This year, many Russian universities have been forced to make a quick changeover to online education.  At the same time, they have been faced with new questions:  Does every teacher have to come up with their own online courses, or should they use those developed by their colleagues?  Is it possible to give students credit for courses they have passed at other universities?

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Vladimir Starostenko, Director of the Centre of E-Learning Development at St Petersburg University, talked about the University’s experience in this field and shared his views on the prospects for the development of online education. 

Mr Starostenko, how many students from all over Russia are currently enrolled in online courses at St Petersburg University?  Which are the most popular fields – History, Biology, Economics, or some others?

 

Our courses are presented on five platforms, including our own.  The total number of students in our online courses has surpassed 1.5 million, and it goes without saying that most of them are from Russian universities.  This spring semester alone, more than 12,000 students from different universities have applied through their institutions.  We already have more than 180 online courses, so everybody ought to be able to find something to their liking.  Traditionally, courses in foreign languages and those that develop soft skills are in high demand. 

Since they were launched, many courses have been setting records and attracting large audiences.  For example, in a couple of weeks, more than 40,000 people signed up for the Neurolinguistics course, which was developed under the guidance of Tatiana Chernigovskaya and is in English, on the Coursera platform, and we have just launched the Russian version of the course on the Open edX platform.  

Up to 500 people join in every week for the Introduction to Quantum Computing course on the Coursera platform. 

Among universities, courses in life safety, philosophy, the history of Russia, and other general university disciplines have enduring appeal. 

How many universities have already indicated that they are ready to give credit for the University’s online courses as the equivalent of their own?

So far, 65 universities from all over Russia have applied to the University, including, for example, Astrakhan State University, Kabardino-Balkarian State University, the Higher School of Economics, Sevastopol State University, Peter the Great St Petersburg Polytechnic University, the Far Eastern Federal University, South Ural Technological University and many others.  What is more, applications are still coming in.

Some universities, especially those that have already had the experience of cyber partnerships with St Petersburg University, have contacted us directly, but most have sent their applications through the portal of the Modern Digital Educational Environment (MDEE).

It is clear that, in the middle of the pandemic, many universities were overwhelmed when faced with the urgent need to switch over to a remote format, and in this circumstance St Petersburg University, firmly ensconced as the leader in online education, felt obliged to provide comprehensive methodological support for the inclusion of online courses in the educational process.

In the current situation, are there many students at the University who have asked to be given credit for online courses they have already taken?

To begin with, it should be noted that a huge number of applications have been submitted by the directors of the institutes and the deans.  To date, there have been just shy of 300 applications and almost 10,000 students.  There have also been around 600 individual applications from students at the University, and most of them have been approved.  The time has come for end-of-course assessments, and now we will be able to see just how many students received certificates for the completion of online courses and were able to receive credit for a discipline or part of one.

Do many Russian universities use online courses today as part of their curriculum?  Is their number growing?  Do they mainly set up their own online courses now, or do they allow their students to use materials from other universities?

It’s hard to come up with some kind of exact figures, but judging from the growing list of universities on the Open edX platform and the MDEE portal, the interest is definitely there.  Many universities set up online courses, not in the MOOC (massive open online course) format but in the SPOC (small private online course) format, which is to say rather small courses that are used exclusively on their own platforms and by their own students.  Naturally, for many of them it makes sense to use other people’s courses simply because developing an online course, if we’re talking about a high-grade educational product and not just a few lectures thrown together in makeshift fashion, requires a certain amount of financial investment, while using someone else’s online courses helps cut costs.

In your opinion, will it be possible in the future for students from one university to enrol in online courses in their field at another university and receive credits for them without any problems?  Is that possible now, and if so, how does it work?

I think so.  Something of the kind is already being practiced.  What’s more, immediately after the Ministry of Science and Education of the Russian Federation issued a special order about the changeover to distance learning, St Petersburg University announced that it was offering students from all Russian universities opportunities to gain certification for its online courses and receive credit for them at their own universities.  At the same time, the University’s online specialists got in touch with the administration at the universities where those who had asked to avail themselves of such opportunities were students and advised their colleagues in academic affairs on how to include the online courses.  As a result, most of the students’ requests were met.

What still needs to be worked out for this mechanism to function without any hitches?  Will the current situation with the spread of the coronavirus infection contribute to the development of online education and cooperation among universities in this field?

To be sure, changes need to be made in the regulations at different levels, and they are already under way.  The current situation, in which there simply was no time to limber up before we took the leap, is by all means conducive to the development of online education and the strengthening of ties between universities when it comes to networking.  What’s more, many of those who received their degrees long ago will change their opinion about online education.  We are seeing a surge in registration for online courses right now, during the pandemic.  This is only natural:  trapped within four walls, people are taking advantage of the time on their hands to educate themselves and improve their vocational skills.