1. St Petersburg University is a co-founder and the sole Russian representative in the Global Alliance of Massive Open Online Courses
The Global MOOC Alliance is a non-commercial partnership of higher educational institutions, online educational platforms and international non-profit organisations initiated by the UNESCO Institute for Information Technology in Education (UNESCO IITE) and Tsinghua University (PRC). Its creation was officially announced in Beijing at the global online conference ‘Learning Revolution and Higher Education Transformation’, which took place on 9-11 December 2020. St Petersburg University’s participation in the founding of the Global MOOC Alliance is a great honour and gives us worldwide recognition in the field of online education.
Among the founders and initiators of the Global MOOC Alliance are the three largest online educational platforms (XuetangX, Thai MOOC and edX) and universities that are actively engaged in designing and using massive open online courses. XuetangX is the world’s largest Chinese national online educational platform, hosting over 3,100 online courses with more than 228 million participants. As for edX, it is one of the world’s largest online open-source platforms, founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in May 2012. It currently hosts over 2,800 online courses with an audience of 100 million students. Learning management systems built on the open-source platform service Open edX are very popular and are used to support the teaching and learning process. St Petersburg University’s own online education platform is also based on Open edX technology. Thai MOOC is a project of Thailand Cyber University, which has brought together more than 100 partners to present 472 online courses.
The founding universities are the leaders in online education in their regions. This includes Cornell University, one of the best known universities in the United States and a member of the Ivy League; Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, which is ranked 11th in the world and 3rd in Asia in the QS World University Rankings 2020; Politecnico di Milano (the Polytechnic University of Milan), which in 2019 was ranked 16th in the world among technical universities according to the Top Universities Ranking (which is compiled by Times Higher Education) and, according to the number of online courses, is currently in second place among European universities that are partners on the Coursera platform; the University of Nairobi in Kenya, which ranks among the top ten universities in Africa and is the leader of online education in the African region, having initiated the creation of an African online educational platform; and the University of Toronto in Canada, which, according to The Times, is the leader in Canadian higher education, and whose online course ‘Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19’, presented on Coursera’s largest international online platform, is among the most popular in Canada (with almost 140,000 people registered), while another course, ‘Learning to Program: The Fundamentals’, also on the Coursera platform, made it into the top 100 courses of 2020 (with more than 220,000 people registered).
St Petersburg University Rector Nikolay Kropachev, a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, briefed participants in the first Global MOOC Conference on the University’s experience in the development of online education, both before the COVID-19 pandemic and after it began, when it was able to quickly adapt to the new conditions and maintain its standards of teaching at the highest level. The Rector noted the University’s key takeaways from this experience.
On the one hand, by using information and communication technologies during the pandemic, e-learning makes it possible to take full advantage of the knowledge, experience, talent and creative potential of academic staff. On the other hand, it enables the advancements of e-learning to be introduced into the academic activities. E-learning does not and cannot disavow the quality of university education.
St Petersburg University Rector Nikolay Kropachev
‘The pandemic has shown how much the academic community needs cooperation (‘Nikolay Kropachev, Sergei Belov and Yulia Linskaya Propose Strengthening Cooperation in the System of Higher Education’). The academic community around the world needs to expand national and international collaboration, the insufficient level of which was highlighted by the pandemic. Especially we need to consolidate our efforts in relation to e-learning. As a result, we are delighted to be part of the Global MOOC Alliance. This organisation will definitely be at the heart of the success of international collaboration and implementation of the state-of-the-art pedagogical technologies and practices,’ said Nikolay Kropachev.
He also noted that St Petersburg University has a longstanding relationship with China: among our partners, there are more than 50 organisations from the PRC and 50 companies with Chinese capital. The list of our partners includes the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, Tsinghua University, Pekin University, Fudan University, Harbin Institute of Technology, the Huawei Technology Company and many other organisations. The Rector expressed confidence that the Global MOOC Alliance will be an effective platform for us to continue cooperating with our Chinese partners, something that no external factors, including the pandemic, can bring to a halt.
The Chinese Minister of Education, Chen Baosheng, noted that the PRC is today’s world leader in the number of MOOCs, with more than 30 large online platforms offering 34,000 online courses. There are 540 million students enrolled in these courses, and this is the largest audience for online courses in the world. Chen Baosheng stressed that, in setting up the Global MOOC Alliance s, one of the objectives was to expand the access to Chinese educational products. The Minister added that another aim of this alliance was to increase the availability of knowledge and the global development of lifelong learning. ‘Education,’ he said, ‘is no longer the privilege of classrooms and books. They have been supplanted by huge arrays of knowledge on the Internet, which provide many more opportunities for learning.’
One of the initiators of the MOOC Alliance and one of the organisers of the Conference, Tsinghua University, is a long-time partner of St Petersburg University. Qiu Yong, the President of Tsinghua University, noted that today’s educational organisations need to promote openness. ‘More openness means relief from physical boundaries, technical restrictions, and identity constraints, enabling more high-quality educational resources to be shared with learners around the world in a more convenient and effective manner. Universities with more openness will achieve equity in education on a larger scale, promote lifelong education with more effectiveness, and advance exchanges and cooperation among the global society and mankind with an inclusive humane sentiment and a broader vision for school management,’ said Qiu Yong.
The UNESCO Assistant Director General for Education, Stefania Giannini, also noted the importance of developing online education to widen the access to knowledge. She stressed that the principles of inclusion, equity and quality must come to the fore, and every learning platform or resource should serve these principles. At the same time, she made the point that education cannot go fully online, and the pandemic, surprising as it may seem, has proven that. ‘Let’s be honest: we have learned one important lesson from the pandemic — students need their teacher. Interaction between people and live communication remain at the heart of the teaching and learning process. We must develop a new type of relationship. It should involve technology, teachers and students to avoid falling into the «digital divide» and falling out of step with the times. Teachers should develop their professional skills in this direction and look for new ways to deal with such challenges.’
All participants in the first Global Conference of the Alliance supported the adoption of the 2020 Beijing Declaration on MOOC Development. One of the goals of the MOOC Alliance is to form a global community interested in the exchange of quality educational resources. The Alliance will promote MOOCs and best teaching practices in online education, as well as develop international cooperation between leaders in the field of innovative educational technologies. The Global MOOC Alliance will also help its members achieve one of the United Nations sustainable development goals: ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. (‘St Petersburg State University is a co-founder and first representative of Russia in the Global MOOC Alliance’).
It was remarked at the Rector’s Meeting that our University is rightfully considered to be a leader in the field of online education: the University has initiated the Russian National Educational Online Platform ‘Open Education’. Today, the University ranks number one in terms of the courses available on this platform and the number of students. There are 146 courses out of the total of 663. The total number of students on the platform is 7 million, while the number of students of the University’s online courses on the national platform is about 2 million..
Additionally, the University is ranked first among European universities in the number of online courses on the international educational platform Coursera with 130 courses. It is third in the world after Google Cloud (USA) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA). Two years ago, St Petersburg University became the first and remains the only Russian university whose online courses are hosted on the largest Chinese platform XuetangX.
The participants in the meeting spoke about how the Modern Digital Educational Environment is a priority project in Russian education. And about how today online education offers different courses for different universities and different students. Our challenge at St Petersburg University is to develop online courses that are so good they will be sought after not only in Russia but also on the market of learning services in other countries. The directors and the deans were instructed to guide the University’s academic staff in their development of these courses so that they take into account not only the interests of Russian universities but also those of other countries.
2. St Petersburg University’s positions in the RUR Subject Rankings
In as little as one year, St Petersburg University has risen in the Round University Ranking (RUR) Subject Rankings a full 87 positions in the humanities, in one fell swoop, and taken 91st place in the world, moving from the Golden League into the Diamond League. The University has also improved its position in the social sciences, going from the 255th spot on the list of rankings to the 222nd.
The Round University Ranking is an international rating of universities that has been published since 2010 by the Moscow agency RUR, based on data provided by the Clarivate Analytics Company (institutional data, data from a survey of experts and data about publication activity on the Web of Science). The rating evaluates the performance of more than 1,000 leading universities according to four lines of activity: teaching; research; international diversity; and financial sustainability.. What is more, each of the indicators is given equal weight within a group. The effectiveness of the world’s leading universities is assessed according to six consolidated subject areas: the Humanities, the Life Sciences, the Medical Sciences, the Natural Sciences, the Technical Sciences and the Social Sciences (‘St Petersburg University is among the world top 100 universities in the Round University Ranking (RUR) in the humanities’ ).
In the 2020 subject ratings, St Petersburg University occupies the following positions:
- in the Humanities: 91st place (2nd place in Russia out of 53 universities (moving up 87 positions by 2019)
- in the Social Sciences: 222nd place (2nd place in Russia out of 57 universities (moving up 33 positions by 2019)
- in the Life Sciences: 192nd place (2nd place in Russia out of 46 universities (moving up 27 positions by 2019)
- in the Technical Sciences: 226th place (2nd place in Russia out of 66 universities (moving up 9 positions by 2019)
- in the Natural Sciences: 286th place (6th place in Russia out of 57 universities (moving down 41 positions by 2019)
- in the Medical Sciences: 401st place (7th place in Russia out of 25 universities (moving down 152 positions by 2019)
Not all the leading universities in the Russian Federation participate in the Clarivate Analytics surveys, and therefore they are not all represented in the ranking.
It was brought to everybody’s attention that such a sharp improvement in the rankings as in the Humanities shows how important it is to present accurate information to the ranking agency. The challenge in front of us all is to hold on to the positions that we have won. The directors and the deans were instructed to come up with concise plans of action so that we can devise an overall strategy for the University (which should include the internationalisation of our activities and the development of tools to increase the transparency and openness).
3. The bioinformatics team at St Petersburg University is among the ‘Heroes of the Year’
The team from the Center for Algorithmic Biotechnology at St Petersburg University (led by Pavel Pevzner and Alla Lapidus) has been recognised by the special project Heroes of the Year — Energetic People. This project is a story, told through interviews, about events that took place during what was a force-majeure year. The editors of RBK Petersburg find heroes that offer solutions to respond to the challenge of the epidemic, to the lockdown, to the uncertainty, and discuss these decisions with our business community, our partners, and RBK’s audience. The site of the project highlights the importance of bioinformatics at St Petersburg University, which, in a short period of time, has created a number of programmes for decoding virus genomes. It also enumerates the positions of business leaders, who assess the significance of the University’s decisions from the perspective of the business community.
It was stressed at the meeting how important it is to prepare media support for research in a timely fashion. It was noted that, aside from their undisputed scientific achievements, the staff at the Center for Algorithmic Biotechnology laboratory were the authors of the first online course at St Petersburg University. There is a clear need to quickly provide material about the work of the research teams to promote basic and applied research. The Bioinformatics Team not only conducts outstanding research, but they also regularly provide material about the laboratory to the Public Relations Department for release to the media. The directors and the deans were instructed to focus more intently on working with all of the research teams to come up with popular-scientific materials on the activities of the researchers and the laboratories.
4. The nomenclature of the academic programmes for which academic degrees are awarded is under discussion
A draft decree of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation ‘On the approval of the nomenclature of academic programmes for which degrees are awarded’ has been prepared. A new nomenclature of academic programmes for which degrees are awarded is being proposed: a number of former programmes have been excluded, others have been altered, and new ones have been included. According to the developers, measures have been taken to consolidate the nomenclature, to create conditions for training and to conduct research on an interdisciplinary basis. Until 14 December, public debate on the draft decree was held on the federal portal for projects involving statutes and regulations.
According to a new decree, which will come into force on 1 July 2022, a new nomenclature for academic programmes will be put into effect. Dissertation committees, whose authority is at odds with the nomenclature, will cease operations starting on the same day.
The participants in the Rector’s Meeting noted a number of contradictions in the draft decree prepared by the Ministry of Education and Science. They also saw a need to make substantial adjustments in each subject area (which would be done by local experts) and to develop a consolidated St Petersburg University position on this issue. The directors and the deans were instructed to submit proposals to the Vice-Rector for Research to adjust the nomenclature of academic programmes for which degrees are awarded and to express their opinion on the relevance of changes in the actual state of affairs during the public debate on the federal portal of draft normative legal acts.
5. Results of the Young Scholars Competition
The candidates for 2020 have been selected in the competition for the granting of subsidies to individuals under 35 years of age who are young scholars and young candidates of science in higher educational establishments and institutions affiliated with government departments and the Russian Academy of Sciences that are located in St Petersburg. This year, 339 applications were received (122 from young scholars and 217 from young candidates of science), and 264 of them have been approved. The maximum amount of the subsidy is 100,000 roubles for young scholars and 150,000 roubles for young candidates of science.
A total of 25 applications were submitted from St Petersburg University, of which 21 have been approved and are in the running for the grant (2 from young scholars and 19 from young candidates of science). It would seem that the percentage of approved applications is high, but in terms of both the number of applications submitted and those that have been approved, we are in fourth place, behind three other city universities: Peter the Great St Petersburg Polytechnic University (with 37 out of 51 applications approved), Saint Petersburg Mining University (33 out of 40) and ITMO University (33 out of 55).
It was noted at the meeting that among the applications from St Petersburg University, there is not a single one from young scholars and young candidates of science in a number of fields: history, sociology, economics, psychology, pedagogy, informatics and earth sciences. It was stressed that the departments of the institutes and the faculties do not do enough work with young scholars. It was also noted that the application process has been simplified. To confirm how much research they have carried out, grant recipients need to submit a report that they have published only two papers a year. In addition, the University provides quarterly bonuses to the winners of academic competitions. Now, when the directors, deans, and academic advisors make appeals for financial support for young scholars, they will be obliged to ask them how many academic competitions they have participated in and how many they have won.
It was also pointed out that some members of the academic staff have refused to participate as experts in this and some other regional and all-Russian competitions. The reasons for such refusals will be analysed. The participants in the meeting reported that when experts from federal academic foundations are invited to participate in competitions, if they refuse, they are required to explain why. It was proposed that a similar entry be included in the documentation of the citywide academic competitions. An appropriate proposal will be sent by the Vice-Rector for Research to the Vice-Governor in charge of the competition.
6. St Petersburg University is the most sought-after Russian university among international students
For the third year in a row, St Petersburg University has become the most popular Russian University among foreign students (‘St Petersburg University: the most popular Russian university among international students). This was announced at a recent meeting by Pavel Shevtsov, Deputy Head of the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) (Presentation of Pavel Shevtsov ‘On the role of Rossotrudnichestvo in the export of education’). As part of competitive selection conducted by Rossotrudnichestvo in 2020, 16,620 international students manifested a desire to enrol at St Petersburg University. By way of comparison, 13,905 foreign nationals expressed a wish to study at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University), 10,939 at the Kazan (Volga) Federal University, 6,950 at Peter the Great St Petersburg Polytechnic University and 6,614 at the Higher School of Economics (the last two, as can be seen, did not even cross the 10,000 threshold).
Information about the number of acceptances is also posted on the Rossotrudnichestvo website.
St Petersburg University’s popularity among international applicants was taken into consideration in the allocation of quotas for 2020. Factoring in the number of admissions in 2019, the Ministry of Education and Science increased the number of places for our University in 2020 by 13 percent. At the same time (taking into account the additional places that were meted out last summer), the increase compared to 2019 was almost 200 percent. It should be pointed out that the competition by way of Rossotrudnichestvo at St Petersburg University was 50 applicants per place, at the Higher School of Economics, 26, and at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, 10.
The participants in the meeting said that the teaching load for academic staff working with internationals students has increased substantially this year due to the astronomical enrolment of foreign applicants. Everybody was reminded how important it is to prepare for these new conditions ahead of time, which includes the calculation of the teaching load and the use of the classrooms, and to take measures in order to regulate them.
7. Organisation of the learning process
In the past week, the Virtual Reception has received 36 appeals from teachers and from students and their parents (of which 18 were about academic issues), and the Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and Teaching Methods has received another 18 through her email. These included questions about transfers and reinstatements, the handling of different documents, the receipt of status certificates, the ECTS grading scale, academic leaves and other topics.
One teacher writes to the Virtual Reception that in the Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 23 November mention is made of ‘weekly consultations during which it is possible to get answers to questions about current issues, to discuss the preparation of term papers, graduation papers and various student projects, and to get the assistance you need to solve problems’. These consultations are now included in the timetable. On the whole, in his opinion, the idea is an excellent one, since it gives a kind of framework for the relationship between teacher and student. But at the same time, questions remain about teachers’ obligations. As he sees it, consultations might be seen by students as additional classes in the subject taught by this teacher.
It was explained at the meeting that consultations are not additional classes. Decree No 301of the Ministry of Education and Science of 5 April 2017 establishes the procedure for carrying out educational activities, by which it is specified that working with students includes both group and individual consultations, guidance with term papers and graduation projects, and supervision of students’ self-study. These kinds of work are mentioned alongside the teaching of classes. On the basis of information provided by the directors and deans, a schedule of teachers’ consultations has been drawn up. Students can see it in their personal accounts (based on information reflected in the Electronic Timetable) and can ask teachers questions at that time and get answers to them.
Another question in the Virtual Reception comes from a student who has to take two pass/fail examinations for online courses using the Examus system. She is worried that she might have to sign a consent form to have her personal data processed. It was explained at the meeting that Examus is a well-known proctoring service on the Open Education platform that provides the measures that are essential to protect private data. Before taking a pass-fail examination and being subject to the proctoring procedure, every student consents to have their personal data processed. This consent is necessary to ensure that the online video recording of the examination can be stored for as long as it is needed to identify and resolve any problems that might arise during the examination.
There are two options: the consent can be given directly to Examus, or it will be transmitted through the consolidated information received by the academic offices, similar to the consent given by all students at the time of admission to the University (this consent has been given by students at St Petersburg University since 2010 so that they have access to electronic systems). The student, however, needs to report their decision to the relevant academic office. If they do not consent to the use of the Examus system, they will not have access to the proctoring service and consequently will not be able to undergo the final assessment in this online course and receive a pass for the discipline. It was once again noted that a student can undergo a midterm assessment in one of the classroom buildings at St Petersburg University or use an equipped classroom in one of the halls of residence.
8. The holding of University-wide conferences
On 24-25 December, University-wide conferences will be held in all fields of study in which research is conducted at St Petersburg University. This will allow us to take stock of the research that has been carried out over the past year. These conferences are open, on a first-priority basis, to academic and research supervisors of doctoral students and research supervisors of master’s and doctoral programmes who, in accordance with the educational standards, are obliged to annually submit the results of their research for peer review at national and international conferences.
9. The activities of the Euler International Mathematical Institute
In August 2019, a project of the Euler International Mathematical Institute (EIMI) was announced as one of four winners of a contest for the creation of international world-class centres. This contest took place as part of a national project to promote research. It was set up at a consortium of St Petersburg University and the St Petersburg Department of the V.A. Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (PDMI RAS) (Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 2 September 2019; Results of the Meeting of the St Petersburg University Academic Council dated 28 October 2019, the Scholarly Paper section).
Roman Bessonov, the coordinator of EIMI, reported that there are more than 70 members on the staff at the Institute, 90 percent of whom are under the age of 39. The staffing of the Institute is open to all, and it is highly competitive. One of the goals of the Institute is to encourage young people to become researchers. To this end, they have started up a programme to attract postdocs and leading young researchers, who come here from all over the world to carry out research and to teach. During the competition, 149 applications were submitted, the selection took place in 3 stages, and there were only 12 winners. Many of them had participated in competitions at other research centres, but EIMI was their first choice.
This year, six seminars of different types are being held online, which will offer beginning researchers an opportunity to present their best results to an international audience. There is, for example, a weekly seminar (the Seminar in Spectral Theory and Related Topics), in which more than half of the speakers are researchers from Austria, England, Greece, Denmark, the USA, France, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Russian research centres. There is also the Number Theory Seminar, which is organised by guest researchers, who complement the basic course of lectures. And a seminar in low-dimensional topology, initiated, organised and conducted by students who have won beginning research positions at the centre.
In November and December, two big online schools are also being held, each with more than 200 participants from Russia, Germany, France, Sweden, England, Israel, Norway, the USA, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, China and India, the majority of whom are young researchers. The Randomness Online School brings together prominent researchers, whose names alone can attract large audiences. One of its goals is to prepare for EIMI’s New Trends in Mathematical Stochastics programme to be held in 2021. And the objective of the Analysis, Probability and Mathematical Physics School is to attract external candidates to EIMI’s doctoral programmes. In this school, the lecturers give out tasks related to their courses in different fields of mathematics and evaluate the participants’ solutions.
The Institute also has a popular science programme to promote mathematics and attract talented schoolchildren to the University’s academic programmes in the field of mathematics. As part of this programme, videos for a wide audience have been made of some of the best lectures from the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Sciences, and any schoolchild can watch them. In addition, the Physics and Mathematics Club at PDMI RAS has organised an open lecturers’ room for mathematics students at various levels and a seminar, Industrial Mathematics, with the active participation of the Institute’s staff involved in applied mathematical problems (Presentation by Roman Bessonov).
10. The experience of working with students in MS Teams
On 3 December, as part of the seminar Practices of Liberal Education, Denis Akhapkin, Associate Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in Languages and Literature , gave a presentation ‘Liberal Arts practices in distance learning: experience with MS Teams’ at St Petersburg University. At the Rector’s Meeting, he highlighted a number of features attributed to academic courses that use e-learning technologies. In particular, the effect of ‘conversations in the corridor’ between students and teachers is lost. It is therefore of the utmost importance that a system of support for asynchronous work, a carefully considered structuring of students’ self-study, be organised (Mr Akhapkin proposed a possible weekly schedule). It is necessary to come up with a venue for discussion, a series of repetitive tasks to be done between classes and a means of giving regular feedback to the teacher. Systematic written assignments facilitate a common understanding of the material, encourage its reinforcement (through repetition) and stimulate criticism of the ideas that are already in play and the generation of new ones.
Mr Akhapkin described some forms of working with students. These types of tasks are widely used in Liberal Arts interactive pedagogy for a traditional classroom setting. Many of them turn out to be not only possible but also more effective when used with e-learning technologies. He illustrated the principles behind these tasks in MS Teams, but they can be used in other platforms (Canvas, Moodle, etc.). He drew a number of conclusions about this work:
- Most students react positively to such assignments and do them
- Classes become more lively because students’ written work is used
- The teacher sees when students do not understand the material and can devote more time to explaining it in class
- Working with such tasks does not significantly increase the teacher’s workload
The participants in the meeting took an interest in these pedagogical practices and asked for more details, so that they could be applied in the different institutes and faculties. The Rector mandated that the opportunities offered by e-learning technologies to upgrade teaching and research at St Petersburg University should be discussed at the meetings of the academic committees.