Today, St Petersburg University graduates in all academic programmes – from mathematicians and physicists to philosophers and artists – need to acquire digital competence to have success in their professional careers. This issue is addressed in the educational standard of St Petersburg University. Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods Marina Lavrikova spoke about the requirements for each academic programme and the importance of enhancing digital literacy in higher education.

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What does the educational standard of St Petersburg University contain? When and why was it established?

The educational standard contains a set of mandatory requirements for delivering core professional educational programmes accredited by the Russian Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency. In other words, it provides a benchmark for performance evaluation of all our numerous and diverse core educational programmes. In 2017, a Federal programme ‘Digital Economy’ was approved by a decree of the Government of the Russian Federation. It included the requirement for the restructuring of university curricula so that all university graduates could acquire the key competences for the digital economy. Yet, no conceptual definition was given. Therefore, when developing the educational standard of St Petersburg University for 2018, we did our best to formulate universal skills and competences at all levels of education. The requirements of the digital economy were taken into account. We have already achieved certain results.

It is worthy of note that core educational programmes determine both the universal and specific professional digital competences. They are developed not only by a Universitywide course implemented in digital format on the Blackboard learning management system. Of course, digital competence is built up of accumulated experiences over a period of time. This is facilitated by a general systematic approach applied to each educational programme implemented at St Petersburg University. You may have heard that in 2016 German Gref replaced several hundred employees of SberBank’s legal department by a robot lawyer. Hence, only employees that cannot be replaced by artificial neural networks are to retain their positions. Importantly, they are to be able to work with big data and AI components. The University is tasked with ensuring that the graduates, whether they are designers, philologists, translators, journalists, geologists or professionals in the oil and gas sector, can handle their professional challenges in the age of digitalisation. Not to mention mathematicians, physicists and chemists, whose professional activities are conventionally associated with the use of computer technologies.

This task can be accomplished via Information Systems and Technology (IST) course incorporated in all academic programmes implemented by St Petersburg University. Furthermore, educators must be prepared to meet the demand for training digitally competent professionals. Indeed, not only do professional communities and potential employers request it, but also students who want to have a high level of training and sought after professional skills expect it.

With the COVID-19 crisis, the importance of digital literacy became more than evident. In your opinion, does the educational standard of St Petersburg University support digital skills acquisition and development so that students could participate in learning and research programmes during the lockdown?

I would say that the pandemic compelled many learners to master everything that our academic programmes offer in compliance with the educational standard. Clearly, digital competence, acquired by students in all academic programmes during their studies, turned out to be incredibly valuable when we all had to work and study under the once unimaginable circumstances and constraints of virtual reality.

What level of digital literacy is required for all students, including those whose future field of work is not related to information technologies? How was the required minimum level of digital skills determined?

At the University, a special working group had been tasked to determine the key competences that were included in the educational standard of St Petersburg University. The group was composed of lecturers in academic programmes from all faculties, as well as external experts – professionals in both their fields of work and digital technologies.

Bear in mind that the requirements laid down in the educational standard of St Petersburg University are divided into different competence levels. The basic level includes the universal competences – a minimum level of proficiency in digital literacy skills. In fact, it is not infrequent that our undergraduates have already achieved this level of digital skills. Naturally, it is important that they systematise their knowledge and continue to develop their skills to master the fundamentals of the digital economy. Provisions for the development of digital competence are incorporated in the University’s academic curricula.

For example, one of the key competences, which are essential components of a bachelor’s programme, is information and data literacy (UCB-10). It implies that a graduate should be ‘able to understand the essence and significance of information for the development of society, and use basic methods of obtaining and working with information, in line with the modern technologies of the digital economy and information security’. How is this level of digital competence achieved? An educational course was expressly designed for this purpose. It is an e-learning course, obligatory for all students enrolled in bachelor’s programmes, completed on the Blackboard system. In addition, academic curricula provide for specialised training courses that teach IST skills, which are in demand in the relevant fields of work.

Indeed, professional digital competences are also required in particular sectors of the digital economy. For a modern-day financier, market analyst or lawyer, a minimum level of digital literacy is no longer sufficient. The educational standard of St Petersburg University determines specific professional digital competences for all academic programmes implemented at the University. This enables students to acquire the required level of information and data literacy and develop professional digital skills demanded in their professional field.

According to the educational standard of St Petersburg University, students in all academic programmes, regardless of their field of study, must acquire data and information literacy skills relevant to their field of knowledge. Are there differences with regard to the level of digital literacy acquired by students, say, in bachelor's and postgraduate programmes?

Yes, certainly. There are quite noticeable differences. The standard formulates the requirements and competences for each level of education. The higher the level of education, the higher the competences required. Starting from the basic courses aimed at the formation and development of digital literacy, the tasks and competences are gradually becoming more and more complex. Thus, in the bachelor’s programmes students are to achieve just the required minimum of digital literacy. The master’s students are expected to reach a higher level of competence, while the course designed for postgraduate students aims to raise further their proficiency in digital skills. This is evident from the courses in the respective academic curricula. For example, students in bachelor’s programmes study ‘Digital Culture’, master’s students study ‘Digital Culture and Security Technologies’, while postgraduates study ‘Digital Transformations in a Modern Digital Society’. This approach entails a better understanding of how digital technologies affect professional research activities.

How is a students’ digital competence assessed?

As usual, practical tests and examinations are used to evaluate the learner’s progress and ascertain the achievement of the learning outcomes of an educational component (module or course). After students have completed the required learning activities and achieved the defined learning outcomes, they are awarded credits assigned to the module or course. Importantly, we apply the same principles of self-discipline to all educational courses with e-learning components – not only to the digital competence courses. Any online course offered by St Petersburg University can serve as an example. The learners can track progress just like their teachers. This is the main difference between classroom training and e-learning: in a classroom setting, teachers provide oral feedback on students’ oral performances. Indeed, oral feedback is the key to the formative assessment. Moreover, psychologically, students often prefer oral feedback to written feedback. However, it does not necessarily entail understanding the material, neither does it guarantee learning. As regards the online courses, the students’ results are recorded, forming their digital footprints. The built-in feedback and testing allow student to make sure they acquire the knowledge they need.

How does St Petersburg University help to develop educators' digital competence?

This task is being continuously addressed. I think we fared quite well in organising teachers’ training in the last semester. Indeed, we used distance learning technologies, since we had the opportunity to make use of various information systems in the education process. St Petersburg University has its own digital learning environment where you can find everything related to the education process. Therefore, teachers are at least familiar with the available digital learning tools. Besides, they must be proficient users of IST relevant to their field of knowledge, so that they can teach students how to use them. This is one of the key requirements that St Petersburg University academic and research staff should fulfil.

University lecturers have access to professional development opportunities to improve their competences. Also, we often consult heads of academic and research departments about their candidates for the training courses offered under the Professional Development Programme. Additionally, we receive feedback from students and regularly conduct Students’ Opinion about Quality of Education survey.

When developing educational programmes, we set specific requirements that the educators must meet. Thus, a progressive movement towards the digitalisation of the education process is maintained. Suppose the requirements for the level of digital competence in academic programmes increases, we will need educators who will be able to teach these classes. Consequently, it is essential that those who do not meet the established benchmark should be provided an opportunity to raise their proficiency level. We have all the resources for this.