Western Caspian UniversityChange for good: overcoming societal challenges in the wake of Covid-19

Change for good: overcoming societal challenges in the wake of Covid-19

Western Caspian University is seizing new opportunities for collaboration amid the accelerated digital transition brought about by the pandemic

For higher education institutions around the world, digital tools have played an increasingly central role in teaching and learning practices in recent years. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it became clear to leaders at Western Caspian University (WCU) in Azerbaijan that its digital transformation would need to accelerate at a pace never before imagined possible.

“At first, we were naive – we all thought this was a crisis that would be over quite quickly,” says Hussein Baghirov, chair of the board of trustees at WCU. “It was a few days before we realised that the civilisation we are so proud of is actually quite vulnerable.”

For WCU, the transition to online teaching was quick, and Professor Baghirov believes the changes taking place have “strengthened the community”. This success was made possible because of WCU’s relatively small size – between 4,500 and 5,000 students are enrolled. “We knew as a university we had to adapt quickly to restore the educational process,” he says. “That began with words of encouragement to teachers, telling them that we have a mission – a responsibility.”

The university invested quickly in resources, including cameras, screens and interactive whiteboard software, to allow tutors and students to share work in real time. Additional devices were hired, including laptops for the staff and students who needed them.

The biggest challenge of making the transition was not physical but psychological, says Professor Baghirov. “Until now, people hadn’t considered online learning as an independent entity or a valuable use of technology in itself. And for many, it is still seen as just a temporary thing to mimic ‘real’ education – but this is false, and it is not conducive to the future of learning.”

To accelerate the transition – and the community’s perceptions of online learning more broadly – WCU leaders worked to deliver flexible teaching and learning options, with term times extended into summer 2020 to make up for time lost early on.

Online assessment proved to be another challenge – in particular, ensuring that students were held accountable and the possibility for cheating was minimal. To ensure test results were reliable, the university took a two-pronged approach. Where lockdown restrictions allowed, students living near the university were invited to take their exams in a socially distanced exam hall in groups of three or four.

Assessments were re-evaluated, too, with students able to prepare their answers in advance instead of undertaking traditional timed spot tests. It’s a strategy that Professor Baghirov admits “helped us partially, but I think we must still be patient and accept that for some students, examinations will be especially tough this year given the exceptional circumstances”.

Azerbaijan has a medium-sized economy that is growing quickly but still has its challenges. “This is a really dynamic period of development for the country but, like every emerging economy, Azerbaijan also faces different issues connected with adaptating to new situations that stem from our recent history,” Professor Baghirov explains.

Not all students have reliable access to the internet, particularly in the mountainous rural regions of the country. This was a problem WCU was aware of before the pandemic, and so leaders acted quickly to forge collaborations with local governments and community spaces to address rural students’ needs.

“Every county has a ‘youth centre’ where young people can enrol for microcredential courses and use public computers for free,” Professor Baghirov explains. “We made an agreement with these centres that any student with technological issues can come by for a scheduled appointment to use their services.” Course leaders are also encouraged to call their students regularly to pinpoint potential problems ahead of classes.

The university takes a strict approach to attendance: if less than 50 per cent of students tune in to a session, the class is cancelled. The combination of these factors means participation has been consistently high.

WCU takes its teaching standards seriously, too: a new sub-centre has been established within its quality assurance centre whereby staff can monitor classes and analyse data from online lessons. Sessions are monitored for engagement, length and attendance, with the idea being that course leaders can learn from what did and didn’t work well.

“I don’t want to call it a control system, but we need to know what’s going on because we are stepping into a totally unknown area,” Professor Baghirov explains.

Making use of open online courses from world-leading institutions has helped WCU raise the bar for quality, Professor Baghirov believes. “It’s good for students because they can get microcredentials from different providers, and it’s good for academic staff to build confidence and feel encouraged to create similar online programmes to a high standard.”

Where once universities fell behind on technological engagement compared with other businesses, Professor Baghirov believes the changes seen in his own institution are setting up WCU students with the skills needed to make them attractive to employers. “It’s something that the government has become increasingly interested in, and businesses are also seeking to make closer connections with universities in the region,” he adds.

The digital transition has allowed students to continue with work placements during the pandemic. Some have even accepted high-profile roles in the UK, the US and other large economies, “something that has never been possible until now”, says Professor Baghirov.

Challenges still lie ahead, and Professor Baghirov is aware that not every valuable learning experience can be replaced by digital platforms. “The psychological impact of this pandemic will be something we are still trying to understand many years into the future.” But the lasting legacy of the rapid acceleration towards online learning will be a positive one.

“Until now, our approach to teaching has been the same since prehistoric times,” he says. “The future of teaching will not be lecture theatres, but pre-recorded material that can be paused at any moment for a teacher to stop and expand on. It will be much more interactive, productive and [will] save time.

“Teaching should be a passion,” he adds. “Since we’ve introduced this blended approach to learning, I can see a renewed passion among the academic community.”

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