Uniting the Expert Community and Best Practices: Results of the ITMO.Distant Project

14.07.2020

In late May, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center conducted a survey to find out how students would rate the quality of education in conditions of distance learning. According to obtained data, more than half of students rated the remote teaching level as high or rather high (53%). Every third respondent rated it as average (32%). A total of 12% of students marked the teaching level as low. 

Preserving the quality of education has become one of the main tasks set by all education institutions. With the spread of the novel coronavirus and forced mass transition to the online format, universities adopted different formats to support their lecturers. 

On March 18, almost immediately after Russian universities switched to the remote learning format, ITMO University set up ITMO.Distant – a website containing methodological recommendations and materials for organizing distance teaching. Now, the service hosts some 100 notes in 11 categories and has over 51,000 views. 

“The main goal when creating ITMO.Distant was to expeditiously provide the university’s lecturers with information on working with students in the remote format, as well as support them in the situation where all courses were suddenly moved online. Going forward, ITMO.Distant became the official information platform on working in the remote mode for lecturers. Practically from the very start of quarantine, lecturers knew where to take their questions. And now, they know where to look for new developments and ideas on implementing the educational process in the distance format,” comments Aliya Bagautdinova, the head of ITMO University’s Department of Academic Affairs.

As noted by the service’s creators, ITMO.Distant continues to be dynamically developed and to expand its audience. The website became a platform that united the expert community and the best practices in organizing classes in the remote format. As content continued to accumulate, the website was transformed – users were offered a simplified and intuitive navigation feature allowing them to search for the right information. 

“Many lecturers remark on the speed with which the service has been developing. This is the result of a team effort by the university’s staff, including lecturers, who have been readily sharing their experience of distance teaching, driven by the aspiration to ease the tension created by the current situation as much as possible. That said, we understand that this is only the beginning, that we have to continue searching for and providing the information lecturers really need, that we have to keep developing in terms of both content and functionality, which is why we’re always open to suggestions and collaboration,” says Olga Eliseeva, head of the Department of Educational Quality Assurance. 

According to the platform’s users, it became a useful aid for organizing their work and helped them systematize the material. 

“It’s important to me that there is a platform with a convenient interface hosting all the instructions on services, that I don’t have to concern myself with saving and transferring information because it’s readily available in one place. It’s convenient, and I’d like to thank the organizers for their work,” notes Vera Ivanova, an assistant at the Faculty of Food Biotechnologies and Engineering. 

Best practices

According to the creators of ITMO.Distant, the lecturers’ queries are gradually changing. In the first month after its launch, users were especially interested in the Service Instructions section, which contains detailed manuals with screenshots on how to use various online services such as Zoom, Cifru-Meet, Google Calendar, Discord, Mentimeter, Kahoot, AcademicNT, ITMO’s ISU services, and others. 

Lately, more attention has been attracted by articles from the Best Practices section, which hosts interviews with ITMO lecturers sharing their personal experience of transitioning to the online format, as well as faculties’ experiences at large. The section’s purpose is to support and motivate ITMO’s teaching and academic staff in the distance teaching conditions, as well as to stimulate the exchange of best practices. 

“In the two months of teaching in the remote format, lecturers managed to adapt and master all the necessary tools. At the current stage, there is a focus on rethinking the accumulated experience, comparing it to the experience of colleagues and searching for the best strategy for teaching in the remote format. This is what explains this section’s popularity,” points out Kristina Krushinskaya, a chief engineer at ITMO’s Educational Technologies Office and the project’s coordinator. 

The exchange of personal experiences is a good opportunity to look at how various tools are being used in real-life work, note the resource’s users.

“I found the Best Practices section the most useful out of all: many lecturers have their own angle on implementing the education process in the remote format, and you can take away new ideas and try out new resources tested by your colleagues,” says Victoria Korzhuk, an assistant at the Faculty of Secure Information Technologies. 

An interview with Konstantin Pravdin, an associate professor at the Faculty of Control Systems and Robotics, was among the most viewed pages on ITMO.Distant for several weeks. Konstantin has a YouTube channel where he posts video lessons on calculus. 

“I think that sharing your experience is very important. Especially in the conditions of disconnection, when all of us are sitting at home and have very little communication with each other. I was interested to learn how my colleagues tackled the associated challenges, which technologies they used and how they viewed the situation in general. This motivated me to continue my work on developing my channel,” notes Konstantin Pravdin. 

Online consulting by the Department of Academic Affairs

Another important project of ITMO.Distant are online consulting sessions by the Department of Academic Affairs. This is a format in which the department’s staff interacts with lecturers in live format. In the course of a set period of time, all of the staff members would go online as per the schedule, and any lecturer could ask a question in advance or connect to the livestream and have their questions responded to then and there. A total of eight such sessions took place, with their materials being published on ITMO.Distant. 

After a small pause, the online consulting sessions by the Department of Academic Affairs changed their format of interaction with lecturers – a Telegram bot was created, allowing university lecturers and staff to get the answers to all the essential questions momentarily. To find the bot, you have to download the app, go to Telegram, and enter @dod_online_bot into the search bar. 

“Switching the online consulting sessions to the bot format is the result of gradual transformation of ITMO.Distant’s Q&A section. In the course of our interaction with lecturers during the online sessions, we reached the conclusion that lecturers often have very similar questions. The Telegram bot allows them to have their questions responded immediately, without having to wait for a future online session,” comments Ksenia Sukhodoeva, the deputy head of the Department of Educational Quality Assurance.

What interests lecturers

ITMO.Distant contains different types of content: articles, videos (webinar recordings and video overviews), presentations, infographics, and interviews, all concerning a wide range of issues in distance learning. Collected feedback has shown that users were most often interested in the sections Service Instructions (51%), Delivering Classes Remotely (47%), and Webinars (40%). 

According to the platform’s creators, the analysis of the results made it clear that lecturers are most concerned with the questions on organizing lab work, assessment of students’ knowledge (interim assessment, proctoring), practical experience of using distance learning technologies, plans for the new academic year, as well as questions on blended learning. These topics are to be covered in detail in future articles, promise the project’s coordinators. 

Interesting facts about ITMO.Distant

Between March 18 and July 1, ITMO.Distant released new publications every working day, with materials being constantly updated. 

The most popular publication in the project’s entire existence is the note titled “Full Instruction on Using Zoom” (approximately 10,000 views), which was to be expected as ITMO University purchased a subscription to the service. 

The maximum number of visitors (2,000) was recorded on April 14. 

Prospects

According to Ekaterina Dzhavlakh, the project’s coordinator and head of ITMO’s Educational Technologies Office, the main task for now is to process the experience of implementing the education process in the remote format. It’s necessary to analyze the lessons learned and identify the ways for applying the best practices in future work. 

In late June, ITMO University hosted a panel discussion titled “Transforming ITMO University’s Education Activity in Distance Work Format”. It brought together representatives of ITMO’s schools and made it possible to sum up the results of this semester’s remote work: to discuss the challenges associated with transitioning the learning process to the distance format, suggest ways of solving problems, exchange experience, and identify the questions which are yet to be answered. 

 “Recent developments force us to consider the fact that post-distance-learning life will never be the same. Despite the fact that we came to grips with the situation in general, there undoubtedly is room for improvement. ITMO.Distant will be developed accordingly. Its main goal remains the same – to support ITMO lecturers, but its tasks will change in accordance with lecturers’ queries: from ‘first aid’ to rethinking and so on,” remarks Ekaterina Dzhavlakh. 

In the future, the project’s coordinators will be transforming and perfecting the platform – you can submit your comments and suggestions to help the service develop here

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