Made in Russia: Specifics of Russian Online Education- insights from STC in Moscow

In Russia there is a long tradition of higher education. Every parent desires to see one day his child graduate. According to the OECD report “Education at a glance”, around 60% of the population has a university degree, which places Russia at the 4th place worldwide. Russian higher education, as the rest of the world, is also experiencing global challenges and is making efforts to follow the new trends. Although the boom of “digital revolution” in higher education hasn’t yet arrived in Russia, we can mention some interesting collaborations. Written by Andrey Melnikov, STC, Swiss Embassy in Moscow

General Context

Higher education is basically free in Russia if one can qualify for a budget place by performing well at the “unified state exam” (a sort of SAT, standardized test for college admission). However, if your score is not that high for a state supported place you can still get enrolled into a private university or “commercial” department at a state (public) educational establishment.

To fully understand the global picture, it is important to take into account Russian features, such as the size of the country and the population distribution. The most prestigious universities are located in big cities, mostly in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. According to the report “Greenfield in education” from Moscow School of Management “Skolkovo”, there are around 1000 universities in Russia, most of which are small ones struggling for survival, lacking resources for qualified professors and equipment, but still offering the complete range of courses. Digital education is not yet very well developed, but it could bring sustainable solutions to those universities. Offering good quality courses from other universities in digital format may bring many new possibilities. Unlike MOOCs, distance education exists since a long time in Russia. Most of the university programs offer such courses. Integrating online courses in those programs could play an important role for their development.

Is there on-line education in Russia?

While MOOC education projects became quite popular in the West already a few years ago involving millions of people, Russia could not boast of this. We can probably trace some roots of and similarities to MOOC from the old Soviet system of correspondence education (distance learning programs) widely developed in the Soviet Union, given its huge territory, but there are hardly a few people who could name any famous Russian online education platforms.

Initially, Russian online courses were part of fee-paid education projects of various universities; some institutions even introduced online courses as an every-day practice, as part of their curriculum for their regular students. Examples include the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys and the Higher School of Economics. However, the idea of paying for Internet courses could not attract a huge audience from outside – people did not (and still do not) see any value in them, especially when the legal status of such education (and eventually certificates) is unclear.

However considering the fast development of digital education in US and Europe, experts from “Skolkovo” provided a report focused on MOOCs development in Russia. According to them, Russian MOOCs aim mostly to make profit, but there is still some free platforms launched by universities and startups.

Growing platforms

Universarium is one of these platforms, it is an interuniversity project under the leadership of the Moscow State Lomonosov University (MSU) with participation of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the Higher School of Economics and Plekhanov Russian University of Economy. At the moment, three courses have being offered so far and count 80,000 Russian students. English translation is in planning.

Uniweb is an online education platform for special courses and educational programs; the Russian Academy of People’s Economy and Public Service under the President of Russia takes the lead in this project in conjunction with departments of the MSU and the Moscow Institute of International Relations. However the majority of courses are paid ones.

Another platform, Digital October, is a partner of Coursera in Russia. They offer a translation of Coursera classes, as well as conferences on new technologies. In 2013, the co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller was invited for a talk. She mentioned that Russia was the 5th country to register as Coursera started its activities. A Coursera learning hub is organized in Moscow, it is a place where people just meet together to follow a course and exchange ideas about the subject.

Inspired by the success of Coursera, Russian startups have started to develop. We can cite here four of them. Rosalind, a startup which created a platform for interactive bioinformatics learning through problem solving. This project is conducted jointly by the University of California and the Saint Petersburg Academic University. Its fundamental distinction from Coursera is its offer of increasingly complex problems specifically designed for students interested in bioinformatics. LinguaLeo is a platform where you can learn English for free. Lectrio enables anyone who has something to teach to create and upload an online course.

The startup Edutainme, helps establish links between the education community and startups that work in education. In addition, the project team conducts web seminars for users. Their plans for the future include organizing digital teaching training and regional events. “There are practically no other projects on the Russian market that would be comparable to Edutainme. The market is empty and is waiting for its hero to come – which is confirmed by the project’s current growth,” says Petrukhin managing director of Future Colors, one of Russia’s leading designers of commercial web projects.

Particularities Against Opportunities?

One can conclude that the MOOCs market in Russia is growing, following the global trend. Actually, it is destined to grow given the vast territory of the Russian Federation, but unlike the courses in the West where people have to pay only for certificates upon completion, Russian players at the education market see the online courses as a source of additional income for their universities, since the access to the content is going to be paid.

Some say digital education could develop in Russia by the “bottom-up” way, the moment the students realize that the traditional way of learning is not any more efficient and will bring technologies, among those MOOCs to class.

The Skolkovo report “Greenfield education” explores five possibilities for MOOCs development in Russia. The first is creation of a platform unifying the best of western MOOCs translated in Russian. By using what has already been done, universities could spare resources for course development. Digital October is working in this direction. Russian academia should also take advantage of MOOCs platforms by providing courses of high quality from prestigious Russian universities in order to gain some visibility. Regional universities could directly benefit from MOOCs by using their content in the fields where they have little expertise. Online courses could be fitted for individual training, be practical oriented such as developing particular skills for entrepreneurs. And last but not least, the enthusiasm for EdTech (education technology) startups has reached Russia. Creation of EdTech incubators could boost the development of such startups.

However, despite such promising opportunities, many experts say that Russia is still (and will be) lagging behind due to various reasons:

–       a public educational establishment very often cannot offer free courses since it can be penalized by the Public Audit Chamber for loss of profit;

–       moreover, institutions are not interested in uploading their courses for free to teach virtual students (also, see above);

–       professors are reluctant to upload their materials on the pretext of protection of their IPR, i.e. it is their own potential money;

–       additionally, the status of certificates given upon “graduation” is not clear and employers just ignore them; according to some experts, there should be 2,000 amendments introduced into the relevant legislation to improve the situation;

–       relatively easy access to regular higher education with recognized diplomas.

So, the question for Russian MOOC remains unchanged: “To be or not to be?”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s