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How HSE Is Transitioning to Distance Learning and Helping Others Do the Same

How HSE Is Transitioning to Distance Learning and Helping Others Do the Same

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Conducting online lectures and research seminars on Zoom, providing assistance and useful instructions to the university community—all this is necessary for a smooth transition to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two weeks, various HSE departments have done all of this in order to provide their students with online instruction. The IT Office particularly felt the weight of this large task. HSE News spoke with digital service staff about what they have managed to do in such a short time frame.

On March 16, HSE University decided to switch to remote education and supported other universities in doing so as well. As the Director of the Digital Transformation Centre Sergey Bykov says, HSE was largely ready for such a change. ‘The level of digitalization at HSE is quite high compared to most universities. Much of the university’s administrative operations, for example, use information systems.’ But at the same time, says Sergey Bykov, the university had never faced a challenge of this scale before. ‘Both the scale and speed at which we have had to move activity online is unprecedented.’

As the pandemic spread to more and more countries, the IT Office began making preparations for the online transition in advance.

Sergey Bykov, Director of the Digital Transformation Centre

Sergey Bykov, Director of the Digital Transformation Centre

In preparation for the transition, we looked at the experiences of European and American universities, which transitioned to remote work 2-3 weeks earlier than us. We assessed the risks to our systems and resources. At the same time, the main risks were related to the continuity of the systems and the services provided, because the load on them doubled or even tripled. Nevertheless, we managed to respond to the main risks in advance and the transition went largely unnoticed. However, there were some teething troubles. On March 16, the very first day of the transition, there was a failure in LMS due to a sharp increase in activity. Only the fact that this scenario was anticipated and test runs were done the day before over the weekend allowed us to quickly reconfigure the system and optimize its performance.

The HSE Mobile Apps Unit also came to the aid of teachers and students. In response to the growing demand for the creation and improvement of digital services, Mobile Apps Unit staff developed a new app called HSE Mobile SDK. Broadly speaking, SDK is a set of software components (libraries), the implementation of which allows you to expand the capabilities of mobile applications and simplify the process of creating new ones. This tool is used by most Russian and foreign companies, such as Google, Yandex, Facebook, VK, Sberbank, and many others. HSE was the first university in Russia to offer its own SDK.

‘We made some of our projects open source in order to encourage the development of quality applications by the university community. This is the first step in the HSE IT Office openness policy,’ said Maxim Nemkevich, Head of the Mobile Apps Unit. ‘We expect the SDK to help students and departments create their own applications better and faster.’

In addition, the IT Office (in collaboration with the eLearning Office) prepared instructions (in Russian) for using various tools for HSE faculty and students. ‘Now we are expanding the tools for online work—we are adding Webinar.ru and Zoom services to MS Teams. In addition, we are continuing efforts to improve the performance of the main HSE information systems, as traffic will only increase in the coming weeks,’ says Sergey Bykov.

He also noted that there need to be efforts to help HSE faculty and staff improve their digital literacy. HSE’s Digital Volunteers project was launched in order to solve this very problem. Its first participants have already completed training sessions organized by the IT Office. Now digital volunteers will help other students and instructors with the development of new services and converting courses into an online format.

Sergey Bykov says that he is grateful to colleagues from other departments for their help and support—after all, there have been many difficulties over the past two weeks. ‘I had to solve a large number of technical issues aimed at improving fault tolerance, system performance, and information security related issues,’ he says. The situation continued to unfold rapidly, and from the very first days, the IT Office received a lot of questions from users. ‘Therefore, last week, we opened a user support hotline that campus members can access from their MyHSE accounts. All questions about working remotely can be directed to this line.’

The Digital Transformation Centre Director notes, by the way, that all previously planned activities for the digital development of HSE have not been put on pause. These are being undertaken in parallel to those surrounding the campus-wide transition to online learning. ‘Events related to the coronavirus only confirmed that we had chosen the right course of action.’