The Covid-19 pandemic has brought some significant changes to how we learn and teach at universities across Russia by self-isolating and adopting distance learning. The University was at the forefront in doing this by shifting to remote learning as early as 14 March 2020. 

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Photograph: Dmitriy Fufaev, 'Petersburg Dnevnik'

We talk with Kamilla Nigmatullina, director of the bachelor’s programme in journalism, head of the Department of Digital Media Communications, about the rapid transition to online learning, its impact on education, and what self-isolation can bring to teaching and learning.

Self-isolating and social distancing have rapidly become part of our life. Perhaps, it was a bit unexpected. How did you respond to those changes? 

There was air of expectation. On Sunday, 15 March, I published a report on the pros and cons of online learning as an emergency roadmap for me and my students. The abrupt move to online education definitely will not enable us to radically reshape our education system, and it won’t ensure a smooth transition from offline to online delivery. Yet there is force-majeure and force of circumstance when you are forced to take certain actions. Fortunately, we have access to all available technologies.

For me, this shift is definitely associated with an unexpected surge in workload.

How did students respond to distance learning?

Some of them already stopped coming to lectures and seminars as early as 16 March. They were quite serious about the situation and unwilling to take risks related to coronavirus. Yet, as the surveys show, there are students who are unwilling to attend online classes and they are quite satisfied with having materials sent by email during the pandemic. This is definitely not a good choice. You should not lose contact with your teachers and fellow students.

How much did it take you to shift online? 

We were able to smooth it over in a couple of days and develop an algorithm. Yet the process is still in the making.

For the last week, I didn’t get any questions from students related to the problems they might have during the pandemic. Sometimes I cooperate with my colleagues and ask them how they are coping with e-learning. So far, our students in Journalism and Digital Media Communications say that there are no problems related to distance learning.

What measures were taken as high priority measures?

From the methodological perspective, we promptly identified those classes that could be delivered online and the classes that would be difficult to rework. Among them are those that are creative in nature and intended to teach face-to-face, for example, filming or speech classes. Thus, we need to find a solution on a case-by-case basis.

Among the high priority measures, as I see it, is a flawless communication with the staff, teachers, and students from other departments. Ensuring success in our communication meant understanding how to collaborate with them under the new circumstances, how to report, and what to take into consideration. This prompted us to issue guidance as to how to collaborate in remote learning, such guidance was published as early as 18 March.

Tell us about effective strategies for collaboration in remote learning?

There are several of them. First, you should use only the University email. It will enable us to control the process.

All classes must be delivered as they are scheduled in the timetable, and the work must be done in due course. Yet each teacher can choose the mode of delivery: online broadcasting, teleconferencing, emailing, or online courses on open platforms.

Besides, as soon as disputes arise, it is the curator who must begin negotiating with the teacher. This can save time and make negotiation more successful. In any case, if you have any problems, you should start with your fellow students and then start negotiation with the teacher. If you fail to find a solution, you are free to contact me by email.

Do you and your colleagues have any experience in distance learning?

To a certain extent we do. For several years I have been practicing webinars where the focus on chat and no eye contact are normal. Many of our teachers were practicing distance communication with the students before the pandemic. Social networking is a good choice. I have a Telegram-channel to post my lectures. Little wonder, more students are willing to get information from the Telegram-channel. Quite often we engage experts and business representatives from other cities, mostly from Moscow. For several years, our colleagues from Mail.ru have been delivering lectures through YouTube. Moreover, we are constantly developing networks in new media to share good practice.

What resources do you use?

Most commercial services have removed restrictions due to the pandemic and become free. Yet the main channel of communication is University email, which enables us to control how the classes are delivered and work is done. The courses in Blackboard have also been adapted to be integrated in distance learning.

You can find a list of electronic services on the University’s website. The University has removed restrictions and provides a free access to its resources.  It also has opened a free access to its online courses. On 17 March, I monitored all platforms and made a list of those that could be used by teachers who had difficulties in using technologies for distance learning.

Do you think that the pandemic can open new perspectives in education? Are there any problems that need to be solved or any challenges to respond to?

First, handwashing and remote working if you are ill are becoming more and more common. They are a main benefit and a good habit to acquire. I started to sanitise my smart phone several times a day, and I am quite happy about it.

Among the problems, as I see, are the following:

We realised that many courses could be delivered in a distance mode or transformed into an online course, yet we taught them face-to-face.

  • We had a vague idea about ‘supervised self-study’ and ‘self-study with methodological materials’. In our curriculum, there is a higher number of self-study hours than contact hours with academic tutors. It can pose a big problem for the teachers who have no idea about how to keep their students actively engaged in self-study and students who have never practiced consistent self-study.
  • In the nearest future we will have to be able to rapidly shift from in-person to remote teaching, for example if you are ill or there is a force-majeure.
  • I have heard a couple of times that some of the teachers are not willing to create a similar experience at a distance while teaching virtually for several reasons. Firstly, their materials can be used without permission for usage or without proper citation. Secondly, some talks with students can be quite private, and you don’t want to make them a public property. It sounds quite obvious. Yet, for better or for worse, education is going to be public and available for everyone. On the contrary, exclusive education in small groups is going to be quite costly.

Obviously, the pandemic has brought more opportunities than problems.

  • We can move a face-to-face course online and revise our materials. We can make two versions of the course: online and face-to-face.
  • We have practiced new teaching technologies and methods.
  • We have discussed the opportunities for student self-study: what its benefit is and how they get most out of it. Consequently, we have found out how it works best.
  • Most of us have gained new knowledge and skills to use digital tools and resources
  • Students who didn’t attend face-to-face classes make extensive use of online course materials.

Moreover, you can spend as much time for self-study as you need, if you have any of course, take a course beyond your scope of interest, or delve into the online technologies in education.