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Taking Learning & Networking Online in Crisis Times: Lessons from Global Academia

Taking Learning & Networking Online in Crisis Times: Lessons from Global Academia

As the global COVID-19 outburst keeps tightening its grip across the dimensions of life, educational institutions worldwide have increasingly sought to migrate to the digital realm amid social distancing policies to flatten the coronavirus curve.

In these circumstances, exploring ways to make the utmost of what modern ICT offer for sustaining academia in times when conventional modes of leaning and networking are on hold has become an imperative as vital as perhaps never before.

A webinar held earlier this week as part of the IOE 2019/20 series on ‘Educational R&D’ brought together academic leaders and experts from Russia, China, and the U.S. to share best practices in taking university programs online.

A Colossal Challenge

‘Today is a sunny day in Moscow, but the city is gradually shifting to social distancing and self-isolation,’ said Isak Froumin, Head of the Institute of Education. He recalled that just days before the seminar, the Russian Minister of Science and Higher Education Valery Falkov signed a letter recommending that all Russian universities transition to distance learning.

Similar changes are happening all over the world now—the number of students who are affected by this is approaching a billion—which is a huge challenge for the education system. Schools and universities are closing, and professors and instructors are switching to online instruction, which presents many challenges.

Opportunities and Challenges

The first country to implement this educational change was China. According to Zhu Xudong, the Dean of the Faculty of Education at Beijing Normal University, higher education was transferred online as soon as possible. Assistants work together with teachers, setting up students for full-time work.

‘Discussions of students with teachers in chat rooms are no less lively and interesting than before when they interacted in person,’ he said.

We have engaged students who are well-versed in ICT and LMS to deliver fast-track upskilling sessions of two to three days to those faculty members who are novice to online learning tools. In addition, a roadmap of more than 300 guideline models for teaching online has been prepared so our instructors can take advantage of those practices and approaches that work best in each particular case

Xiaoxiao Wang 
Head of MOOC and Blended Learning at Tsinghua University 

‘We have been doing online education for a long time, but no one expected it to receive such a powerful impetus for further development because of the virus,’ said Liu Shuhua, Vice Director of Zhejiang University's Center for International Education Research.

Tao Zhan, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies, hopes that the virus will disappear soon and the experience gained in China and other countries will be valuable for a long time to come.

However, according to Chinese colleagues, there are still plenty of financial and technical difficulties. There is a lack of quality equipment, and not everyone is ready to use new tools. There is tension in the student community, especially since some of the students remain in university dormitories, and many of those who have gone home do not have good internet. The students, of course, are not conducting experiments or interning at enterprises.

In the future, according to Zhu Xudong, it is necessary to establish certification procedures for open educational resources, teach teachers how to use them, encourage interaction between universities, and get external partners involved in organizing online education.

Between Panic and Good Advice

American universities are also moving online. Alexander Sidorkin, Dean of the College of Education at the University of California, Sacramento, reported that approximately 40% of his instructors already know how to use new online teaching programmes, another 40% need a little support, and 20% do not know what LMS (Learning Management System) is. It is with them that the employees of the teacher training center (the ‘teaching room’) actively work, often overloading information about their ‘favorite toys’. ‘In this situation, it is important to strike a balance between panic and good advice,’ said Alexander Sidorkin.

Igor Chirikov, Director of the Student Experience for the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, says that going online is not necessary to improve the quality of education, but rather to minimize the risks of spreading the virus.

Now the hardest part is to avoid confusion, so we need to clearly tell students and instructors about the new rules

The university has lent out laptops to some students until the end of the semester. ‘The general framework in Berkeley has been set: the university has paid for Zoom accounts for all employees, and then it is up to the teachers and educational programmes themselves to determine how to structure their interaction with their students,’ he said.

Do Not Reduce Interaction

According to Vasily Tretyakov, Director General of the 20.35 University, the easiest thing that teachers can do now is to broadcast their lectures or record them and make them available to students. The most dangerous thing a Russian university may face is a decrease in interaction.

‘It will be extremely difficult to increase motivation, awareness, and a responsible attitude towards learning among students,’ he said. ‘It may turn out that students will only start watching the recorded lectures and studying for their exams at the very end of the semester.’

To avoid this, you need to focus on organizing group work online, the expert said.

Think about Others

Russia started organizing online training later than many other countries, and this allows us to analyze the experience that has already been gained elsewhere, noted HSE Director for eLearning Evgenia Kulik. In Russia, there are about a thousand quality courses that can be used by universities, and now we are testing technological systems: we need to understand whether they are capable of delivering content to hundreds of thousands of students.

‘This is also a test of our relationships with one another. Many people have ended up in a stressful situation caused by a significant change in various processes, and this is superimposed on the stressful situation society as a whole now finds itself in due to the pandemic,’ said Evgenia Kulik.

In her opinion, the algorithm for transitioning higher education to an online format is understood. The main task is to carry out all changes carefully while keeping other people in mind and focusing on their education and support.