A year ago, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns caused Russian universities to switch to distance learning. Today, as many schools are resuming offline classes, it may be useful to look back at that tumultuous time and draw some lessons. Emergency digitalisation, embracing new teaching and learning formats and switching to remote teacher-student communication — all of this was a challenge, but the universities found ways to cope. Students also learned some vital lessons outside of the curriculum. This unusual, challenging situation gave rise to various fears and concerns about distance education — and also highlighted what remains essential to the learning process, no matter its mode. A paper co-authored by Evgeniia Shmeleva and Tatiana Semenova of the HSE Centre of Sociology of Higher Education and a group of researchers of the Ural Federal University offers some insights into distance learning-related concerns and solutions.
'Not being able to learn as much online as offline was not my biggest concern', says Ekaterina K., a third-year student from Moscow. 'I already had some experience with online classes and knew that it was really up to me how much I learn, as long as I am focused, do my homework and keep in touch with the teacher'. According to Ekaterina, 'it's the same as studying offline, except that you are expected to self-organise'. She was able to make the transition to online learning fairly smoothly, with just one concern: 'I felt as if my teachers were far, far away — there was barely any contact with them'.
Indeed, third-year students had it a lot easier than freshmen. Timofey B. from St. Petersburg recalls being really confused in March 2020: 'I was not sure whether I was learning anything at all. Being on your own at home makes it guesswork whether or not you really understand the material.
Another first-year student, Veronica T. from Moscow, agrees: 'We were fresh out of high school where, as they often told us, we used to be spoon-fed by our teachers'. The idea that 'it was all up to us now' came as a shock to her and to many of her fellow students.
According to many researchers, once students are left with less guidance and supervision, they tend to manifest their actual level of commitment and agency.
'There was an expectation of maturity that we all suddenly faced', Veronica comments. Despite a few concerns, she finds it to be a good thing: 'One can benefit from distance learning, because you get a better idea of what really interests you and where you can find more information about it'.
As challenging as remote study was, it brought quite a few useful lessons. 'I have [since then] developed reliable digital skills', says Ekaterina K., 'and I am comfortable with technology. But you also begin to understand that it is not all about being graded for your performance. Human interaction, and being supported by one's teachers, is also essential'. Timofey B. agrees: 'When teachers are supportive it makes you feel good about yourself as a person’.
But there is also a downside. Those who used to rely too much on teachers as transmitters of knowledge and supervisors, tend to struggle more than others. 'Being on your own is all right, but I prefer having some external guidance, at least as I take my first steps', admits Alexander L., a second-year student from St. Petersburg.
It appears that universities adapted to a digital learning environment more easily than secondary schools, where passions ran high.
According to a HSE survey of faculty members in 93 Russian universities, only 20% of them found their faculty and facilities unprepared for emergency digital transition, while nearly two-thirds believed their colleagues and themselves to be well-equipped for going online.
This is despite findings from a 2019 NAFI Analytical Centre's study which revealed substantial digital inequality across Russian universities, making some of them incapable of a large-scale transition to online learning as a result of an underdeveloped IT infrastructure. According to this study, only about a third of faculty members in Russia were using digital tools in teaching, and one in three assessed their colleagues’ digital skills as ‘poor’.
Admittedly the use of digital technology in teaching is not only a matter of competence, but also that of comfort and convenience. Thus, 70% of teachers in the HSE survey cited above found the online format inconvenient and uncomfortable for them. Many were concerned about the quality of education: more than half (57%) of all respondents expected it to deteriorate unless the universities returned to full-time offline classes soon.
Many students shared this concern at the time. 'We sometimes found the online format to be ineffective in terms of learning efficiency', says Timofey B. 'We expected [the online mode] to leave gaps in our knowledge. And remote classes are also more tiring', according to Veronica T.
Thus, students as well as teachers had a lot of understandable concerns about classes going online.
Transitioning to an online environment took place under emergency circumstances. Universities had to act promptly to implement the IT solutions necessary for remote learning, to digitise teaching materials and to provide guidance for teachers and students.
Yet even in the absence of prior experience or established practices and despite a few remaining challenges, many universities transitioned to a digital environment successfully, according to the HSE study.
'Can one really learn effectively online?' This has been the biggest concern for both students and teachers. Indeed, even the fairly well established format of MOOCs (massive open online courses) still arouses scepticism, and their ability to replace face-to-face classes has been questioned — perhaps due to insufficient understanding. One way or another, many universities which had not embraced digital technology before the crisis found themselves struggling with the transition.
Another major issue — mentioned by the respondents above and by many other undergraduates — is the unmet need for person-to-person communication with faculty and fellow students. Such isolation has been found to dramatically reduce the positive effect of coeducation by making peers' inspiring examples and successful learning strategies invisible. According to some studies, loneliness and a perceived lack of social support can undermine academic engagement with online courses.
In the absence of habitual forms of academic supervision, students' metacognitive skills, such as self-regulated learning, become critical. A strong association has been shown between academic achievement and skills such as time management and effort regulation, as well as the ability to cope with stress. A rapid change in the learning environment can induce a feeling of helplessness and lower a student's motivation, causing them to doubt their ability to comprehend the study content and thus affecting their academic performance.
A joint study by the HSE Institute of Education and the Ural Federal University (UrFU) using data from more than 6,000 student responses via Google Forms reveals that at the start of remote learning in March 2020, many undergraduates shared a fear of academic failure.
By examining various factors to determine which of them made students particularly prone to such fears, the researchers found a strong association with metacognitive skills such as self-management and motivation and with the expectation of limited communication with teachers.
A series of potential issues — from technology-related problems to poor motivation for learning — were listed, and the respondents were asked to rate their concerns over each issue as one or zero based on whether or not they expected this particular problem to affect them.
The control variables included the study year, prior experience with distance learning technology, one's assessment of their self-management skills and commitment to learning, and expectations of student-teacher communication difficulties and low motivation.
Most respondents (64%) were first- and second-year undergraduates; gaining knowledge was the main reason for attending classes reported by 70% of respondents; 58% had some prior experience with distance learning technology; and 70% rated their self-management skills as poor. Around a half of the respondents expected problems such as poor comprehension of the study material (58%), poor communication with the teacher (50%) and low motivation to study (46%).
The researchers built three regression models which included from one to six factors.
The first model included only the year of the study; it revealed that starting from year three, undergraduates were markedly less likely to expect problems with comprehending the study material.
The second model, in addition to the study year, also included prior experience with distance learning, reported self-management skills, and whether the principal reason for attending classes was to gain knowledge. Low to moderate self-management skills and high importance of gaining knowledge were found to increase student concerns about their ability to comprehend the material.
The third model, in addition to the above, also included concerns over limited student-teacher communication and low motivation, and both were found to contribute to students' fears.
Understandably, junior undergraduates' fears were at least partly due to the fact that they had spent a relatively short time at the university and had not yet learned the best ways to relate to faculty. These freshman fears, according to the researchers, can be alleviated by encouraging socialisation with senior students who can share their experience of university life and offer tips about coping with potential issues.
Undergraduates who do not think much of their own self-management skills also tend to be apprehensive of going digital, because distance learning certainly requires self-organising abilities such as time management, goal setting, choosing the right strategies for building success, and assessing one's performance.
In fact, student fears tend to turn into a self-fulfilled prophecy: an adverse association has been found between intensity of apprehension and academic achievement; indeed, low assessment of one's ability to self-organise, coupled with panic over not being able to comprehend the material, can discourage students from even trying to do their best and further undermine their performance.
Potential solutions include encouraging better student-teacher communication and adopting an autonomy-supportive teaching style, streamlining course structure, and training students to measure their own progress, e.g. by using self-assessment tests.
Students who emphasise the importance of acquiring knowledge can be sceptical about the effectiveness of online classes and need to be reassured that distance learning can be truly effective.
Interestingly, this concern is shared even by undergraduates with prior experience of e-learning. 'This may be due to the overall climate of uncertainty and urgency surrounding the transition which also affected other aspects of their lives as well as studies', the researchers suggest.
According to the study authors, student anxiety is likely to increase by the end of semester, so it is crucial to keep them informed and supported and to make sure that they have their questions and concerns addressed.
On a positive note, universities have achieved an impressive digital transformation over the past year: faculty and students benefitted from online courses offered by the world's top universities, and new formats of teaching and testing have been introduced. Now Russian universities are better prepared to respond to any subsequent waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, while student fears of distance learning have hopefully subsided.