COVID19 as a Catalyst and a Litmus Test for HE System Development in Georgia

It might sound strange, but the COVID19 outbreak has had a positive side-effect on the development of the Higher Education system in Georgia while serving as a catalyst for implementation of online teaching. Instruments for remote teaching have been adopted by the majority of Georgian universities for quite some time (in many cases, as a result of Erasmus+ CBHE projects), but were not really used for leading degree programmes. HEIs were traditionally offering classroom teaching and this mode continued to dominate. The state of emergency announced in the beginning of March, followed by practically a total lockdown, forced universities to switch to the online teaching format swiftly. It has to be underlined that universities started developing and implementing alternative teaching approaches well in advance of official governmental recommendations. A special decree (#205) on the “Teaching Process at Educational Institutions during the State of Emergency” has been published on the 31th of March, whereas the majority of HEIs started their online semester as early as on the 16th of March, demonstrating full autonomy and flexibility. It was a litmus test for academic and administrative staff of HEIs, and at the same time an excellent example of mobilisation and team work. As a bottom up initiative, a Facebook group has been created, unifying over 5000 academic community members, to discuss and share the experience of distance teaching. Currently all Georgian HEIs are using synchronous and asynchronous online teaching modes. There have been problems of different natures (technical, methodological, managerial, etc.) but the transfer seems to have been largely successful. Thanks to joint efforts of academic and administrative staff, universities managed to avoid standstill.

The example of Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (TSU) - Georgia’s oldest and biggest university - clearly shows that COVID19 had an impact on staff and students, on the one hand, and on the university itself, on the other. Much has been developed and modernised at the TSU in just a couple of days and weeks: professors started recording their lectures for asynchronous teaching – partly individually, partly with the help of TSU Multimedia Center; at the same time lectures and seminars were offered synchronously via ZOOM, MEET or Skype; syllabi have been re-shaped, especially considering assessment methods (more emphasis is given to final and oral exams). The TSU administration developed new guidelines and video tutorials for e-learning. Administration was also re-scheduling laboratory classes for some disciplines, shifting them to the next semester. The TSU library started digitalising textbooks, but considering a huge demand and lack of online teaching resources, professors were also scanning teaching materials using special apps on smartphones. This emergency transfer to the online teaching mode also revealed a lack of IT skills among professors, especially of the older generation. However, all of them managed to overcome technical difficulties with the help of university administrative and technical staff, colleagues, family members, students and even neighbors.

The Coronavirus affected not only the teaching process but also other university activities: for example information sessions for students on scholarship opportunities, career guidance processes, psychological support to overcome COVID19 induced stress, research group meetings, administration briefings, etc. have been switched to FB lives/Zoom/Teams/Meet/Skype formats. The TSU Newspaper is now published only online and organisation of online national and international conferences and remote defense of doctoral dissertations is widely discussed.

Of course there are problems: Not all students have high speed internet, therefore even recorded lectures are not accessible for them. The students’ assessment system is not yet fully adjusted to distance education. There is a lack of specific methodological knowledge and in some cases, there is a copyright issue related to digitised/scanned teaching material.

With universities and governmental authorities being busy with ongoing problems, there was no time for reflection and analysis of the situation. It might also be too early to speak about long-term implications of this shift from classroom to online teaching in Georgia and there will be definitely new challenges to overcome. Most probably, economic and financial problems induced by the epidemiological situation will hit Georgian universities too, and eventually HEIs will keep, at least partly, online teaching to reduce costs and remain competitive. Positive results achieved so far might be very helpful to overcome this crisis and support the development of Higher Education in Georgia: Improved IT skills of academic staff; Digitized teaching and learning materials; Conservative and in some cases outdated attitudes toward online and distance learning are replaced by more innovative approaches; Transformed concept of communication and internationalisation; Physiological shifts – better understanding of the benefits of virtual communication, which saves time, energy and money.

Irine Darchia (HERE) & Lika Glonti (NEO Georgia)