Alexander Timofeev, Director of the Center for New Educational Technologies and Distance Learning: "Readiness to switch to online is the key to success or failure"

Alexander Timofeev, Director of the Center for New Educational Technologies and Distance Learning:

Alexander Timofeev, Director of the ETU "LETI" Center for New Educational Technologies and Distance Learning, told us about the technological revolution in the transition to distance learning during coronavirus spread.

09.05.2020 67

Accelerated development of distance learning began with the onset of the coronavirus epidemic. The rapid forced transition to online technology has become a real challenge for some universities: not all of them were ready to switch to online.

Alexander Timofeev, Director of the ETU "LETI" Center for New Educational Technologies and Distance Learning, told us how Saint Petersburg Electrotechnical University "LETI" copes with this task, what problems have emerged, and what success was achieved in distance learning for students.

Alexander, how do students study during the coronavirus epidemic? What technologies are used?

The situation with coronavirus has put universities in a difficult situation around the world. Not everyone was ready to go online. After all, we can see a significant positive point as well because universities are forced to leave the comfort zone and bring modern technological innovations to their educational process as soon as possible. Some universities that can't conduct such a "technological revolution" in a short time and will imitate success in the fight against coronavirus may risk losing its existing positions in the nearest future.

Speaking of tools and technologies, almost all universities without exception have "put into the fight" all possible Internet technologies, resources, and opportunities, and the readiness to switch to online of the teaching staff and departments engaging in distance learning becomes the key to the future success or failure. The main thing for many universities will be the need to make objective conclusions based on the results of the spring term, so even if they "lose the battle," they can "win the war."

When ETU "LETI" started to use distance learning for the first time? How was the diffusion of Internet technologies and the educational process carried out?

– ETU "LETI" students have been studying via online courses, which are produced in our Center for New Educational Technologies and Distance Learning, for the second academic year. They study on the university platform LETIteach based on public software openedX. Moreover, students study our online courses on the national Open Education platform and other platforms such as Stepik and Lectorium.

During this time, we have accumulated useful teaching, organizational, and technological experience in supporting the educational process based on online courses. More than a thousand ETU "LETI" students studied using online courses last fall term. At the beginning of the spring term, before the coronavirus situation occurred, more than one and a half thousand ETU "LETI" students started to study via online courses.

Currently, more than 30 online courses authored by ETU "LETI" professors are already available for students to register on the portal Modern Digital Educational Environment. During coronavirus, students from different Russian universities have been already taking part in these courses.

– How does the university solve the issue of the professors’ skills in the course development and use of online services?

– Annually, we implement several development programs aimed at training ETU "LETI" professors to use modern tools for creating online courses. Nevertheless, the problem of distance learning of the university faculty remains urgent. In previous years, we used tutor support to solve this problem, when young employees of the center helped professors to work with platforms. This service has proven quite efficient, and we are ready to continue providing it to professors.

–  How do you assess the main advantages and disadvantages of distance learning based on your experience in this field?

– The advantages for students are obvious. It is possible to choose where, when, what, and from whom to learn. For universities, there are wide opportunities to transform the educational process and gain competitive advantages. It is the implementation of individual educational trajectories into the educational process with minimal costs; the refusal of lectures and their replacement with practical classes and project activities; the solution of stuff problem by attracting in-house or third-party online courses.

If we talk about the disadvantages, we should distinguish between the difficulties arising during online learning implementation and, of course, the limitations of some models of online learning. However, there is no need and capacity to train every specialist 100% online, for example, in those areas where more practical skills and abilities are needed (engineering sciences, medicine, etc.). There are natural limitations that are impossible to overcome completely at present, either economically or technologically. In these cases, nobody prevents universities from using models of mixed learning, searching for the optimal ratio of online and offline learning as well. However, if we consider the situation with the horizon of 10-15 years, even these restrictions, which seem insurmountable today, may either disappear tomorrow or shift significantly in favor of online learning.

Currently, the national Open Education platform offers hundreds of online courses from leading universities, including ETU "LETI." What unique online courses does the university offer today on this platform? 

– In recent years, ETU "LETI" has established itself among other leading Russian universities as a provider of high-quality online content. The X-ray Technology online course, developed in 2019 by the team of Center for New Educational Technologies and Distance Learning and Artem Gryaznov, Professor of the Department of Electronic Instruments and Devices of ETU "LETI," was among the winners of the EdCrunch Award 2019, the international competition of open online courses. The online course titled Fundamentals of Digital Signal Processing by Alexander Sergienko, Professor of the Department of Theoretical Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering, won the first-degree diploma in the special category Best Course in High Technologies at the same competition in 2018. In total, 14 online courses with the participation of ETU "LETI" professors are now available at the Open Education platform, and more than 13 thousand students have already signed up for them in the spring of 2020. This includes centralized applications submitted by other universities.

– Is communication between students and authors of online courses possible not only to answer questions but also to get feedback and recommendations for improvement?

– During the last two terms, ETU "LETI" conducted surveys of students who are studying using online courses. According to the results of a survey conducted in the fall term among almost a thousand ETU "LETI" students, we found out that only 10% of them are in favor of keeping intramural studies unchanged, 65% of students are in favor of implementation online courses in the educational process, and the remaining 25% of students feel the same way about regular learning in classrooms and online learning. The results of the survey found that students mainly pay attention to the clarity and consistency of online educational content (1st place), the usefulness of the course for the profession (2nd place), and the interestingness of the course (3-e a place).

Do ETU "LETI" professors collaborate with colleagues from other universities to create joint innovative online courses, modules, and other similar projects?

– Yes, we have several joint online courses with other leading universities in Russia; they are St. Petersburg University and Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. We open joint online specializations and online graduate programs. The experience of ETU "LETI" in the shooting of an online course for solar panel recycling together with professors of the Spanish university of Cadiz is interesting too.

– How many students use ETU "LETI" online courses today, and what communication tools does the university intend to use to expand its audience?

– At the beginning of the spring term, before the coronavirus situation occurred, more than one and a half thousand ETU "LETI" students started to study via online courses. In the current situation, every student of the university study using online courses of ETU "LETI" or other Russian and foreign universities in their disciplines. In cases where there are no suitable online courses for the disciplines, professors conduct their classes using a wide variety of platforms – from Moodle to Vkontakte.

Speaking of the external audience of students, there are more than 30 online courses of ETU "LETI" that are available on the platforms Coursera, Open Education, Lectorium, Stepik, and our platform LETIteach. In total, about 20 thousand students are already training using the open online courses of ETU "LETI" this spring.

– What qualitative and quantitative improvements does ETU "LETI" intend to achieve in the field of online learning?

– Every year, we produce more than 12 online courses, which we publish on international, Russian, and in-house online learning platforms. This year won’t be an exception, despite the problems that have emerged. Moreover, 2020 should be a year of qualitative changes, towards which ETU "LETI" has been steadily moving over the past few years since the academic council of the university adopted a strategy for the development of distance learning technologies at ETU "LETI." Among these qualitative developments, it is worth noting the joint project of ETU "LETI" and Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University to launch the first online specialization from Russian universities on the Chinese platform XuetangX; this specialization will be dedicated to startups in the digital economy. Furthermore, ETU "LETI" together with Perm National Research Polytechnic University will launch an entirely online graduate course on Autonomous Service Robots in September 2020.

–  Nowadays, there are a lot of talks in the educational community about the necessity to switch extramural education to distance learning. The Ministry of Science and Higher Education of Russia has recently supported online learning. In your opinion, can distance learning replace the old workbooks and completely replace the current extramural education? Does ETU "LETI" move towards this?

– Yes, I think that extramural education, which emerged in the middle of the 19th century is completely outdated now. Distance learning has been developing rapidly in the last decade and has proved effective in this short time. Therefore, when it comes to extramural education, modern online technologies can significantly increase the audience of students who want to obtain quality higher education while working. ETU "LETI" is actively moving in this direction. Apart from the joint project with Perm National Research Polytechnic University, ETU "LETI" implements its extramural graduate programs using online learning. An example would be the graduate program Systems and Technologies in Digital Healthcare​, which will launch in the fall of 2020 with expanded use of online courses.