Ukrainian Higher Education responds to the COVID-19 challenges

The global pandemic COVID-19 has affected the usual way of life in Ukraine, like in many other countries in the world. The quarantine was announced from March 17 through May 11, 2020, and lots of public organisations and private businesses have had to introduce new strategies to survive in the downturn. The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine has developed a bilingual web-site https://covid19.gov.ua/en in Ukrainian and in English to inform a wider public about the situation under development, as well as preventive and restriction measures in Ukraine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The education system was closed as a part of the measures to limit contacts between people and to slow down the spread of the virus. The Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine issued supportive acts and instructions for the education institutions, which are posted and updated at http://mon-covid19.info

Online teaching

Ukrainian HEIs were advised to independently determine how to organise the study process and which technologies to use, so that each student can complete the academic year. Teaching and learning is aided with distance learning technologies, through various e-learning platforms like Moodle, videoconferences (Google classroom, Zoom, Microsoft class etc.), social networks, etc. The EU bilateral support as well as Erasmus+ Programme, AUF, and H2020 projects have enormously contributed to the smooth transfer to distance learning modes and the exchange of open educational recourses. Administrations and structural units of HEI work remotely and hold regular meetings through videoconferences. The IT staff provide consultancy and share tutorials to help others develop online content or implement new teaching tools. In some HEIs, online psychological assistance is provided to teachers and students who suffer from social distance and stress.

In these extraordinary times, the Ukrainian universities strive to help their students accomplish their educational goals. However, the ease with which online learning is implemented across the Ukraine varies greatly. The HEIs experienced in Erasmus+ projects have used the projects' outcomes on innovative teaching and learning methods and tools and e-courses for distance learning successfully. This shows how beneficial such projects have been.

Nevertheless, most of the Ukrainian HEIs are tackling similar problems: 1) There is a lack of institutional strategies and resources for arranging distance learning, 2) Implementation of good-quality multimedia services and contents is still new and the plethora of such services needs to be navigated, 3) Limited experience and expertise of the teaching staff and/or lack of digital proficiency are the major obstacles to implementing distance learning at the appropriate level. The challenge now is to integrate the new online resources into usual teaching practice, and to evaluate in which subject areas they are currently best used, and where they need further development.

On a larger scale, the HEIs report that students are capable to cope with distance learning. However, quite a number of students have problems with home Internet access, especially those who live in rural areas. The local providers are not ready to handle the increased traffic which exceeds their server capacity. The disadvantaged students might not have up-to-date computers or have affordable internet contracts. They struggle to adapt to the current reality with less access to learning materials and less support. Self-discipline is essential for effective virtual interaction with teachers. Students need to master theoretical material and practical tasks independently and to effectively perform laboratory workshops and scientific discussions. Some students need more support in this transition than others.

Mobility and international projects

In the light of the social distancing, the National Erasmus+ Office-Ukraine provides constant support to current Erasmus+ projects implementation, as well as online counseling and FB webinars. Particular attention has been paid at the participants of the ongoing Erasmus+ K107 academic mobility projects. Regretfully, the majority of the students and staff had to terminate their education/ teaching in the foreign host HEIs and returned home. They have been provided support in accordance with the regulations and recommendations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. There are several cases when Ukrainian teachers and students chose to stay abroad, in the host universities. The administrations of their home universities have been contacting them regularly in regard to their health and safety. Additionally, the NEO–Ukraine prepared the Guidelines for mobility of students and staff and posted them on the NEO website. The NEO–Ukraine sent out an official request letter for support to the Ukrainian diplomatic missions abroad concerning Erasmus+ Ukrainian students staying abroad and travelling back to Ukraine in the COVID-19 pandemic situation.

The Ukrainian academia and students were encouraged to take advantage of the initiative of Coursera for Campus (C4C). This Call was accepted enthusiastically. According to the C4C records, Ukraine takes the 6th position of the registered learners (934) in the world, ahead of the U.S., India, Russia and Egypt.

Civil movements

The situation with COVID-19 in Ukraine caused a rise of civil activities and volunteer movements. Examples include: The Ukrainian National Educational Platform “Prometheus” (https://prometheus.org.ua/) and Medical Platform “INgenius” (@ingenius_ua) in March 2020 launched a joint course that provides one hour of reliable information and important facts on behalf of the most respected scientists and international health organisations on COVID19 updates, treatment and prevention measures.

At national level, the volunteer movement of junior scholars and students was initiated. The volunteers provide social support and assistance (delivery of protective masks, medicines, food, hygiene products, etc.) for elderly people, homeless people and people with disabilities. Students of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy have launched an online project called “Dobrodvizh” which aims to encourage young people to volunteer and support those in need. Virtual volunteering and cyber volunteering are also expanding, e.g., Wikipedia text translation, TEDx subtitling, digitisation of documents and declarations, Google Maps assistance, OpenStreetMap, to name a few. Many business and consulting companies in Ukraine have released their own educational content for the wider public free of charge.

Accreditation

The National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance developed, piloted and now actively provides remote accreditation expertise for BA and MA programmes.  The accreditation procedure lasts for 3 days, engaging students, teaching and administrative staff, employers and alumni to communicate with the expert in a video conference. So far, 40 programmes have passed the accreditation and 56 programmes are planned to be accredited by the end of April.

Although the higher education system in Ukraine has been undergoing difficult times, the response of the Ukrainian HEIs to the COVID-19 challenges indicates they have adequate managerial capacity and proper technological resources which can be employed in this unprecedented situation. Ukraine has been cooperating and synergising with many countries to combat the COVID-19 challenges and consequences. International cooperation is needed more than ever.

Irina Sikorskaya, Iryna Zolotaryova, NQAA member

HERE Team