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Key Takeaways of eSTARS: Higher Digital Education

How university education is being digitalised in Russia and the world


Students need digital skills, both in life and in their future work. But many universities are not yet ready to provide students with them, despite the current circumstances in which universities have had to transition to online learning due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The development of online formats has been uneven: there are bright leaders and the rest modestly ‘stand aside’. They lack resources, confidence in digital education, and a regulatory framework. At the eSTARS International Conference organised by HSE University in partnership with Coursera, experts discussed the challenges of digitalisation in higher education.

Necessary but not obligatory

Digital skills, considered universal today, are not being emphasised enough in universities, noted participants of the eSTARS panel session, ‘Digital Transformation in Higher Education: Modern Trends’. There are flagship universities that have taken the foreground in this area, but the background is occupied by a ‘silent’ majority that is not really ready for digitalisation.

The skills in question are those that are fundamental: how to use applications and services, work with big data, programme, communicate in the digital environment, and so on. Both the modern digital economy and life require these skills. Especially now when, due to the pandemic, many people are working online, and digitalisation is no longer the future, but the present.

It is clear, for example, that serious science is no longer possible without big data. The use and development of applications and services is highly relevant in economics, banking, and pharmaceuticals, while programming is essential to biology, chemistry, and physics. Researchers in the humanities, too, use digital tools. The HSE Centre for Digital Humanities, whichstudies writers such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Sholokhov using machine methods, is a prime example of this.

There is also a big data boom occurring in sociology. Computational social science is developing, making it possible to analyse human behaviour using new ways of data processing and analysis. HSE researchers, for example, have taught artificial intelligence to predict the performance of schoolchildren based on their social media posts.

However, interestingly enough, digital skills are often acquired as needed through self-study rather than at university. Consider, for example, a Master’s degree programme. As noted in a report by Darya Shcheglova, Research Fellow of the Institute of Education, HSE University, in a cross-sectional survey of Master’s students, 60-70% of the respondents (the proportion varied by profile) replied that their curriculum did not provide them with the necessary skills.

Students were asked to rate their digital skills. The most optimistic estimates were found in engineering and technology (where 57% were satisfied with their skills) and the most pessimistic were in education and teacher training, where only 46% were satisfied with their abilities. Almost half of undergraduates noted that they lacked information technology and information security skills.

Curiously, these findings obtained in the HSE University Project ‘ Russian Master’s Early Growth ’ are consistent with the trend in developed countries. This year’s OECD report ‘The Digitalisation of Science, Technology and Innovation’ explicitly states that ‘many schools barely teach data analysis’. Students lack digital problem solving skills. Not everyone can use it in their profession.

Meanwhile, digital competences are among the soft skills that are key to every professional field (these skills also include, for example, the ability to solve problems, work in a team, and manage one’s time efficiently). Without these skills one cannot succeed professionally. So why do they go unnoticed?

Incidentally, it is not only universities that stand to address the issue of teaching digital skills. To a larger extent, it is an issue that needs to be addressed by educational policy, the session participants emphasised. To put the question more concretely: Why is the development of digital skills still considered to be of secondary importance in higher education? Why is it that universities often do not favour not only fully online programmes, but even remote modules, even though they are urgently needed right now? For some universities, online education is limited to banal webinars, videos, and presentations.

Premium-class online learning

Indeed, well-structured fully online education programmes remain a luxury that only cutting-edge universities can afford. Among them are HSE University, RANEPA (The Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration), MIPT (The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology), MPEI (Moscow Power Engineering Institute), and federal universities (such as those in Kazan and the Urals). HSE University began to cooperate with Coursera in 2013, and then entered the world’s top ten universities with the highest number of MOOCs (Mass Online Open Courses) hosted by the platform. Among Russian universities, HSE University is the leader on Coursera and the National Open Education Platform, of which it is a co-founder.

But such examples are few and far between. According to Evgenia Opfer, Research Fellow of the Institute of Education at HSE University, Russian universities face a number of problems in establishing Master’s degree programmes. Experts interviewed during a survey emphasised, for example, that there are no existing quality standards for MOOCs, and not all mass online courses require final certification. It is difficult to include them in a curriculum, since a university affiliation is necessary to resolve copyright issues.

The current selection of courses is insufficient. More than 70% of Master’s students said that their choice is limited to two or three courses and is determined on the basis of the opinions of the majority of students wishing to attend them, says Darya Shcheglova. As a result, it is very difficult for Master’s students to choose subjects to perfect their skills.

The introduction of quality online education is also hindered by the intricacies of teaching. For example, the teaching and consulting work for teachers has increased significantly. At the same time, ‘there is no clear understanding of how to calculate the workload,’ Evgenia Opfer noted.

There are also purely technical problems. Teachers are often forced to work from home, but their computer equipment is not always the best. In addition, not all universities are ready to compensate for teachers’ increased internet traffic at home. Not surprisingly, teachers are sceptical of digital formats.

On the other hand, the perception of online courses among students who have signed up for them is not always correct, noted the participants of the discussion. So, there is confusion — a student equates distance education with part-time study, and does not consider it necessary to participate in webinars and online conferences. Or the participants of a programme regard it only as short ‘basic training’, and without certification.

Such unjustifiable expectations lead to higher levels of attrition in online programmes. At the same time, many students leave simply because they are too busy. Undergraduate and Master’s students often combine their studies with a full-time job, and can only attend classes in the evening. But not all programmes are so flexible.

And what about the development of the programmes themselves? There are no clear guidelines. However, it is clear that the online format is not a mechanical digitisation of ‘analogue’ programmes. It assumes ‘not the adaptation of traditional formats, but the development of new types and formats of work,’ stressed Evgenia Opfer. The conclusion is clear: we need a regulatory framework that would regulate the development and operation of online programmes.


There remain problems that have yet to be solved for online education. Experts believe that in online courses the ‘social glue’ is weak — communities, if they arise, are not long lasting. But for the students, the social environment and the teacher authority figure are important.

Narine Manukyan, Deputy Head of the Department of Economics and Management of the International Scientific and Educational Center of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia (ISEC NAS RA), noted an interesting social effect in the report. The Center offers a full-fledged programme. But among the students, high levels of engagement are observed mainly at webinars. On forums and in chats it is low. There is no long-term community.

So relationships are hard to digitise without losing anything! But what about specific cognitive abilities?

There are different types, such as those classified by the American educational psychologist, Howard Gardner, and not all of them are compatible with the digital sphere. ‘It is possible to digitise disciplinary, creative and synthesising types of thinking,’ noted Narine Manukyan. ‘But how do you digitise the ethical and respectful types outside the classroom?’

In Gardner’s classification of the five cognitive abilities or ‘minds’, the disciplinary mind allows one to master at least one subject; the synthesising mind allows one to extract information from different sources; the creating mind opens new horizons; and the respectful mind provides for the tolerance of differences and a respect for others. And here the teacher can play a key role. The same goes for the ethical mind — thinking about the needs of people and society. None of this is very digitisable.

Increasing numbers

If there are problems with MOOCs, then the individual digital components of education are being actively developed. They have become much more diverse and engaging, experts say. This trend is observed in online modules developed by Russian universities with the support of the Rusnano Fund for Infrastructure and Educational Programmes (FIEP). Leading specialist in distance learning ‘eNANO’ (created by the decision of FIEP) Oleg Meretskov highlighted the main trends in the development of digital modules as part of educational programmes.

First, the asynchronous nature of education is increasing: students prefer to study at a convenient time and place. The reason is often simple: they are busy since they often combine work with study. These students need educational programmes that are mobile and flexible.

Second, distance learning now engages a greater range of the senses. Besides vision, there are powerful audio and tactile components. For example, students are offered 2D and 3D simulations of various processes, which are already physical experiences. This immersion effect increases learning engagement.

Third, there is a greater practical dimension: from completing computational tasks to working with virtual simulators. For example, a students may work with an electron microscope or a simulation of a pharmaceutical production line. Lastly, more and more programmes provide not only knowledge, but also skills. What more could you want?

The complexity and duration of remote modules is increasing — simply by nature of their improvement. But that was before the pandemic, which, of course, has also triggered the digitalisation of education. These changes are ongoing, so it’s hard to draw conclusions so far. But it is clear that e-learning will be in demand, and by different audiences. It is important that it is of high quality.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, December 08, 2020