Institute of Education

Research & Expertise to Make a Difference in Education & Beyond

‘We Might Be in for an Anti-Digital Backlash’



The ‘digital age’ of education has whirled in like a hurricane. Long-term, systematic strategies for the transition to online learning have been swept away by global challenges, and primarily the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to counter it. Institute of Education research fellow Daria Shcheglova reflects on how some students might have been overlooked in this head-spinning rally to take education online.

I am one of those optimists who try to find something positive in every situation and who believe that even the greatest risks carry unique opportunities. The universal transition to distance learning provides just such a chance. This involves several main areas of work: preparing platforms and applications, training the ‘older generation,’ providing the necessary technical and legal support, and establishing a feedback mechanism.

Another particularly important aspect is the need to have students switch to ‘remote learning.’ We don’t know yet how this process looks from the students’ point of view, but they probably feel like ‘low man on the totem pole.’ For example, who has the final say over which platform to use? In all likelihood, the university or its administration does: in some cases the instructors do, but never the students. But in which virtual space would students feel most comfortable? After all, usability is an important part of the education process. Maybe we really should create personal avatars in Minecraft and combine gaming with studies.

Charles Coomber uses Half-Life: Alyx to conduct a geometry lesson for seventh graders

The risk is that we teachers think the current generation of undergraduate and graduate students  was born and raised with gadgets in their hands and that they all feel completely at ease in a digital educational environment. The main thing is to improve the quality of the content and images, bring them up to the high standards of the Millennials, the video-clip fixation of the Zoomers, and the activism of the next, as-yet-officially-unnamed generation.

But it’s not that simple. Although most students take to virtual Internet spaces like ducks to water, they remain sceptical of digitally based education.

In a study titled ‘The Birth of the Russian Master’s Degree’ that we conducted jointly with the Vladimir Potanin Foundation in 2019, we surveyed undergraduate and graduate students from 19 regional universities on a range of issues — from how they would evaluate their soft skills to their attitudes towards the whole system of bachelor’s and master’s degrees. We are now looking at several questions that measured students’ attitudes towards online education and the new form of interacting with instructors. This is what we found.

First and unsurprisingly, most students feel that lectures and presentations delivered as dictation are obsolete. They continue to place a greater value on personal contact with teachers in a classroom than on online learning, of which they are wary.

This trend is particularly pronounced among bachelor’s students. Most of those who prefer only limited use of online courses have a desire to develop personal skills that they do not associate with digital instruction: leadership, entrepreneurship, teamwork, and project management.

It would seem that online tools enable students to create remote teams, launch startups, learn project management, and demonstrate organizational leadership qualities, but the students with the most online learning experience are also the most sceptical. Apart from the fact that some of their aversion might stem from early missteps in organizing online classes, students are concerned that they will simply drown in the impersonal world of digital education. For this reason, we might see a backlash against online instruction after the quarantine ends.

It is important to understand that the current situation requires students to be highly capable of adapting but offers them no confidence in the future. Education should help build this confidence by providing a comfortable, unaggressive environment. It would be a mistake to expect that instructors alone can accomplish this with classes shifting online almost overnight.  

Tutors with ‘helpline’ operator skills could be real lifesavers, providing not so much assistance with coursework as support and guidance, enabling every single student to advance along their chosen educational path.

It is time we recognize that ‘educational track designer’ and ‘education coach’ are not professions of the future, but the present — because the future is already here.