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Online studies: Mission Possible!

The period of pandemic turned into a challenge not only for the Lithuanian health care system or the economy but also for the education system. Higher education institutions faced an urgent need to adapt to  unexpected changes and move the studying process to the virtual space. According to Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (IIRPS VU) Deputy Director for Studies dr. Lina Strupinskienė, the current situation has opened a window of opportunity for the transfer of activities to the internet. How to study at home and, more importantly, how to maintain a high quality of studies? We share the experience of the community of IIRPS VU during the quarantine period.

Organizing the whole study process remotely is a big challenge for all universities. However, IRPS VU has managed to completely move studies to the virtual space. Could you share your experience with us?

The transfer of learning processes to the virtual space was as smooth as possible, although we had absolutely no time to prepare. Vilnius University decided to temporarily move the study process to the internet on Thursday and on Friday lecturers already conducted seminars and lectures online. We had to rethink the methods of teaching and requirements for students to discover the most effective ways of sharing the information. In addition, we had to ensure that the culture of discussion that is so important in the IIRPS VU would not suffer.

As soon as the quarantine was announced, we immediately contacted the lecturers of the IIRPS VU and explained that the two-week break would be just the beginning and the probability that the academic year would have to be completed remotely was extremely high. We introduced a variety of platforms that would allow lectures and seminars to be conducted live or share their recordings for students to view and comment on later. We reacted seriously ourselves, so we got the same reaction from the teachers. We created a support system for them (discussion forums, descriptions of good practices, individual consultations), and immediately included students who offered even more great technological solutions.

What is more, we cannot underestimate the fact that we were just very lucky. We have excellent teachers who are dedicated experts in their field, want to do their best, and are sincerely interested in sharing knowledge on their subject. On the other hand, the students of IIRPS VU are also highly creative, active, and demanding, thus their help is especially important in this difficult process as well.

What platforms do you use for lectures and seminars? How did students and teachers manage to adapt to change? What challenges did you face?

Teachers are mainly using Zoom and Microsoft Teams platforms, which allow live communication between teachers and students. With their help, students can ask questions directly or write them, which might be treated as a kind of facilitation for those who find it difficult to speak in public. We also use the Discord platform for simulations or use other “gamers” platforms to teach quantitative methods as they allow us to show the actions performed in the teacher’s program and hear his/her instructions. For text reading, we use the collective text reading and commenting program Perusall. In addition, Vilnius University also encourages the use of the Moodle platform, where lecturers can upload material, organize discussions, or provide feedback.

We faced a number of challenges, but I would like to highlight the main ones. First of all, both teachers and students have different technical possibilities – not everyone has the equipment to ensure appropriate video and audio quality. The workload has increased not only for teachers but also for students. For example, some teachers organize short one-on-one seminars, which unfortunately are more difficult to prepare for compared to the group ones. Moreover, we have to take care of the final-year students, who are preparing their bachelor’s or master’s theses. For some of them, quarantine has disrupted interviewing plans, thus it is important to help to overcome the anxiety. We are currently working together to adapt and advise students on changing their research strategy. It is important to note that we are not alone: the scientific community around the world is also actively discussing this topic and offering various solutions. Most fortunate are those who have carried out the empirical research in advance and are currently working on the data available. For example, one of the students that I am supervising returned from Rwanda shortly before the announcement of quarantine – she went there to study local community reconciliation processes after the genocide. Another student is interviewing women involved in the Ukrainian conflict, thus Skype and e-mail is helpful. Finally, everyone has to deal with a great deal of uncertainty, anxiety, inability to work from home for a variety of reasons (taking care of their own or their loved ones’ health, children at home, isolation, etc.). We make great efforts to support both students and lecturers by learning together, trying to discover and adapt the most suitable solutions.

How do you ensure the quality of studies during the quarantine period? Could you tell us more about the final assessment of students?

All of our subjects have cumulative scores, usually consisting of active participation in seminars, an exam, and short written assignments. The biggest challenge today is to evaluate activity in seminars if some of them are not carried out live due to the large time difference (over a hundred foreign students temporarily returned back home to Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, etc.). Some of the teachers looked at it creatively – they ask for written answers, some organize short individual Skype conversations, and some give additional tasks.

The quality of studies is ensured by the administration and study program committees, which are acquainted with the changes made in the program. In addition, feedback is constantly collected from students – we had a virtual meeting with student representatives from all courses and all programs to collect their feedback, comments, and suggestions.

Scientists predict that the world could face a virus pandemics more than once. Can virtual learning become our inevitable future? What lessons should we learn in preparation for future crises?

I think that it will. We already know that we will not return to the institute this academic year, but even if or when we return in the fall, the work will look different. We will certainly use a lot of what we have learned over the last few weeks. This pandemic has created a kind of window of opportunity and has greatly accelerated the transfer of lectures and seminars to virtual space. The most important lessons would probably be two: to invest in the quality of technology, which would allow everyone to participate smoothly in the study process, and in the development of a system that would allow even better care for teachers, students and administrative staff in difficult times.