An innovative new Russian online educational platform known as Open Education hints at the future of Russian higher education.

The advancement of Internet education in universities will enable Russia to strengthen its positions in the area of higher education. Photo: Getty Images / Fotobank

Last week, during the second EdCrunch international conference on new educational technologies, Open Education, a new Russian online educational platform, launched. It is the first site in Russia to offer students massive open online courses (MOOCs) equal in weight to more traditional modes of study. The new resource is expected to raise higher education to the next level and improve overall quality in regional universities and affiliated structures.

However, there are some drawbacks. For example, some claim that Open Education represents the latest step by the Russian authorities to isolate the country from Western knowledge and information resources. Moreover, not all representatives of Russian higher education are in favor of virtual learning.

The Open Education project is being developed by eight leading Russian universities, including Moscow State University, St. Petersburg State University and Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Each has invested 50 million rubles (approximately $750,000 each at today’s ruble-dollar exchange rate) in the venture.

Although a moratorium has been declared on new participants until the end of 2016, any university can sign an agreement with Open Education and officially use the online courses available there for student programs.

Journalists were quick to dub the new platform the "Russian Coursera,” but that is a misnomer. In contrast to the U.S. educational resource, Open Education is designed primarily for college students. Of the 46 courses on offer, nearly all are part of higher education programs and are compulsory modules in their respective disciplines.

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Coursera has a much broader range of study programs, most of which are aimed at skills development and acquisition of new knowledge outside the higher education system, although both Coursera and Open Education can provide official certification for courses taken.

Moreover, whereas the U.S. platform is only partly free, Russia's is entirely so (although both resources charge for issuing certificates).

For the time being, the Russian Ministry of Education is only prepared to grant accreditation to courses taken by students on the Russian platform. In that regard, Deputy Minister of Education and Science Alexander Klimov, speaking at the EdCrunch conference, announced that his department was drafting new regulations to allow all Russian universities to include Open Education courses in their programs.

Although the new platform will be under testing throughout this academic year, those involved are clearly seriously minded about its prospects.

For instance, Ural Federal University has already launched and tested the "Examus" system, which controls online tests and rules out cheating or cribbing.

The top universities are looking to launch more new courses. The ultimate goal of the program is to replace distance learning with online courses, improve the quality of education in universities and regional branches, make the educational process in Russia more modern, and improve students' computer skills.

Furthermore, the introduction of new technologies will enable the program creators to produce more research resources for universities and increase competition in higher education by enabling students and administrators alike to choose their online options in accordance with the suitability and quality of the courses.

MOOCs: The Russian approach

However, for conservative educators, of which there are many in Russia, online education is still not fully understood. Many are skeptical about the idea of replacing live teachers with a computer.

There is also the question of centralization. It's one thing if all students in the lecture hall are fed online courses that are coordinated via timetable and are part of a program. But what to do about students who take Open Education courses independently?

On top of that, there is the important matter of the economy. Given that higher education in Russia is interdisciplinary, meaning that even engineering students take basic humanities (philosophy, political science, history, etc.), many universities will be able to lay off their "hourly workers" (lecturers from other departments or other educational institutions) and replace them with high-quality online courses from the top schools. But will it really be more profitable?

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Even Yaroslav Kuzmin, rector of the Higher School of Economics, one of the participants in the Open Education project, stated during the EdCrunch conference that about a quarter of online-course time should be in the form of practical sessions and seminars with real teachers.

Moreover, many colleges and universities will need new equipment to offer centralized online programs, requiring workstations to be set up with Web cameras and dedicated Internet access in many lecture theaters.

Russia will also see the appearance of a new profession: mentors whose job it will be to control attendance, certification and other matters.

Studnets attending Russian language lesson at the Russian Friendship University. Photo: RIA Novosti

Given that ​the idea of ​online education enjoys the support of the Russian leadership, and is effectively overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, it is clearly set to come on stream fairly rapidly.

Dvorkovich himself stated at the EdCrunch conference that, "Online education is a very important development that is suited to the pace of modern life and will help achieve a great deal."

Russian universities are far less independent, and the system allows new technologies to be imposed "from above," regardless of how the schools themselves feel about it.

At the same time, Moscow's approach to the introduction of online education is levelheaded. The new platform will be in the testing phase for quite some time, and each university will be given time to develop its own policy on the use of online courses.

For instance, Alexander Yevshin, director of the Ivangorod (Leningrad Oblast) campus of St. Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation, one of the largest branches of any Russian university, which trains over a thousand students from across Russia, the Baltic countries and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), believes that "online courses in their present form are more suited to established specialists who have a clear understanding of what additional knowhow they want to acquire."

"Students need the real-life presence of a teacher who controls the supply of knowledge and gives feedback," he said.

"Online courses can complement study programs and lower the burden on teachers, but they can hardly replace them. In any case, we need to try out the new technologies in action and develop the most effective methods to deliver a well-rounded higher education."

Clearly, no conclusions about the effectiveness of Russia's online educational platform can be drawn before mid-2016, which is when other Russian universities besides the eight "founding fathers" are able to add courses, mechanisms appear for accrediting online knowledge, and the first students graduate from existing programs.

Russian MOOCs try to keep pace with current trends

There is no danger of Open Education contributing to Russia's educational self-isolation from the West. Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller, who attended the EdCrunch conference, is sure of that.

Part of the reason for her optimism could be that, according to various estimates, 70-75 percent of users of her own resource are already degree holders simply looking to enhance their knowledge in various fields.

Moreover, Russia-based users of Coursera are even more likely to be graduates.

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What's more, if Russian universities start to recognize Open Education, courses taken by students on Western educational platforms could also come to be accredited. Especially since a number of teachers at Russian universities already take into account, albeit informally, Coursera and edX certificates during examinations and tests.

Certainly, the establishment of a national educational online platform and the advancement of Internet education in universities, including with the use of administrative methods, will enable Russia to strengthen its positions in the area of higher education.

The appearance of educational projects aimed not only at undergraduate students, but also graduates and people who simply want to improve their knowledge of different disciplines, will attract Russian-speakers from across the former Soviet Union to this new online knowledge base.

But whether the Open Education policy is flexible enough to rival the online educational resources in the English-speaking world, only time will well.