesting and implement them?

Education in Russia is changing a great deal, especially in universities because, unlike state schools, they are in a competitive environment in which the applicant chooses where to go. Universities are introducing increasingly personalized models — from minors and individual tracks for students to transferring entire programmes online. Russian universities are open to acquiring new competencies.

Secondary education is a huge machine that is scary to alter, and this fear is mainly because parents are not yet ready for change

All parents attended approximately the same type of school and think they should pass along the same experience to their children because they have never seen anything else. I can only imagine how indignant they would be if desks were replaced with beanbags or if electives became the core curriculum. However, school education will be forced to gradually eliminate directives and authoritarianism. This is because schools are now perceived as a service. Students’ and parents’ communication with teachers is taking on the character of an employer-employee relationship.

I can’t say that this is a positive turn of events because teachers don’t deserve such an attitude, so we’ll have to see where this leads. At the moment, parents carry a lot of weight at schools because they are voters and schools are afraid of conflicts with those who form the basis of the state.

On the other hand, children are changing. They think in so-called ‘clips’. It is more difficult for them to accept the standard programme, which is slow and has only one correct answer, so that teachers are forced to look for new ways of presenting the material, including through games. Formats will gradually change to motivate students. As the mother of a school-age child and, at the same time, as someone working in education, it is interesting for me to observe this large-scale process.

Private schools will also play a role in this change, but this will only happen in 10 years. They need to develop new approaches en masse. Then, relying on that successful experience, it will not be so scary for the Ministry of Education to introduce something new into the state school system.