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‘Regulatory Restrictions Result in Hybrid Master’s Degrees That Are Like a Cross between a Rhino and an Elephant’

Interview on eSTARS: Education researcher Daria Shcheglova on the digitalisation of master’s degrees

© ISTOCK

The COVID-19 epidemic has clearly shown how important digital competencies are for students — both in their studies and in everyday life. Master’s degree students, many of whom combine work with study, can give a detailed account of which IT skills employers expect. The question is how to teach those competencies and how a ‘digitalised’ master’s degree should look. HSE Institute of Education Research Fellow Daria Shcheglova discussed this question with IQ at the Digital Transformation in Higher Education — Modern Trends session of the eSTAR Conference that HSE University hosted in partnership with the Coursera global platform.

Daria Shcheglova
HSE Institute of Education Research Fellow

In your remarks, you said it was important for universities to develop their students’ digital skills, particularly in master’s programmes. In which format do you think digital competencies should be taught, for example, as part of educational modules or in separate online courses?

Master’s degree programmes vary widely: you can study in semesters, modules, full-time or part-time. It’s important to determine where digital competencies fit best. These should be universal competencies that the student ‘selects’ (together with a tutor, for example) according to their professional objectives. At present, digital skills are currently tailored to narrow professional niches. According to the curricula and standards, and depending on the educational path, they often pertain to general disciplines (computer science, IT for humanities students), or to strictly professional blocks if they apply to future work activities.

As a result, the digital skills taught to humanities students are ‘second rate’ while the ‘techies’ and ‘science jocks’ lose the ‘communication’ component of IT. Ideally, however, universal digital competencies would be included in a variety of degree paths, skills that focus on communicating in a digital environment, working with big data, applications and digital services, providing digital security and so on. Many are not narrow professional niches at all.

Such electives would enable master's students to gain key, universally applicable digital competencies that would 'complete' their professional skills. Consider sociology. It is not immediately clear which digital competencies a master's student in this field would need to complete his or her training. It is necessary to look at a particular programme and analyse the curriculum. All of this takes time. It is good when there are tutors who help students plan their educational and professional track and explain that this or that course provides this or that competency because it is not always clear for the students themselves (even master’s students).

In other words, an individualised curriculum is extremely important for master’s students, correct?

Yes, it is best when, apart from the mandatory subjects, students 'hand-pick' the majority of the courses themselves. This is truer for a master's than a bachelor's degree because a master's student has greater input into his or her studies. Because most master's students also have jobs, they know what employers want, so they need to know which courses will provide which competencies.

Master’s programmes focus much more on real-world practice than bachelor’s programmes do. They are a ‘crossroads’ where the interests of students, employers and universities meet. Do you think universities are shifting closer to the labour market?

The current reality is that almost all master’s students have already found jobs and combine them with their studies. In other words, their master’s studies become part of their work. However, because the market dictates this situation, many ‘hybrid’ master’s programmes resolve the problem very simply by holding classes in the evening, after the students’ workday. But this is not the only way to develop competencies. The result is an evening school education purely for the sake of getting a diploma. But such master’s degrees are ineffective in terms of economic and professional results.

Can we clarify what is meant by a ‘hybrid’ master’s degree? Doesn’t this usually refer to a combination of in-person and remote study?

There are two possible interpretations. First, there is a hybrid of academic and applied master’s degree programmes. Due to various regulations, it is easier for universities to list a master’s degree as an ‘academic’ programme, and so that’s what they do. In practice, though, such courses contain a great deal of hands-on practice, making them hybrids. The opposite also occurs, when an applied programme includes a large number of academic courses (in part because the instructors need the teaching hours!). Thus, the first understanding of a hybrid master’s degree is a mix of academic and applied elements.

The second type is usually defined as a 'mixed-format' master's degree. These are based on in-person studies consisting of lectures and seminars, to which are added separate digital modules or even massive open online courses (MOOC). But Russian regulations make it difficult to implement this type of programme.

At the eSTARS conference, we discussed the fact that Russia has many regulatory restrictions and that this leads to hybrid master’s degrees that are like a cross between a rhino and an elephant.

Speakers at the conference discussed MOOC in master’s programmes, but how relevant is this considering such online courses have large numbers of students and don’t exactly fit the idea of a ‘customised’ master’s curriculum?

It is relevant. Some of our colleagues are studying how to implement MOOCs in the educational process and there is a lot of research into this. Despite some resistance from universities and teachers, such online courses are the future of higher education. There’s no getting around it.

What matters here is how MOOCs will be combined with higher education. They reach a very large audience in Russia and such online courses are often tailored to very specific tasks. Determining how to adapt them to the system of mass-market higher education is a question of real and practical importance.

Who should offer these MOOCs and how? Leading universities post their courses on platforms such as the national Open Education platform and other universities can use them. The problem, however, is that many of the competencies that universities want to teach are not included in MOOCs offered by other universities, and so on.

As a result, each university or training centre with an educational programme must develop its own MOOC. The corpus of online courses should grow so that there are plenty from which to choose.

And even though MOOCs are developing very rapidly, there are a lot of shortcomings in the field. And it is important to understand that when someone simply composes and posts a lecture, that does not make it a good online course. MOOCs have a completely different structure. We will be developing the corpus of Russian courses for years to come.

Online courses are expanding and multiplying, but is the dropout rate still high for such programmes?

On the one hand, there are some minor changes. The dropout rate continues to be high and is sometimes reaches 90%. On the other hand, dropping out of a MOOC is completely normal for someone who discovers that it doesn’t meet their needs.

However, university students have rather strict rules: you must earn a certain number of credits by attending and passing the MOOC. If you don’t, you risk not completing your degree. This administrative factor reduces the dropout rate because students must complete the course!

Concerning non-university students without such obligations, two things explain the high dropout rate from MOOCs. First, the student only attends the course for the specific subject matter they sought and doesn’t waste time by sticking around after that. Second, some students have difficulty organizing themselves and managing their time. Many MOOCs are based on an asynchronous mechanism by which students sign in and do the work when it’s convenient for them. But not everyone has experience with that form of education.

In your remarks at the conference, you spoke about students’ digital skills. Have you studied the same skills among teachers? After all, their competencies are no less important now.

In this part of the study (which is part of The Birth of the Russian Master’s Degree project), we looked at the digital skills of master’s students. We did not evaluate those skills among teachers. However, the study will continue next year and we have included teachers in the questionnaire.

Will it be self-assessment or testing?

This is a self-assessment questionnaire. Teachers assess themselves and then we survey students, also relying on self-assessment. Then we check for matching answers (the extent to which their answers are in accordance). This is because teachers can assess what they taught their master’s students one way, while students can assess the skills they acquired completely differently. It is important to understand where the greatest discrepancies are. For now, we can’t test teachers’ digital skills because this is an administrative task, whereas we take a sociological approach.

Let’s talk about the major project, The Birth of the Russian Master’s Degree. Will it be a kind of encyclopedia of master’s degree programmes?

Yes. We’re doing a huge amount of work on this. We realized what new challenges we face in the study of this stage of higher education. We need to look at which types of master’s degrees universities have been put in place. So far, we know only what exists in principle. What they actually are we don’t understand yet because each university takes a different approach to master's degrees. Some are tied to departments while others are based in training or competence centres. And we still don’t know whether the master’s model in use depends on the type of university (whether they are among Russia’s Top 5, federal universities, etc.).

We want to interview students and teachers to study which master’s degree models have been put in place at different universities. We plan to include several blocks of questions — not only concerning online education and digital skills but also why students applied to a master’s programme and much more. It is important how students and teachers evaluate different master’s degree models and which skills are formed and how. This will include ‘cross-referencing’ data that compares responses by both teachers and students. This is a big project for the whole of next year.

This year, 19 universities in 16 regions participated in the project. Will more universities take part in the future, and if so, which ones?

After two pilot studies conducted at Pskov State University in March and November of this year, we realised that we needed to retool for the new tasks we have and expand the network of regions and participants. We wanted to focus on regions representing the ‘middle-class’ in terms of economic development, university indicators, etc. to get an understanding of their master’s degree programmes.

The more economically developed regions such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan and several other cities represent only one part of the picture. As a rule, though, the 'mid-range' regions reveal more general trends.

We have benchmark universities — that is, leading universities — and then we have all the rest, with a big gap between them. If we take a sample using certain indicators and base it on universities in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan and sometimes also Tomsk and Novosibirsk, the results are much higher than average. But we want to show the big picture! The study in 2021 will include more universities. The plan calls for 25, but this figure might change.

The study is expected to take two years. As you can understand, a lot depends on funding. Our partner in this project is the Vladimir Potanin Charitable Foundation that supports research into master’s degree programmes in Russia. We also have several secondary areas of interest in this research: a comparison with master’s degree programmes in the U.S., industry-specific master’s programmes in medical, athletic and agricultural schools, gender inequality in higher education and the quality of the admissions process in master’s programmes.

What does a ‘digitised’ master’s degree look like in the U.S. and EU? Is it easier to open one in the U.S. where the education system is much less centralised than in Russia?

The system in Russia is such that the state runs almost all the universities. Almost no regional governments have responsibility for their own universities, with the result that universities have very little manoeuvring room. The U.S. system for managing universities was completely different from the very beginning. Each state has its own universities and establishes its own relationship with them, rather than it coming from a federal ministry. The relationship with the labour market is also very different. Most master’s programmes address specific business objectives and prepare specialists to work in specific industries. The level of education is directly connected to the level of income and quality of life.

Because of these differences, it is difficult to compare the leading universities of Russia with those in the U.S., and it is even difficult to establish criteria for such a comparison. We are now gathering data on master’s degree programmes at leading U.S. universities and puzzling over how to compare them with what we have in Russia.

In terms of digitalisation, are European master’s programmes generally comparable to those in Russia?

To answer this question, you need to choose criteria — whether to focus, for example, on the skills that are taught in Russia and the European Union. I looked at the OECD guidelines on digital skills that should be taught to students. They include everything from recommendations on the desired level of competence for teachers and what should be taught to graduate students. The competencies are broken down by level. That differs from what we see in Russia. Our regulatory system does not respond as quickly to the changing requirements of the economy, with the result that the demand for digital competencies is sometimes far greater than the supply.

What’s more, master’s degree programmes in the EU are often linked to a PhD. Several classifiers of higher education exist, and level seven of the ISCED international classification corresponds to the master's degree (and similar types of specialities). Level eight is a PhD. They are all part of the same ‘storyline.’

Russia does not have such clearly defined levels of education. As a result, employers don’t know what someone with a master’s degree can offer, or why they should pay them more.

Students want a ‘complete’ education (meaning, a master’s degree), but don’t understand why. The master's degree curriculum might differ little from the bachelor's degree (although this situation is gradually improving). However, now there are efforts in Russia to create 'master's – postgraduate' programmes, but many regulatory restrictions still stand in the way.

By the way, the levels of higher education in the U.S. are also different. The levels of education — bachelor’s, master’s and master of science or master of arts degrees – also differ internally. But to compare the U.S. and Russian models of master’s programmes, it is first necessary to conduct a meaningful analysis of the Russian models, which we will try to do in the course of this project.

The IQ column quotes you saying something that contradicts the ‘digital’ flow of our current conversation to some extent. You mentioned ‘digital fatigue’. Teachers undoubtedly suffer from this, but do students as well?

Yes. With all of the changes, we forgot about the students, thinking they had no problem with online education. We focused more on the difficulties that many teachers would face. Students do have many digital skills but as consumers of digital content. Their digital communication skills are very weak. Why do teachers wind up looking at a black screen during a class held on Zoom? Why don’t they see their students’ faces? Because the students don’t want to turn on their cameras. They are unwilling to communicate. They don’t have such experience. As a result, we lose both parties: the students miss out on the value of learning (if you can listen through Zoom while eating your lunch at the same time), and after such classes, teachers feel as if they’ve been run over by a steamroller.

Are you saying that remote learning has radically changed the teacher-student relationship?

Yes. While working on The Birth of the Russian Master’s Degree, we got the idea to ‘probe’ students’ opinions to learn how much the education process really focuses on them. Many master’s students understand which competencies the labour market requires. But they also need to understand why they need a master’s degree — that is, whether they need academic skills. We usually don’t ask students for their input: we ask only the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The time has come to gather data on what students want.

The result truly is a comprehensive project about master's degree programmes.

Exactly. The first summary of the data we’ve collected will probably be available by next year. It will be the first volume of our encyclopedia! But we will continue writing and writing because, until now, there has been very little information about master’s degree programmes. It was a sort of terra incognita. More information is needed.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, December 24, 2020