The development of a digital educational environment is a priority of the Graduate School of Management of St. Petersburg University (GSOM SPbU). The Business School plans not only to introduce an online component into educational programs, but also to create a full-fledged digital platform for education and communications integrated with St. Petersburg University, business partners and government agencies. GSOM’s IT Director, Yury Ekimov, explained to us how it works.
It is stated that digital environment development is one of the main directions of GSOM SPbU Strategy-2025. How will this development be manifested?
There is a working group in SPbU. Its goal is to create a “digital university”. GSOM SPbU is recognized as a testing institution for the development of modern digital technologies in education as a part of “Development Program of the Federal State Budgetary Educational Institution of Higher Education ‘St. Petersburg State University’” for 2021-2030. A pilot digital educational environment (DEE) will be created on the basis of GSOM SPbU. In case of a successful launch, our experience will be replicated to the entire university, since the scalability and flexibility of the DEE will make it able to be used in other faculties of our university.
This pilot project implies the creation of all the main key modules of a single digital platform for learning, communication and decision-making. These are digital profiles of students and teachers, educational content, timetable and control over the booking of audiences, as well as elements designed to promote and organize sales. Digital lab and library, Career Center, and everything related to VR and augmented reality are also included. There are many of these elements of DEE, which will be connected with each other, while the entire DEE will be integrated with the advisory information bases of SPbU and the necessary external information systems.
The GSOM DEE will be created in close technological partnership with leading companies, (such as Mail.ru, MegaFon, VTB, IBM, etc.), taking into account the resource support of the GSOM SPbU Advisory Board, which makes not only a financial contribution, as many of the members help with their proficiency. The partners already have their own corporate universities, and, consequently, developments in the digital environment.
Speaking about external communication, are people outside the organization able to have access to the DEE?
All users have clearly defined roles. First of all, these are students, teachers, staff, and security. But there are people outside the university, for example, parents of students, our partners, bodies that interact with the university on accountability. They should also be participants of the process.
First, DEE is created for ourselves in order to facilitate work within the organization to create a common online component for all educational programs, to make digital business processes of the Business school fully digital, to create a single platform for remote internships and micro-internships, digital profiles of students and listeners.
It is obvious that today we have all kinds of digital systems, which we should put into a single digital environment with a single interface design. There are no ready-made solutions to this problem on the market yet.
But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Today, we already have several almost complete modules.
And what are they?
It is about an independent unit – the education management system for Executive Education programs. This is a stand-alone learning management system (LMS) module, which is already used by teachers. Why did we choose Executive Education programs or testing this system? This is the fastest-changing industry, largely focused on commerce, and therefore forced to be flexible and adaptable to customer requirements. Our digital LMS allows complying with this flexibility. It is convenient to create the main element once, and then transform it to fit other needs.
Secondly, it is the preparation of a hybrid teaching methodology. I am talking about a methodology that includes not only the two well-known hybrid auditoriums on the Mikhailovskaya Dacha campus. Its meaning is to acquire knowledge in any convenient place in the most comfortable way, no matter, online or offline.
As for the auditoriums in the campus, the solution is found: 2222 is an amphitheater, 1207 is flat. The first is designed for 60 people, the second – for 48 people (with physical presence). The participation of people outside the audiences is unlimited. We just have to replicate this solution.
As far as I know, some people question the need to invest such a huge amount of effort in a format that may only be needed during the pandemic.
Such a format will definitely be in demand after the pandemic. Hybrid methodology would appear in any case; it is just a matter of time.
The main thing is convenience and flexibility. We have prepared several scenarios for hybrid classrooms: lectures, seminars, dialogues, in which, for example, a teacher is in the auditorium, while the students can be present both indoors and remotely. Moreover, there is an alternative communication option between two or even several hybrid audiences. The number of teachers can be more than two, and the number of students is almost unlimited. All this dramatically expands the possibility of conducting education activities. It is a new shape with better qualities.
This solves the problem of both expanding the audience and the faculty: the possibility of inclusion is very convenient for lecturers who, for various reasons, cannot physically come to St. Petersburg from other cities or even countries. And they, by the way, may be the best domestic and international practitioners and theorists.
It is also convenient for students who were present at the lecture, or were not able to do so, can always review the lecture recording from the online cloud storage.
It is clear that other universities are also creating hybrid platforms. Among them there will be our partners, that we will be able to communicate with in the same technological space. This abruptly expands the opportunity for collaborations. We are in contact with our advisors, who have their own educational departments, such as Russian Railways, VTB, Mail.ru and MegaFon.
There are too many things to discuss convenience. Working on DEE, we prioritize the user. Users' wishes are considered first, while even technological constraints fade into the background. Designers, anthropologists, methodologists always form their wishes first. And only then we, IT specialists, correlate them with the means that are optimal in terms of price and quality. We program the first prototype to the average wishes of teachers and students. Then we launch and test it. If users are not satisfied, we create another option. The hybrid audiences at Mikhailovskaya Dacha campus are already their third version.
What was wrong with the first one?
As it turned out, it was very complicated. We tried to implement the maximum number of scenarios on the screen. As a result, there were quite a lot of window elements on the display, and they were not intuitively clear to the user. Although, to us, as developers, they just seemed very clear.
In the second version, we have reduced this set of interfaces on the screen by half. Today, there are only five small screens on the display, clicking on which launches all the programmed possibilities. These are lectures, discussions, seminars, group works, presentation works.
It is quite simple to prepare such an audience for work. Before starting the course, the teachers choose which format to use (hybrid or conventional). If they plan to use the computer, they can choose which one: their own or a “local” one in the auditorium.
At the same time, of course, we saved everything that we did for the first version — only put all this in the setting of a more technical nature. If necessary, a larger number of scenarios can be displayed on the screen.
What unexpected moments had to be taken into account?
There are things that always work in all scenarios. Clearly, there is nothing to do without video or sound. Testing them has taken a lot of attention. So what we’ve come up with is that there’s a microphone array on the ceiling of the auditorium. In the process, we got rid of all wearable microphones, wired microphones, which are always a problem - batteries run out, or people forget to turn them on. But in the end, we have perfect audibility anywhere in the audience, like in the theater. We should say that we are fortunate that the auditoriums were prepared in terms of acoustics, this was thought out during the construction of the campus. The reaction of students on the other side of the screen: “We can hear, as if we are in the same room”.
The second is the visual part. Obviously, at least one camera has to track the lecturer. But there are still questions: What information should be displayed on which device? On the front screens? On the TV panels in the back? On the movable interactive panel on the side?
The specific direction we’re working on is VR-add. I think we’re going to add that to hybrid learning in the near future.
Do charts and formulas seem to float in the air?
These technologies already exist. But the question here is user-friendliness, not even whether some people will be able to use these technologies in a trained audience and others in their apartment. However, additional reality and VR will definitely be applied.
Indeed, the question arises whether this is useful for the delivery of information, or whether it will turn the lecture into an entertaining performance.
This element is useful, if applied in a timely manner. And the main but not the trivial thing is how to behave in a hybrid audience. Remember, when the internet was created, there were no rules of conduct, and that’s why there was such a mess. But in the end, international ethical requirements emerged. There will be the same thing with hybrid learning – there will be general rules.
In the meantime, we’re developing our own behavior culture protocol. It prescribes, for example, the discipline of starting a class, the inclusion of a camera by all participants, the introduction of a discussion. When this stage is passed, it will go to VR.
In the context of the protocol, would it be possible to take examinations through a digital education system?
It all depends on the task. Technically, it’s real. No one has canceled different examination-tracking technologies, there are even operators of the process. In general, the concept of a digital university implies the digitization of all elements of the educational process. These are both digital diplomas and digital portfolios of students that will be with our graduates for the rest of their lives, and will go to the HR divisions of employers. Their technology, by the way, will be integrated with ours. The employer will already know everything there is to know about the former employee.
This, of course, increases the cost of error, it’s hard to start over.
On the one hand, yes. But the point of the portfolio is that people have as much benefit as they can. Instead of collecting information about how well they have worked from their employers, they have the objective data.
A large team of anthropologists worked on hybrid audiences. This is particularly interesting. What was their function?
I’ve never been in an experiment like this before. Focus groups were held, bringing together all stakeholders (students, teachers, IT students, and administrative staff). We all had to answer the long list of questions honestly. Then, according to certain algorithms, our answers were summarized by anthropologists into a general picture, from which recommendations emerged. For example, which door, left or right, is more convenient to open. How convenient is it to have them closed or open? Where to hang the TVs? We actually brought them around the auditorium for about an hour while we were testing. We were trying them on to figure out where they should be placed, so that the participants in the class would not have to turn their heads.
Or all the people, including the teachers, move at different speeds. Some stand and gesture, and some move very fast. If the camera is just chasing after the teacher - a student who is on the other side of the screen, just gets dizzy, we have already tried to do so. How should we show a teacher? Face? Full size? Eventually, we came to the conclusion that there would be a waist-like image. In this way people can see the lecturer's facial expression and gestures. And no one is dizzy.
Anthropologists fixed all those things. The result: no matter how many tests we’ve done - no teacher or student was against it. It’s generally convenient. It could not be otherwise, because among the original design principles of hybrid audiences were multilingualism, multiculturalism, neutral tonality and humanity in communications. We have tried to come up with a technological solution that is rooted in user experience and teaching methodology.
What are the plans to equip hybrid auditoriums at the GSOM SPbU facilities?
Of course, two audiences are not enough. Now teachers will begin to get used to [hybrid learning] and queues will line up for these audiences. Plus, you have to understand that when Mikhailovskaya Dacha campus is settled, the main educational process will start intensively there. Therefore, we give priority to Mikhailovskaya Dacha campus, where there should be 10 audiences of hybrid format in the next stage. We plan to finish by the end of the year. Some more audiences in Mikhailovskaya Dacha campus will not be hybrid, but so-called «stagnated». The effect is about the same, the only difference is less devices, almost hybrid. Well, and at least two hybrid auditoriums in 2022 we want to do on Volkhovskiy per., 3.
It is known that some mobile applications for campus are also being developed. At what stage is it being prepared?
The campus app is also designed to become part of the digital education environment. The application can be used from private offices by teachers, students, administrators and other roles. I mean, it will be available to all members of the SPSU team, including security. The application will quickly receive information from DEE and will add it from simple chat rooms to hybrid classrooms with lectures, teachers' content, registration of educational and extracurricular activities. By the way, the extracurricular direction in the appendix will be given special attention. Here will be all the information about settlement, resettlement and other movements.
The application is being developed by our key partner, the VTB Bank. In the long run, they want to commercialize the application, and GSOM SPbU acts as a testing ground for solutions. A team is being formed to work together on the application.