Online Teaching in Ukrainian HEIs Amidst War-Driven Crisis

Insights into students’ diverse needs during crisis circumstances. Education constitutes a fundamental pillar of state advancement. The process of education must remain uninterrupted, irrespective of circumstances or crises, as halting this process would precipitate societal decline. In the context of Ukraine, such a downturn could potentially imperil the very fabric of statehood itself. This fundamental truth is deeply ingrained in Ukraine, driving relentless endeavors to sustain the efficacy of education even amid the ongoing conflict. The war and its hostilities have failed to diminish the imperative for upholding the standards of education in Ukraine.

Educational establishments that have managed to evade destruction due to the conflict and are situated beyond the occupied territories persistently remain in operation. The majority of universities situated within the occupied territory have been successfully transferred to more secure regions of Ukraine, where they persist in their educational pursuits. As of May 2023, a notable count of 44 universities in Ukraine have undergone relocation. These relocated institutions are currently catering to a student body that comprises approximately 7-8% of the total enrollment. In this publication, we will explore the challenges and accomplishments of Ukrainian higher education during the war, focusing on the shift to online learning. Our insights stem from our own experiences as educators during the conflict, as well as from a sociological study involving teachers and students. This study was carried out as part of the DAAD project “Ukrainian German Teaching Network for a Digital Transformation of Environmental Education”, which is coordinated by the University for Sustainable Development Eberswalde. The project involves collaboration with five Ukrainian universities based in Kyiv, Lviv, Zhytomyr, and Odesa.

After the security situation in Ukraine’s educational environment has stabilized, the question of whether it is appropriate to switch to the traditional face-to-face form of education is being discussed. The transition to a face-to-face education is being actively lobbied by the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, which puts some pressure on teachers and students who are abroad. Roughly 7% of the surveyed students currently reside abroad, with a noteworthy one-third of this group expressing intentions to resume in-person studies in Ukraine for the academic year 2023-24. Another 7% of surveyed students left the country following the extensive invasion but have since returned as of August 2023. At present, the predominant share of higher education institutions in Ukraine has transitioned to conducting classes in a traditional face-to-face manner. However, due to the unstable security situation in Ukraine, some universities are forced to constantly change the format of education. During safer periods, they teach face-to-face and switch to online learning when the situation escalates. These shifts lead to certain challenges for both teachers and students.

Most of the students who have been fortunate to remain within the non-combat zone undergo persistent stress due to air strikes and ongoing hostilities. Merely around one-fifth of the surveyed students indicated feeling entirely secure, predominantly those hailing from the western regions of Ukraine. When questioned about external disruptions during online learning, nearly all students mentioned that a continuous feeling of peril hampers their ability to focus on their studies. The sense of insecurity is intensified by various factors, including students having relatives serving in the military, others residing in occupied territories, and responsibilities of looking after younger siblings. Furthermore, a considerable portion of students must balance their studies with work commitments. In addition to these challenges, technical issues, such as Internet disruptions and power outages, also serve as distractions. These technical difficulties substantially impact the quality of the online educational experience.

Simultaneously, most of the surveyed students exhibit a favorable disposition towards online learning, although there are some who express reservations about this mode. Students acknowledge that their motivation levels are lower in the online format as compared to face-to-face interactions. Specifically, they feel the absence of communication with peers and a diminished sense of belonging to a team. Interestingly, students tend to be more sanguine about their grasp of the study material through online learning than their teachers. A noteworthy portion of the surveyed students contend that the online format doesn’t impede effective learning and offers its own supplementary benefits.

A notable fact is that ongoing hostilities within Ukraine’s territory have not notably impacted the mobility of students among HEIs across different regions of the country. The distribution of applicants in 2022, following the full-scale invasion, shows a mere 8% deviation compared to the figures from 2021, before the invasion occurred. However, it’s worth noting that the number of applicants has declined in seven regions directly situated along the contact line, regions that are partially occupied, or regions enduring consistent aerial attacks (such as Kyiv). Nevertheless, applicants from these affected areas have been fairly evenly dispersed among other, safer regions of Ukraine. This trend might suggest that students are optimistic about a swift end of the war and therefore, do not intend to disrupt their established way of life.

Continuous educational progress despite external challenges

Missile attacks and power outages tend to follow a wave-like pattern: there are periods when the learning environment is most challenging, but for the most part, online learning remains functional. In such circumstances, it becomes crucial to strike a balance between synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods. The educator should be prepared to seamlessly transition to the asynchronous format during the most adverse situations. To enhance student motivation, the deployment of creativity and a diverse range of teaching techniques holds paramount importance. Learning ought to provide both a diversion and, to a certain extent, a mechanism for alleviating stress among students. Drawing from our team’s experience, interactive H5P presentations and videos, as well as the construction of conceptual models within the Miro Board platform, have proven highly effective for facilitating asynchronous learning.

The (virtual) classroom in which the teacher operates must be attuned to the needs and challenges that hold relevance for students during times of crisis. An educator cannot alter the reality that shapes a particular crisis situation. Nonetheless, the teacher holds the capacity to structure the learning journey in a manner that alleviates student stress stemming from crisis events and mitigates or offsets the constraints inherent in online education.

It’s imperative that learning materials are meticulously crafted to captivate the student’s attention. To counterbalance any dearth of communication, fostering collaboration within small groups or establishing a platform for informal discourse among students between classes can serve as effective remedies. Notably, experience underscores that students often proactively create a virtual space for informal interaction. Typically, they make use of diverse messaging apps like Telegram, Viber, WhatsApp, and the like. Encouraging them to engage in video conferencing for communication, particularly for groups who have yet to convene in a physical setting, can yield favorable outcomes.

A pivotal tool for sustaining student motivation and fostering prolonged focus is interactivity. This feature can be facilitated through the active engagement of the teacher, or it can manifest as an integral aspect of educational materials that students engage with in an asynchronous format. Diverse approaches and tools abound to amplify interactivity within the classroom setting. This spectrum encompasses conventional methods, such as interactive lectures and discussions, as well as contemporary techniques seamlessly woven into a range of software applications. These techniques are geared towards eliciting student input, rendering learning material visually, kindling creative thought, spurring and structuring discourse, as well as assessing the depth of comprehension. Employing specialized software to heighten interactivity markedly enriches the course content, infusing the educational process with heightened engagement for students. Consequently, this augmentation not only elevates student motivation but also serves to mitigate stress levels.

Contemporary interactive techniques undoubtedly hold significance, yet they do not diminish the importance of engaging in discussions with students. Dialogues with students stand as a pivotal component in upholding their psychological well-being and motivation amid crisis situations. However, it is essential that these conversations remain aligned with the confines of the course subject matter. It’s worth noting that while educators may lack the specialized training of a psychologist, delving into a student’s personal experiences can, in certain instances, carry potential risks.

It holds significance, whenever feasible, to design tasks in a manner that imparts to the student a sense of their knowledge contributing to Ukraine’s triumph or its post-war resurgence. This strategy can be readily employed across a myriad of courses encompassing environmental, economic, and management education programs. By adopting this perspective, students are empowered to cultivate a perception of their influence over the present circumstances and their capacity to steer these circumstances toward their desired trajectory. This approach exerts a profoundly positive influence on mitigating the stress levels that students endure, stemming from the ramifications of war.

Ukrainian HEIs a distinctive trait wherein educators and students have grown accustomed to an individualized approach when addressing practical tasks within courses. Embracing a collaborative approach to tackling course-related challenges offers a means to somewhat counterbalance the communication gaps inherent to online learning settings. The most fruitful experiences within our team have revolved around the utilization of software tools that cultivate an ecosystem for collaborative endeavors. These software solutions seamlessly integrate into courses geared towards fostering conceptual frameworks for problem-solving, such as the Corporate Social Responsibility course.

Adaptability & resilience

Given the current circumstances, it remains crucial for teachers to exhibit flexibility in tailoring educational materials to suit the diverse needs of their students. It’s important to keep in mind that students are experiencing varying life situations, necessitating distinct levels of support. Offering students flexibility in how they engage with educational materials and assessment underscores the pinnacle of support from a teacher during a crisis. This adaptability is the highest form of assistance.

The capacity to adapt to the shifting conditions of the educational landscape is largely contingent upon how pliable the collection of educational materials, curated by the teacher for a specific course, proves to be. Adaptability signifies the ability to tap into a wide array of alternative educational resources. In essence, the teacher should be prepared to ensure that the same skill set can be acquired through diverse avenues—whether through synchronous or asynchronous formats, innovative methodologies, traditional approaches that are less reliant on the Internet and computers, or by offering variability in assigning individual tasks. An integral facet of adaptability lies in maintaining an ongoing feedback loop with students. It’s vital to consistently seek students’ perspectives on the learning format, educational materials, the complexity level of tasks, the scheduling of the educational process, and more.

Considering the prevailing crisis conditions within Ukraine’s educational landscape, students require substantial support in effectively structuring their coursework. In light of this, meticulous calendar planning holds paramount significance, coupled with consistent tracking of individual student advancements and timely reminders regarding assignment due dates. To facilitate these endeavors, it’s imperative for teachers to have easily accessible communication channels at their disposal. While LMS features can serve as communication conduits, our team’s observations indicate that students exhibit a stronger affinity for messaging platforms.

Future of online education

Numerous online educational tools have notably streamlined and enriched the educational journey, ensuring their enduring relevance even beyond the crisis period. Among these tools, those that stand out as particularly promising encompass software solutions geared toward enhancing educational interactivity, stimulating idea generation, fostering collaborative teamwork, facilitating seamless student communication, and expediting the sharing of educational content.

A multitude of publicly accessible courses have already harnessed online educational methodologies, residing on platforms such as Coursera and Prometheus. These courses have seamlessly integrated into the educational landscape, serving as integral components of informal learning for both teachers and students. Notably, the crisis-induced acceleration of online education’s advancement has significantly hastened the digitalization of the education sector. This momentum is poised to persist, with a trajectory that inherently drives further digital integration; the notion of reverting in the opposite direction is increasingly implausible.

Written for OEB Global 2023 by the team of the DAAD project “Ukrainian German Teaching Network for a Digital Transformation of Environmental Education“.

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