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Web-Based PE Classes, Art Projects and Other Innovations: Project 5-100 Universities Master Distance Learning

May 20, 2020

With universities moving online, their faculty and staff have found themselves in uncharted waters. How does one provide virtual instruction in a subject that has never before been taught remotely? How does one know when students are beginning to lose focus and should be jolted back into attention? As they get to grips with these and similar issues, teachers at Project 5-100 institutions are discovering that distance education has unexpected advantages over face-to-face learning, which can be harnessed to make online classes brisk, exciting and innovative.

Faculty members at Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) have been trialling an application that analyzes chat participants' facial expressions, voice tones and activity levels to evaluate the audience's concentration. It tells teachers when their class's attention begins to flag and needs to be regained through on-the-go changes to the lesson plan. This project, which is being piloted by graduate students at the AI lab of FEFU's School of Data Economy, is set to be implemented across the university.

Vladislav Silkin, a senior lecturer with the Novosibirsk State University (NSU) Economics Department, has been inviting international experts to address the audience of a special course he is teaching, something that would have been much harder to arrange offline. Attendance has reportedly trebled, swelled by the Economics Department's alumni as well as by undergraduate and graduate students from other departments, including language learners who have been flocking to hear native speakers expound their views.

At RUDN University's Department of Comparative Politics, associate professor Daria Kazarinova and assistant professor Vladislav Butenko seek to present study material more vividly by assuming the roles of two experts engaged in a discussion. While they have used this approach before, it appears to be particularly well adapted to distance learning which calls for livelier instructional formats. Daria Kazarinova believes that the technique is best deployed in courses taught to master's level students and during PhD student internships.

Distance learning is not only about teachers reaching out to students but also about students interacting with one another. At Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), five graduate students are helping 130 freshmen to prepare for tests in five subjects as part of a volunteer project called “Educational Emergency Aid”, now brought online.

Aspiring artists are also taking to the Internet. At the Higher School of Economics (HSE) Art and Design School, undergraduates studying for an MA in Contemporary Art have posted 12 self-portraits on the HSE ONLINE GALLERY platform. The project, dubbed “Call Me Back on My Home Phone”, purports to reflect the new reality facing humanity as it struggles through the pandemic.

A virtual talk or a web-based exhibition may be straightforward enough, but an online Physical Education class, which is ITMO University's knowhow, is much less easy to visualize. The university's sports club has designed several online training programs, including esports battles. Students attend esports-related webinars, learn the strategy and tactics involved in online games and work towards a PE pass by earning points in digital tournaments.

Tomsk State University (TSU) has launched a crowdsourcing project called “Online Assistance to Teachers: Simple and Effective”. Its website and social media pages carry methodological advice, case studies, tips for setting up distance learning and other helpful information for   university faculty and staff. New materials are added daily.

Russian universities are beginning to feel at home in the distance education environment, with their teaching staff constantly trying out techniques that would make remote instruction as effective as classroom learning, and sharing them with fellow professionals.