A diligent SPbU student can get up to speed on any changes in his tomorrow's schedule the night before the next school day, and a disorganised student can look up today’s classes in the morning, while hurrying to the bus stop. The online timetable is accessible to everyone now, even on a tablet or a smartphone.
However, just few years ago, the only way for both types of students to find out what classes they had was to go to the hall by the dean's office, where they could copy their timetable into a notebook. Class changes were written on multicoloured papers pinned to the bulletin board. Lists of professors and associate professors, lists of students by learning group and cohort, lists of subjects, teaching workload distribution – all this used to be gathered by different people, who were not always willing to share 'their' information. It was difficult to find out whether a neighbouring building had any vacant classrooms, not to mention how hard it to book one to teach a class there.
Senior Vice-Rector for Academic and Methodological Affairs Ekaterina Babelyuk, and Pavel Karpenko and Sergey Sevryukov from the Office of Information Technology have told us about the development of e-services, about the recent significant changes that have taken place at the University in the development of information technology for education, and about the previous state of it all.
We have asked Ekaterina Babelyuk what it was like before. How did the University live without integrated e-services?
E-services in education are essentially a computer-assisted solution for formalised interactions between various participants in education: university entrant/university, student/university, student/teacher, teacher/university. Therefore, the precondition for developing a specific e-service is a clearly defined rule, meaning that it is necessary to have uniform regulations governing the rights and obligations of education participants. It should be noted that, unfortunately, there used to be no such thing at the University for a long time. Despite the fact that the education legislation transferred the right to regulate the myriad of organisational issues of teaching and learning process to educational institutions, starting with 1991, there were no uniform rules for SPbU students.
Parts 1 and 2 of Article 32 of the Russian Federation Law of July 10, 1992 No 3266-1 'On Education' formalised the independence of educational institutions in the implementation of the educational process and established that the development and adoption of internal regulations or other by-laws are the responsibility of a given educational organisation.
Prior to 1991, like all the other higher education institutions in the USSR, our university was governed by regulations established by superior authorities. The early 1990s saw a significant change in legislation: universities, entrants and students received far more freedom and independence in educational relations. In particular, university entrants and students were entitled to new rights: in case they were not admitted to state-funded places, they could choose to study on the contractual basis; they could transfer from fee-paying to state-funded places; they could receive credits for studying at other universities (including foreign ones); they could get parallel education at two universities or at two educational programmes at one university; they could go for a second degree of the same qualification level on a fee-paying basis, and enjoyed a number of other rights. Whether these rights were actually applicable, depended on the extent to which heads of specific universities were ready (or able) to address all these matters in university by-laws. In particular, it was for this purpose that universities were given much more freedom in settling academic matters than in the Soviet period, and heads of universities had far more rights in resolving vital issues concerning university entrants, students, and staff. In order to comply with the law, SPbU was supposed to adopt a university-wide teaching and learning policy. This, however, did not happen.
The old Soviet rules continued to govern the life of the University de-facto for a while, but they did not address such issues as, for instance, study trips, credit transfer, transferring fee-paying students to state-funded places, tuition payment procedure (deferred payment / instalments), and a number of other important issues directly affecting (and defining) the rights and obligations of participants in education. The law gave students the appropriate rights and demanded that heads of universities address any relevant matters in by-laws. Many universities developed such regulations in the early 1990s, and it is now difficult to say why the University failed to fulfil this legislative requirement. What was the reason – insufficient qualification, hesitance to take responsibility or something else? But students wanted to take advantage of the new opportunities granted by the law.
For example, thousands of university graduates from all over the country wanted to go to SPbU in order to get a second degree in law, economics, philology, etc. Applicants who were not admitted to state-funded places were willing to study at their own expense, and in case they were admitted they would like to have the opportunity to pay at a later day or to pay in instalments. Fee-paying students wanted to have the right to transfer to government-funded places, and they wanted to have a clear idea about the content of their educational programme and teachers; they wanted to know where their classes would take place, who approved the course programme, where you could find questions for exams and pass/fail tests, who approved term paper topics, and who appointed members of the State Assessment Board. They wanted to know the rules for re-sitting examinations and tests, for the assignment of merit-based scholarships, and for making appeals against examination or test results. Students wanted to know their class and interim assessment timetable. Private and state-owned enterprises were willing to pay for their employees' education at the University's main and additional educational programmes. Applicants from different Russian regions and from abroad were willing to pay for preparatory courses.
At the same time, heads of structural units at the University began to persistently ask for, and sometimes even demand, a centralised solution for at least the most pressing of these issues. The situation called for firm actions in order to adopt the necessary regulations that would ensure the rights and freedoms guaranteed to students, applicants and teachers by law. Instead of that, the University chose to shift the responsibility to its individual employees and started issuing them general powers of attorney in 1991. The use of general powers of attorney meant that other University officials were now responsible for civil, financial and legal actions, instead of the Rector. At first, they were issued only to deans of special faculties (Philology, Economics, Law, and Psychology), but after a while there were more than a hundred of such powers of attorney at the University. And using these general powers of attorney, the University staff (directors of different centres, heads of various programmes, deans of special and other faculties) began to solve educational issues independently, since they had the right to create their own rules and regulations.
The position of senior vice-rector for academic and methodological affairs was introduced at the end of 2015. Before that, Ekaterina Babelyuk was Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs (from March 1, 2011 to December 16, 2015). Before her, this position was held by Nikolay Kaledin (September 10, 2008 to February 28, 2011), Ilya Dementiev (October 18, 2004 to September 9, 2008), Lyudmila Gromova (June 4, 2002 to November 4, 2002 as Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and Head of the Academic and Methodological Directorate; November 5, 2002 to October 17, 2004 as Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs), Igor Murin (October 1, 1996 to February 28, 2000; March 1, 2000 to May 31, 2002 as Senior Vice Rector for Academic Affairs), Rudolf Yanson (1994 to 1996), Andrei Zhukov (1989 to 1993), and Lyudmila Verbitskaya (1984 to 1993, also as Senior Vice Rector).
Since powers of attorney were issued to specific employees, rules were being created by separate people and not by special faculties, centres, institutes, colleges, and faculties as a whole. That was how a variety of rules started to govern the life of individual parts of one large university. As a result, despite the legislative requirements, the University ended up with different rules governing resits, tuition fees (instalments / deferred payments), the approval of topics for diploma projects and course syllabuses, individual study plans and timetables, and term and diploma papers.
Most rules governing the life of students, applicants, and teachers, were unwritten (at the end of the 20th century!).
A vivid example of the inconsistency in students' rights is the number of times they could resit pass/fail tests and examinations. Students enrolled on state-financed basis had only two attempts; if the second one was unsuccessful, it resulted in their expulsion from the University. On the other hand, fee-paying economics, law, and philology students could have a virtually unlimited number of attempts. At the same time, fee-paying management students could resit examinations and tests only once. Gaps between these rules only grew wider over time. But those students were from the same university, after all, and they were supposed to have equal rights according to the law.
Creating uniform e-services for the whole university under such conditions was simply out of the question. In order to begin developing e-services, it was first necessary to create university-wide rules for every type of educational relations (entrant / university, student / university, teacher / university. It is interesting to note how peculiar the University terminology of that period was: 'university rules' (concerning classrooms, books, dormitories, vehicles, financial assets, debt obligations, etc.) and 'university-wide rules' had different meanings. This part of the history of the University is described in more detail in another article, so let us get back to e-services.
Naturally, e-services began to emerge in those parts of the University which were the first to enter the competitive environment. Heads of these essentially independent units had to compete for strong entrants, high-achieving students, and good teachers, which called for improving the existing conditions by introducing an e-timetable, an e-library, and clear rules of transfer from contractual to state-funded basis. By 2008, some deans at academic affairs departments, whose employees de facto and de jure reported to deans of faculties, commissioned the development of their own e-systems for keeping records of students and teachers, and for drawing up curricula and timetables. For example, in 1998, Dean of the Faculty of Law commissioned an e-timetable system for 'his' department, which incorporated curricula, the distribution of teaching workload, and a student database. Dean of the Faculty of Economics and some other deans bought an information system called Student from a group of developers, the University's mathematicians. It means that, back then, common property belonging to the whole University (in this case, intellectual property of a software product) was being 'privatised'. Deans of so-called 'poor' faculties had to keep manual records of students.
As a result, the University had about 20 separate information systems, and the Rector's office used its own autonomous system as well. As a result, by 2008 no one at the University knew the exact number of educational programmes, the number of students, teachers, buildings, rooms, books, pieces of equipment, and even the number of the issued general powers of attorney and their holders.
Where did you start?
The first subsystem called Priyom [Admission] was launched in 2008. The second one was Vypusk [Graduation], launched in 2010, when SPbU graduates were to receive our first institutional diplomas (the law 'On Two Universities' gave this right to St. Petersburg State University and Moscow State University). And in the meantime, in 2009, we started the development of the Obuchenie [Training] information system, which was supposed to ensure the interaction between subsystems Priyom, E-Timetable, Distsipliny [Subjects], Uchebnye Plany [Syllabuses], Pedagogicheskaya Nagruzka [Teaching Workload], and Vypusk [Graduation] The objective was to synchronize Obuchenie with other information systems used at the University (SAP, 1C, Blackboard, the library system, and PACS) to allow for the exchange of data between them. By 2016, subsystems Priyom, E-Timetable, and Vypusk proved their effectiveness. E-Timetable allows to systematize extracurricular affairs, as it makes it possible to take into account all teaching rooms of the University and all types of activities, be it scientific, sports or cultural events.
Why was buying an information system from outside developers not an option (like SAP and 1C, which are used at the University)?
All modules of the integrated information system were created by the staff of St. Petersburg State University, with the University's unique features in mind. We did analyse some similar off-the-shelf products, and it turned out that other systems can not live up to the challenge.
The Department for Information Support for Educational Activities was established as part of the Office of Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs at the suggestion of Ekaterina Babeluk in 2010. The staff was tasked with information support and ensuring smooth operation of the educational process for the whole University. Before that, these issues used to be solved by staff members chosen by deans of faculties, and centralised University services did not deal with these issues at all.
For example, business software suite 1C:Accounting is based on rules of accounting and taxation entrenched in the Tax Code and other regulatory documents. SAP software is based on the Labour Code and orders of the Ministry of Labour. And when it comes to educational process, all the unique features of each institution should be taken into account. All other information systems are created with federal educational standards in mind and cannot be modified according to an institution's own standards. It is unacceptable for us, as our unique standards are the competitive advantage of SPbU. All ready-to-use products offer cookie-cutter solutions. And adjusting to someone else's business logic would kill the identity of the University's academic and educational schools. The process of informatisation shows that quite often a cheaper and more efficient solution for educational processes is to create software from scratch than to alter someone else's product.
In addition, the University has a wide range of educational programmes:
general secondary and secondary vocational education, higher education programmes (bachelor, specialist, master's and doctoral studies), and additional educational programmes. Other large universities also create their own software products for certain levels of education, but the Russian market has no alternatives to information system Obuchenie created at St. Petersburg State University.
It is also important to note that all the public services of its individual subsystems support multiple languages. By simply clicking a button, you can already see the Russian and English versions of e-timetable and your personal account interface.
Let us take a look at some of the information services for education used at SPbU.
For many years, timetables could only be found on a bulletin board in the hall by the dean's office. Students found it highly inconvenient that any teacher could come there and leave a note about moving their class to a different time or changing a class completely. These changes were often inconsistent, and students had no way of finding out about them quickly – they had to deal with such sudden changes in their timetable when they came to the University. Official changes used to be extremely difficult to make and had to be approved by various authorities. Teachers had to call the timetabling office in order to get information on changes in their timetables, which was inconvenient as well.
And even now, an e-timetable is often understood simply as list of classes posted on the Internet (instead of a bulletin board on the wall), when in fact, it is a much more complicated management tool with can be used to solve various tasks:
- efficient use of teaching rooms;
- efficient use of multimedia equipment;
- familiarization of students and teachers with the timetable and its changes via the Internet;
- keeping track of curriculum delivery;
- effective use of teaching rooms for extracurricular activities.
In 2011, we had the task to create an e-timetable for all educational programmes of St. Petersburg State University, and it was far from easy. After all, the University has 773 main educational programmes, over 23 thousand students, more than 5 thousand teachers, and more than 110 buildings.
Deputy Head of the Department, Head of the Development and Maintenance of Educational Support Systems Pavel Karpenko has shown us how employees of the planning department create e-timetables. On the left side of the screen, there is a list of lectures, seminars, and laboratory workshops. When you enter a class into a timetable for a certain day, the system shows available rooms for the designated group of students, and the employee chooses one of them. The system also displays any clashes in the timetable, for example, if a teacher has two classes at the same.
But in order to create a timetable, you need structured information about students, teachers, subjects, and classrooms. These data used to be entered into the University system manually. Now it's easier: the e-timetable system is integrated with other subsystems used at the University. Information about teachers is imported from SAP, information about students comes from subsystem Obuchayushchiesya [Students], and information about subjects is taken from the Distsipliny module.
In the summer of 2012, a pilot e-timetable project was launched for one University building, Sredniy prospect, 41–43, which was used for teaching classes from different educational programmes. By the start of the spring semester of the 2012/13 school year, the University had two e-timetables ready for testing the system: Asian and African Studies, and Philology. Since September 2014, the e-timetable has been available for all educational programmes at St. Petersburg State University. Students and teachers can now use the SPbU website to check their timetables. There is now a database on teaching rooms (including information on each one's area, seating, multimedia equipment, etc.) and a database of premises for extracurricular activities (including assembly halls and sports facilities). This makes it possible to effectively use the University facilities for teaching sessions and extracurricular work, including sports and cultural events.
Creating an e-timetable is a rather laborious process, especially for inexperienced users. 'At the very beginning, the staff of the planning department started working on it 2–3 months before the start of the next semester (for example, they would start developing timetables for the fall semester in June). It was crucial for making a good timetable, where both teachers' and students' interests are taken into account, where students do not have to waste time on going from one building to another, where teachers do not have gaps between classes, and so on,' says Pavel Karpenko. 'And now an employee responsible for one educational programme can easily replace a colleague responsible for another one. There was a time when an employee fell ill right in the middle of developing a timetable, but his work was continued by a colleague responsible for another field of study, who joined the process quickly, mastered the specifics of the new field, and managed to finish everything on time.'
Today, the University e-timetable is unified, and it is posted to a corresponding section of the SPbU website. There are guidelines in place, indicating reasons for introducing changes into the timetable (business trips, sick leaves, etc.). These rules are uniform, and well-known to everyone. A new version of the guidelines is being finalised now, based on proposals from directors of institutes, deans of faculties, and chairmen of committees on education and methodology. The e-timetable is being improved as well, following the results of a survey for students and teachers available at a University webpage called 'Future of the E-Timetable' (the survey has been conducted regularly since 2015). Certain changes have also been made to project specifications and policies.
The e-timetable even allows you to see the location of every class, as it is now integrated with Yandex.Maps, which provide the map of St Petersburg and its suburbs. Further plans are adding a public transport tracker, also provided by Yandex. Both students and teachers will be able to plot a virtual route to any University building.
Student's Personal Account
This service proves to be very popular among students. 'You can log into your personal account with your ID,' explains Sergey Sevryukov, Head of the Technical Support Department for Medicine, Medical Technologies, Dentistry, and Law. 'The account contains student's personal data (date and place of birth, place of residence, passport details) and academic information (field of study, educational programme, year, group, transcript number). Students can verify this data to avoid errors in generated documents.'
Students can do the following in their personal accounts:
- see their progress for the last 2 semesters plus current marks (this data is confidential and is only available personally to any given student). In some fields of study, students can access their marks from all previous semesters;
- apply for financial assistance and submit an application for admission to the additional military training programme;
- generate and print a confirmation of enrolment letter; after verification, this letter can be certified at the academic office.
There are more features in development. Soon it will be possible:
- to sign up for an elective course;
- to see information about books checked out of the library, including their due dates;
- to receive notifications on a smartphone (for example, about class changes);
- to see a personalised timetable (elective courses included) and dates of not only pass/fail tests and examinations, but also resits;
- to look up teachers and their timetables;
- to find out what is happening in a particular building on a given day;
Some new features are already available. 'You can now choose a topic for your diploma project and a research supervisor in your personal account,' says Pavel Karpenko. 'You can also search texts of diploma papers uploaded to SPbU Repository. You can search them by title, by last name of a student or a research supervisor, and by field of study.'
Teacher's Personal Account
This service is high on the agenda; it is being tested and prepared for launch. Here, in addition to personal data, each teacher will have access to their timetable with all the relevant lectures, seminars, laboratory workshops, examinations and pass/fail tests, and resits. Teachers will also be able to fill in and update their subject records, indicating necessary resources and obtainable competences, and offering workload assessment. All this information will be available in the form of analytical data segments that will help to make comprehensive assessments.
We believe that a personal account will significantly simplify filling out and submitting various kinds of reports, and will reduce the number of paper forms that are currently required from teachers, since all the necessary information will be imported to their personal accounts and stored there.
From this year on, SPbU diplomas have QR codes. In the near future, employers will be able to verify diplomas and learn about graduates' achievements at the University by scanning a QR code, which will take them to the SPbU website and pull up a page called 'Information for Employers'.