The COVID-19 pandemic has recalibrated the educational process. Viktor Titov is Deputy Dean for Educational Activities at St Petersburg University's Faculty of Economics. He speaks about the following issues: how distance teaching and learning is implemented at the University; why an online meeting is a routine for academic department staff members; and what young scientists will be busy with during lockdown. 


What was the algorithm for switching to distance learning?

Our transition to distance learning was quite speedy thanks to teamwork and the high professionalism of the University's senior managers, administration staff, and teachers. I cannot but note that over the past three years we have regularly discussed at the meetings of our Methodological Committee the integration of modern educational technologies and e-learning into the teaching and learning process. Moreover, the staff of the Faculty of Economics has developed more than 30 online courses on key topics during this period. I would also like to thank my colleagues at the Coordinating Council for Youth Affairs in Science and Education of the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation for Science and Education for their tremendous experience of parallel transition to distance learning of the leading Russian scientific and educational organisations.

Therefore, when we switched to an online format in our main field of study, the quality of training remained the same. Decisions on the method, format and which information and educational technologies to use in the process were made for each academic discipline by the teacher and the educational programme director. These decisions depended on: the goals and objectives of the discipline; the specific features of the competencies formed; the capacities of the Electronic Information and Educational Environment (EIEE), both the ones built into the University EIEE and other types of such services. In order to achieve high efficiency in the implementation of distance learning technologies, a set of guidelines and recommendations was prepared for all teachers.

Which formats are provided? Do students watch lectures and seminars in real-time mode? Do they use online courses?

Three alternatives are implemented depending on the particular discipline: full replacement of the discipline / its modules with an online course (online courses); partial replacement of the discipline with an online course (online courses); and independent implementation of the discipline using distance learning technologies (DLT) without involving online courses.

The second and third alternatives use synchronous and asynchronous methods of implementing lecture- and seminar-type classes, as well as tutorials. The synchronous method is implemented using online technologies, conference calls and online videoconferencing. They make it possible to organise online classes and mobile cooperation, including video and audio broadcasts (streaming), text chats, e-whiteboards, and teachers' and students screen sharing in real-time mode. Such a format is especially relevant for seminars and practical classes in applied disciplines. It enables appropriate communication between the students and the teacher, and helps the teacher to monitor the students' work. It is noteworthy that such classes are recorded, uploaded to the EIEE and are available to students during their self-study.

As to the asynchronous method, video, audio and other formats of materials are prepared by the teacher in advance. They are uploaded to the EIEE for the students' guidance. That is followed by forum, wiki and e-mail discussions.

In my opinion, the most effective and beneficial alternative is a mixed one. Some of the materials are provided as videos, presentations, lecture notes, texts describing real-life situations and case studies; while the other part is broadcast online and, in addition, students have access to an online course. It may be devoted to some related topics, and if it is an interdisciplinary course, that is even better. Not only does this usually emphasise the key competitive advantage of a classical university, but also enables the teacher to create a variable and flexible course that will fully involve students in the educational process and help them develop new and unique competences.

How is the interaction of students with teachers and curriculum developers organised? What difficulties do you encounter?

The interaction is organised using the whole variety of tools and services available for technological support of distance learning. To structure courses, upload materials and provide instructional support, we mostly use the BlackboardLearn and Moodle Learning Management Systems (LMS). We also use the GoogleClass service and such cloud services as OneDrive, GoogleDrive, Dropbox and Yandex.Disk.

To create video lectures, the built-in capabilities of Windows and MacOS are used, as well as the PowerPoint and Keynote software. The recorded lectures are uploaded not only on the LMS and cloud services, but also on YouTube. I would like to note that in the first days of our transition to distance learning, the employees of the University Information Technology Service provided professional and high-quality recording of the lectures given by our teachers in specially equipped classrooms.

We use Blackboard to create, upload and assign tasks for self-monitoring and continuous assessment. The following services are also useful: Google Forms; Edpuzzle; Formative; Surveymonkey; H5P; Kahoot!; Quizizz; GitHubClassroom; Polleverywhere; Socrative; Wooclap; Flippity; OnlineTestPad; Acadly; and so on.

For lectures and seminars requiring real-time video and/or audio, we use Zoom, Skype, Discord, TrueConf, Webinar, and CiscoWebex videoconferencing services. For the sake of time optimisation, students cooperate in groups using social media (such as VKontakte) and/or messaging apps (such as WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, and Hangouts), to discuss and solve their current educational problems.

I cannot but mention Microsoft365, a multi-tool software package containing the MicrosoftTeams platform. It allows you to organise turnkey distance learning projects. The role of corporate e-mail in coordinating teacher-student work is also invaluable. Thanks to a broad range of University subscriptions and training videos created by the University Centre for E-Learning  Development on how to use various software in distance learning, we did not encounter any difficulties.

I would also like to note that the suppliers of electronic resources listed in the University subscription have significantly (almost threefold) expanded access to Russian electronic books in our main field of study. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasise that an amazing journey to the world of distance learning goes hand in hand with high labour inputs and invaluable contribution of each employee at the University. There is also considerable support from the students. We all have to cooperate, help and support each other.

And what about academic staff cooperation? Are there any department meetings?

During the first week, our academic staff had to work 24/7 to ensure the continuity of the teaching and learning process. We worked with our colleagues using teleconferencing, various services and corporate e-mail. Now, it is routine to hold either an academic department meeting, or an academic council, or a meeting of a methodological committee using innovative digital solutions for communication, teamwork and implementation of corporate tasks.

How is quality assessment organised?

Each teacher, within the framework of their discipline, reminds the students in advance about the upcoming instructional events. They also inform the students, specifying exact deadlines, on what assignments they are to complete now and over the next period. The teacher is continuously monitoring the student's progress throughout the course completion process, to provide individual assistance and counselling. The students are also informed about their successful results via the above-mentioned tools and services. The directors of educational programmes and the chairperson of the faculty student council regularly inform the dean's office on the emerging issues.

What about attendance?

We managed to create a comfortable learning environment contributing to high attendance and student activity. Each teacher, within the framework of their discipline, individually monitors the progress of the educational process. They register virtual attendance (using Blackboard services, for instance), assignment completion, and compliance with deadlines, etc.

And what about other modes of study?

The distance learning process for our part-time degree programmes and non-degree programmes is not different from that for the full-time degree programmes. Classes are held in accordance with the University electronic timetable.

What was the most unexpected thing in the online format?

To fully discover the variety of positive aspects of using DLT, and the difficulty of deciding on the most efficient and ‘user-friendly’ software while reviewing a large supply of it in the IT market.

You are also chairperson of the faculty's young scientists council. How did the lockdown affect it? Has part of your work moved online?

This semester, our faculty's young scientists council has the goal of high-level implementation of two projects on new online venues. Firstly, to organise and conduct a competition of scientific papers in the leading scientific journals among the 2020 students and graduates in Economics. Secondly, an international conference of young scientists and economists titled Development of Modern Russian Economy will be held as part of the 4th International Economic Symposium – 2020 dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the St Petersburg University Faculty of Economics. Yet we are ready, since the digital transformation of the business processes of the council’s work had been launched long before the epidemiological situation became worse.

Young scientists have more time to demonstrate high activity in the key online projects of the Coordinating Council for Youth Affairs in Science and Education of the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation for Science and Education, of which I am a member. The first project is Me as a Scientist aimed at attracting young people to science and technology and making them strengthen their positions in this field. Within the framework of this project young scientists speak on social media about their success, achievements, research and academic work, etc. The second is ScienceID, the first national identification and communication service platform for young scientists. It is a unique venue uniting representatives of government agencies, research organisations, communities of young scientists and businesses. Their work is aimed at identifying young leaders in science and promoting their alliance, in order to jointly meet the challenges of Russia's scientific and technological development.

We are planning to organise for our young scientists open online master classes taught by the winners of the ‘Science’ specialisation of the ‘Leaders of Russia’ All-Russian Competition of Managers, co-organised by the Coordinating Council for Youth Affairs in Science and Education of the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation for Science and Education.

I, like my colleagues on the Coordinating Council, have the great honour of rendering expert and counselling support to the specialisation events. I am confident that our goal to form a community of leaders in Russian science and technology has been achieved.