COVID-19 has provoked sudden and expected challenges for universities in Azerbaijan. Many universities were caught unprepared or half-prepared for the changes they had to implement amidst the pandemic turmoil especially regarding online modes of delivery, which would be the only way to achieve the intended programme outcomes.
For the Azerbaijan University of Languages (AUL), there were some specific features that have possibly made the transition, in some sense, easier than for other institutions. This is, first of all, connected with the class size parameter that AUL has to observe. As the main institution where foreign language teachers, translators and interpreters, as well as other language specialists are trained, AUL has to maintain limited class sizes: The largest classes, which are practical language classes, can have no more than 15 seats. Therefore, mobilising for the continuation of classes through available technological means was not too difficult for the majority of the teaching staff. Secondly, as an institution where a great number of teachers and administrative staff have a solid command of foreign languages, in particular of English, AUL has long been practicing joint teaching in cooperation with partners from many parts of the world. This has provided the teaching staff with advanced skills in using technologies in distance modes of delivery.
In consideration of possible difficulties for larger classes, AUL mobilised the teaching, administrative and IT staff to immediately transfer delivery online, using various channels and platforms. Zoom and Skype were among the first implemented, followed by Microsoft Teams. In a short period of time, AUL organised several online training sessions for the staff to promote the diversified use of IT technologies in teaching. The training sessions were organised in cooperation with local and international experts.
Several serious steps were taken to also diversify the methodological approach to online teaching. The volume of written tasks and project-based assignments were increased to replace the oral participation and face-to-face discussions. Certainly, this has contributed to the increased quality of written assignments and it is anticipated that critical thinking will be enhanced. In still reforming education systems, it is considered easier to evaluate critical thinking through oral presentations and project work. Particularly in systems which are struggling to dismiss the Soviet approach, where writing and written exams was the main mode of assessment, creative writing and oral assessment have the potential to be greatly enhanced. This aspect was immediately focused on in several training sessions that AUL held for the teaching staff as well as for the students. Project-based assignments, including critical review on a scholarly positions and group discussion, are becoming more emphasised. In addition, these approaches have, in some instances, encouraged students to change roles with the teacher. Due to the possible risk of decreased student motivation in these trying times, we have been trying to keep the students engaged in new and creative roles. For example, some students are given assignments to complete the analysis of a paper and subsequently teach and lead an entire group, conducting the class with some support and encouragement from the teacher.
Among other changes, certain alterations are being made to assessments and grading. As many traditional modes of assessment will be difficult or impossible to administer, various other modes of knowledge assessment are being discussed among the teaching staff (and with the Ministry). Project-based group work for everything besides practical language classes are being considered as an option for final assessment. For the practical language classes, the University is planning to transfer a considerable portion of final assessment into an oral format, including student presentations, interviews and debates.
In the light of the closure of libraries and resource centers at the University, there is an intensive focus on creating materials and placing them on shared platforms such as Google Docs, Dropbox etc. Students are also advised to use online books and journal resources as well as online data bases such as JStor, EPDF etc.
Jala Garibova. Azerbaijan University of Languages