The Russian President took universities by surprise when he announced a high-alert regime to prevent the spread of COVID-19. All teachers and students had to immediately transition to remote working and studying. Daria Shcheglova, a Research Fellow of the HSE Institute of Education, discusses how prepared lecturers and professors were to embrace these abrupt changes and what they are looking forward to most of all.
A week before the lockdown, Anna Garmonova, Director of the HSE Centre for Regional University Partnerships, and I conducted a survey about higher education development scenarios among students and teaching staff of Pskov State University as part of the project called the The Birth of the Russian Master’s Programme (Russian: Rozhdenie Rossiyskoy Magistratury). It was just a routine task — we were supposed to test new tools by surveying the biggest university of a Russian region. Unfortunately, our collaboration with Anna was put on hold for an uncertain amount of time. Nonetheless, we had already managed to receive quite interesting results.
Back in March, we added a few ‘hot-button’ questions: Are the university teachers prepared to work remotely? How would they prefer to work in general? What would they change about the system of education and the teaching profession?
We learned that, back then, a quarter of university teaching staff was not prepared to hold classes remotely, while 11% said that it would be impossible. However, the majority (64%) supported the idea of remote teaching.
Among those unwilling to work remotely, more than 61% were people 51 and older; and 72% of those respondents believed that distant learning would be unacceptable. Looking at the ‘at-risk group’ (teachers 55 and older), we can see that this group differs a great deal from the other age groups — only 41% of its respondents were willing to work remotely, while an average 60-80% of respondents from the other age cohorts were in favour of this teaching format.
The impossible has eventually become possible. My colleagues from the HSE Institute of Education are working hard to consolidate information about the current distant learning process. I think in a few weeks’ time we will see whether the 36% of teachers who were unprepared for the changes have managed to adapt.
However, the survey aimed primarily to determine teachers’ key areas of concern apart from their salaries. Instead of just giving brief formal replies to our questions about what they would like to change and how they see the status of teachers in Russia, the respondents elaborated generously on their opinions about the current situation. Their replies are enough to fill in a whole ‘book of complaints and suggestions’. We have read a variety of messages; from quotes from philosophers about life and age to rhetorical questions about ‘teacher saints’.
‘Only saints can afford to work twenty-four hours a day for minimum wage or a young specialist’s salary and achieve amazing results. But can a saint produce competitive experts for the labor market?’
'Doing research…becomes more of an expensive hobby’.
We were more interested in whether any of the 72% of university teaching staff would mention new formats of working, including online formats. And we have learned something worth noting. Using the replies, we have generated a ‘cloud of tags’ to come up with the following results:
The key watershed trend in the views expressed by teachers appeared to be their comments on what they need ‘most of all’ and what they would like to ‘get back’. Most of all, they would like to have more time for research, developing and implementing online courses, distant learning formats and practice-oriented classes. Meanwhile, they would rather ‘get back’ specialist programmes and Soviet education traditions. It is worth noting that these were replies typically given by teaching staff aged 55+ and 31-45.
To sum up, we can say that ‘Russian regional university teachers would mostly like the Soviet higher school standards to be applied to e-learning’. Although it can well become a catchy headline, let’s not jump to any premature conclusions. The urge to get ‘back to the way things were before’ is a response to a strong feeling of uncertainty and increased exposure of the profession. To put it simply, university teachers feel scared. They are afraid of finding themselves ‘on the sidelines’ of the profession they love, failing to live up to the new challenges or, simply, being unable to cope up with their job demands either morally or physically.
We surveyed the situation just a few days before everyone had to shift to remote working, and we are planning to conduct another survey involving a larger number of respondents when the quarantine is lifted (in July-September 2020). Will the epidemic set the record straight? Will university teachers’ dissatisfaction with the remote working increase? Will education cut back on digital media? The autumn will tell.
The data has been sourced from the materials of the international seminar ‘Problems and Opportunities of Russian Master’s Programmes: Modern Challenges’ (supported by Vladimir Potanin Charity Foundation).