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Online Courses Will Help Enhance Student Engagement and Education Payoff

Among an entire host of reinvigorating discussions that were featured at this year’s EdCrunch international conference, one topic that received special attention was how the ubiquitous digital move and Big Data can help advance education. Yaroslav Kuzminov, HSE Rector and Academic Supervisor for Education, talked about online courses as a means to update the university curriculum and bring training in sync with the modern-day pace of life, student expectations and economic needs.   

The speed of technological innovation is constantly increasing, and the educational system should be ready to deliver up-to-date knowledge to people of various ages at equally high speed, Mikhail Kotyukov, Russian Minister of Science and Higher Education, said in his welcome address. How can we do this? What should we focus on? What study formats should we use? These questions are pressing not only in Russia, but all over the world.

According to HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov, the readiness of universities to take advantage of new technologies depends not on the equipment available (after all, installing WiFi is not rocket science), but the data that lies at the foundation of an institution’s educational and administrative system: should it be objective and open, or subjective and closed? Soon after its foundation, HSE decided to pursue openness, and this was even before the digital revolution. People who come to HSE expect, for example, that they, both students and teachers, will be assessed as openly as possible. This helps them adjust to their work, as well as help the university to alter its educational and administrative processes if necessary. This concerns not only offline processes. After all, online courses have probably become the simplest and most noticeable part of the digital revolution in education.

There are 200 million students in the world today, and within 10 years, their number will be about 400 million. Traditional universities can only accommodate 10 times fewer students.

At a traditional university (e.g., Humboldt), a professor can deliver a single course based on their ongoing research. However, the exponentially growing number of students has led to emerging ‘mass universities’, where two thirds of courses are not based on original research, or composite universities, which deliver courses based on someone else’s textbooks. In this regard, they are hardly different from any general education school, and this is a very dangerous situation, because it is the purpose of universities to prepare innovators, while also improving the social status of students.

At most Russian universities today, teachers often deliver two, three or four courses simultaneously. Obviously, this means educators are not infrequently simply unable to keep up with the latest theoretical and applied developments in these areas. In addition, the average attendance rate of lectures at Russian universities is about 15%. It is possible to fix this situation through the fast implementation of online courses.

This transition cannot be solely voluntary in nature: otherwise, it would take too long. Today, discussions are underway about updating the state accreditation system for universities. For instance, state accreditation must take into account whether an academic institution has the resources to deliver original courses, or if it makes sense for them to go onto the national or global market of online courses prepared by professors who are actively engaged in research in certain fields. Universities may deliver workshops and seminars in addition to ‘external’ online courses. The digital course system will not only give students more opportunities in terms of the number of subjects to study, but will improve the quality of their education.

HSE has already started introducing obligatory online courses. The university was able to overcome initial resistance on the part of teaching staff, and its students are quite welcoming to this idea. HSE plans to further develop this tool: within five years, it is going to replace all lectures with online courses. Professors will even benefit from this change: their total number of students will grow exponentially. The audience will be not 300 students in a single classroom, but thousands of people across the country who can watch their lectures online.