The impact of digitalisation on higher education, strategies for using online tools in teaching and methods of effective communication in an electronic environment are topics that have been studied for at least two decades.
Interest in them arose long before the COVID-19 pandemic and the forced total transition to distance learning. During this period, the methodological arsenal of researchers and teachers has accumulated many materials on how to teach students effectively in digital environments. But only in the spring of 2020 did digital education become a reality for all teachers.
It was during this period that a radical change took place in understanding the role of digital technologies in learning and the approaches to working with them. This provided the most ambitious practical test of the techniques and theories that had been developed. As a result, some of them have proven their viability and effectiveness, and others have not and should be discarded.
The principle of “learning by doing” has never been so relevant. However, this is where an important question arises: who can be a mentor and reliable guide for university teachers in the digital world?
Experience of ‘Teach for HSE’
The ‘Teach for HSE’ project was created at Russia’s HSE University in 2017 to improve the quality of teaching.
For many years the university has developed a system of support for teachers, including through an eLearning Development Centre, which assists in online educational projects, through its Centre for Continuing Education, through which colleagues participate in internships and learning about the experience of Russian and foreign universities, through the Academic Writing Centre, which organises consultations and training programmes to develop employees’ skills in creating publications in English and through the HSE Academic Fund programme, which focuses on research.
But ‘Teach for HSE’ has made its own niche in this structure. The conceptual basis is the horizontal interaction and mutual support of teachers, including helping to avoid professional burnout.
This makes the project fundamentally different from other divisions and initiatives. Mutual support means different formats of communication, from informal conversations about pedagogical challenges and innovative practices used in teaching students, to certified continuing education courses organised for all university teachers.
Many course topics were suggested or formulated by the teachers themselves, which enhances the appeal of the approach.
Teacher as instructor vs teacher as student
As a rule, it is not invited specialists and coaches but the teachers themselves who lead discussions, master classes and refresher courses in ‘Teach for HSE’. This approach is challenging for teachers because teaching your colleagues requires special preparation.
Moving out of your comfort zone stimulates the development of cognitive and professional skills. It is also a great way to hone and develop your soft skills. This is a new level of responsibility for the teacher, and for his or her students (colleagues), giving a feeling of mutual support.
More broadly, in this way professional burnout can be avoided, common academic teaching guidelines and standards are formed, awareness of the competencies of colleagues grows and areas for further growth within the professional community are identified.
When teachers find themselves in the same classroom, the feeling of mutual support becomes especially strong. The exchange of best practices, ideas and pedagogical ‘life hacks’ is a natural and fruitful process.
The opportunity to look at a colleague from a student’s perspective is a situation that is not available in the traditional academic hierarchy. Thus, the spread of best practice occurs not only from above, but also horizontally and naturally according to the principle “if my colleague can, then I can”.
Peer support in action
What did this approach provide when the entire educational process was transferred to a digital environment? Even with the university’s high level of technology and the lightning-fast reactions of the administration, which provided staff with a range of methods for interacting with students remotely, it was support from experienced colleagues who already had extensive experience with digital tools and platforms that was most in demand.
All the activities of ‘Teach for HSE’ have been transferred online and the range of topics has been changed, focusing exclusively on aspects that allow teachers to make online teaching more comfortable and productive.
In addition, the online format has given teachers the opportunity to expand their audience significantly, for example, the number of participants in traditional discussion platforms increased almost tenfold and colleagues from all HSE campuses were finally able to join.
Interdisciplinary and inter-campus exchange has become even more intense. During these discussions, teachers talk about their experience of using online technology to assess written or oral exams, to monitor the progress of students, to organise seminars, team and group work online and much more.
An essential element of engagement
The capabilities of digital platforms made it possible to introduce an important component in the horizontal teaching support system: peer observation. The goal is not to rate or criticise colleagues but to support each other and exchange ideas and best practices. It is very useful for teachers to look at their teaching objectively, to see themselves from the outside through the eyes of a colleague.
In our opinion, this is an indispensable way to improve. This interaction was introduced in the ‘Teach for HSE’ course “Seven Key Principles of Teaching Excellence”, which is implemented every year and is primarily for teachers who have recently come to work at the university.
Disciplinary boundaries were deliberately avoided to ensure wider interdisciplinary exchange. The transition to online facilitated implementation and made it simpler, from a technical point of view, for the distributed HSE campuses.
Previously, mutual attendance at classes was often logistically difficult. As part of this course, teachers were asked to focus on providing feedback.
First, the teacher and observer agree on the time and the lesson being observed. Then, during the observation observers fill out a standardised form to describe specific parameters: the learning outcomes of the lesson, how the time is organised, the share of student participation, and much more.
Third, observers formulate impressions and recommendations for possible improvements to the course (this could be any element of teaching: from the time allotted for checking homework to the rubrics and criteria for evaluating essays).
Peer observation serves as a powerful stimulus for development, motivates teachers to meet high professional standards and, from a psychological point of view, develops empathy and instils a culture of providing and receiving feedback.
In the future, this practice should become systemic and routine (in the positive sense), because only then will it be possible to make the most of interaction between teachers and to productively exchange teaching practices.
A view to the future
Summarising the experience gained during the project, the idea of building horizontal connections within the teaching community of the university has been fully justified. However, there is still a lot to do to improve and scale up the most effective practices.
It is important for teachers to share their experience with colleagues by participating in conferences and roundtables to support teaching at the institutional level.
At the all-Russian conference there was a section entitled “University staff policies: Engagement management practices”, where speakers from leading Russian universities focused on the topic of teaching support during the forced transfer to online learning.
University administrators presented different models for transforming centralised processes, and teachers spoke of how they adapted their practices to new formats and the results. While maintaining objectivity, it is important to ask what has been lost with the transition to online.
It cannot be denied that the challenges faced by universities in spring 2020 have also transformed our view of teacher support in general. There are areas which are almost impossible to compensate for, including physical fatigue from continuous screen time, the blurring of the personal and professional when working from home, and the loss of face-to-face communication with students.
There is also the need for teachers to master new digital skills (in particular, developing effective feedback mechanisms for students, introducing tracking systems and other developments in the educational process).
The most important step has already been taken: the realisation that the experience of traditional formats of interaction with students in the classroom cannot simply be transferred to an online environment. The digital space requires different ways of presenting material and different methods of communication.
The role of visual content is more significant, a diversification of activities is required, micro-learning, modular courses, interactive learning and new formats for organising teamwork in a virtual environment are also becoming increasingly important.
These changes apply equally to the interaction patterns among teachers. A new culture and new ethic of working in the digital environment are now emerging, and this is a complex and non-linear process.
Centralised, administrative levers of control over this process are more effective at this stage, but it is important to select and configure them correctly. The need for methodological and competence-based changes to maintain levels of teaching and learning is obvious, and this is what all the resources of ‘Teach for HSE’ are currently focused on.
One of the promising areas here is attracting those with an academic background but working in business as coaches and trainers; another is original forms of inter-institutional interaction, such as the use of theatrical techniques to develop interactive learning skills, effective communication with students, creative and motivating educational strategies.
Researchers have yet to analyse all the changes that are taking place in education. For this big data will be involved, on the basis of which conclusions and expert assessments will be made. At present, we can rely solely on our personal experience and subjective reflection, which in the future will complement the development of the higher education system.
Oksana Chernenko is director for innovations in education, HSE University, Russia. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Veronica Saltykova is project team leader at the Office for Educational Innovations and Short-Term International Programmes, HSE University, Russia, E-mail: email@example.com. This article was first published in the current edition of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond.