In order to protect the health of teachers and students during the coronavirus pandemic, St Petersburg University has introduced a distance learning format. Professor Marianna Shakhnovich, Head of the Department of Philosophy of Religion and Religious Studies at St Petersburg University, and a third-year student in philosophy Ekaterina Strugova shared their experiences of online learning and the difficulties they faced.

Before the pandemic

Marianna Shakhnovich believes that the teachers switched to distance learning more easily because many of them already had experience of working in this manner.

The team of teachers from St Petersburg University provided online training to teachers from other universities and public officials as part of the project, which was supported by the Ministry of Education.

Professor Marianna Shakhnovich, Head of the Department of Philosophy of Religion and Religious Studies at St Petersburg University,

'My colleagues and I gained some experience when compiling electronic manuals on world religious cultures for schools. Moreover, almost all the teachers of our department have completed a training course on the Blackboard learning management system,' said Marianna Shakhnovich.

'Full-time students of St Petersburg University were also familiar with distance learning,' notes Ekaterina Strugova. 'We have been using Blackboard since our first year, for example, when studying English. It was used to register attendance and provide assessments. We also took various optional courses using Blackboard. We sent our works for interim assessment by email, and this caused no difficulties to anyone. Our activities and experiences are now much more diverse, of course.

The way it all began

On 17 March, Marianna Shakhnovich was to teach her students a course in anthropology and religion at the museum. However, the day before it became known that all teaching was to be transferred to a distance format. As a result, the class was held via Skype. Further online lectures followed.

'I immediately started teaching the course on the history of religion and religious studies via Skype. The course features a lot of images and I use big presentations. I also upload materials to Blackboard. However, I deliver the course on the philosophy of religion without slideshows. In addition to online lectures, I send my students educational literature and excerpts from philosophical works through the University email so that they could use them in their reports and essays,' says Marianna Shakhnovich.

Ekaterina Strugova had a different experience. Students and teachers began by using social networks and corporate mail. Soon, they expanded their arsenal of technical solutions: ‘I really like the Discord platform, which is designed for distance learning. The only drawback is that it does not allow video conferencing. However, the choice of a programme depends on the particular course. Approximately half of all classes are held on Skype, some are on Zoom and Blackboard. We also make extensive use of corporate email, as it allows us to make sure that material has been received and to receive extensive feedback.’

‘It would have been a catastrophe 15 years ago’

'Had Internet technology not been at the current level of development, the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic would have been much more serious for all the participants in the educational process,' believes Marianna Shakhnovich. 'It would have been a real disaster 15 years ago. Yet, even now we are constantly fearful of the Internet connection going down. I have already had a situation when the network suddenly shut down. I eventually found a solution by using the Internet through my phone. I think that students sometimes have these kinds of mishaps, too.’

However, Marianna Shakhnovich has full confidence in the University's IT support. She believes that the University IT department does its best: it forwards learning materials, answers all questions and monitors the online servers of St Petersburg University.

I am happy to see that my studies are going smoothly now. I do not see any major shortcomings in how the system is organised.

Ekaterina Strugova, a third-year student in ‘Philosophy’

'Of course, there were some minor problems with Blackboard in St Petersburg University, but as far as I know they were related to the overall congestion of the network and were soon resolved. By the way, the 'anti-plagiarism' function works much better in Blackboard than in public sites,' added Ekaterina.

Challenges

The main challenge that Marianna Shakhnovich sees in this situation is the increased workload for the teachers: 'On the surface, it may seem that work has become simpler: the teacher turns on his computer at home, talks to the students and that's it. However, this work requires a lot of preparation. When I was using slides before, there were about 15 to 20 of them for one teaching session. Today there are 35 or even 50 slides. This is because it is difficult for students to stay focused while listening to a lecture and looking at a “talking head” for one and a half hours.’

Some students were initially resentful that they had to read and write more, according to Marianna Shahnovich. However, after she reminded them that the reading programme had not increased by a single page, the outcries stopped: ‘'Whereas students in my course used to write on average one abstract per month, now they write one paper a week. However, the volumes have decreased: they are 2,500 to 3,000 characters, which is about a page and a half of text. After all, we are talking about future philosophers, who are expected to be able to express their views. Furthermore, they receive a written comment on every paper. In the end, it turns out that it takes us longer to prepare for classes. Then, we conduct classes online, examine students' works and respond to them. It takes a very long time’.

Many students, however, like the written tasks much more than live presentations at seminars. Ekaterina Strugova is one of them: 'It seems to me that for many people the presentation at a seminar was just a formal task, which had to be done as part of the course. Now, we have a deeper and more honest approach to performing tasks. Some teachers provide comprehensive answers, which are not so easy to grasp in oral form. But now you can read them several times and understand them better. This is a completely different level of feedback.'

Attendance of online classes

According to Ekaterina Strugova, although it is no longer necessary to be physically present in classrooms, there is not 100% attendance:

'Students who had not attended regular lectures before lockdown are not frequent attenders of online classes either. I think that there is a human factor that does not depend on how the sessions are conducted, whether online or offline. Training doesn't seem to have become less intensive since the introduction of distant learning.'

According to Marianna Shakhnovich, she also has students who do not attend online meetings and do not perform tasks. However, the vast majority have already got used to the distance format: 'Everyone likes it. One of the groups, which has already completed the course lectures, asked me to run an extra class for them. They say they want more. I think they enjoy sitting on their sofa at home, with a teacher coming to tell them various interesting things. If we're talking about students who don't attend classes and don't do their homework, of course they'll have to fulfil all their academic tasks. Online learning is good because you can clearly see who was present at the meeting.’

Distance and live

According to Marianna Shakhnovich, the undoubted advantage of distance learning is that it removes boundaries, by which we mean geographical distances and offers inclusive learning opportunities for those people who are unable to leave home.

Distance learning has proved its worth in pandemic times. In 'peacetime', it can also be integrated into lessons. For example, you could ask a famous scientist to speak online. However, it is live lessons that give a special impetus to a teacher. Naturally, they are much easier for both the teacher and the student.

Professor Marianna Shakhnovich, Head of the Department of Philosophy of Religion and Religious Studies at St Petersburg University

Ekaterina Strugova sees no big difference between online and offline formats in terms of learning. On the contrary, she believes that the online format increases the responsibility of each individual student. Indeed, if previously he or she had the opportunity to sit passively at a seminar, now everyone must demonstrate their knowledge: 'I felt interested in disciplines that I didn't take seriously before the pandemic. Again, I really enjoy submitting my work in writing and getting a response to it. I think this has strengthened the feedback between a student and a teacher. Of course, oral presentations and commentaries are by no means obsolete; they are also possible in the remote format. It seems to me that the success of online learning depends primarily on the motivation of students. For many of them, it's an opportunity to think once again about whether they have chosen their career path correctly and whether they are really interested in it.’