Digitalisation on a New Level: RSU Students’ Experience Studying at Home
Gusto the dachshund takes every opportunity to compete with the laptop and curl up in its owner’s lap, 5th year medical student at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU), Lauma Gulbe. The puppy was adopted from a shelter and is the biggest (although very pleasant) obstacle to studying from home during the emergency situation, according to Lauma. The University has taken care of the rest – materials on the e-studies platform, Zoom lectures, classes, tests, problem-solving online with faculty management and even additional tools for coping with stress, says Lauma. Her experience is supported by the first results of the RSU survey that 2,071 students participated in.
The crisis as a jumping-off point
To look out for the health and safety of its students, academic staff and administration, RSU switched to remote studies already on 11 March, before the national emergency situation was declared. Previously, lectures and classes that had been recorded by lecturers on Panopto were watched on average 250 – 300 hours a day. After the national state of emergency, this curve increased dramatically. Over the last weeks, 8,685 virtual classes and consultations have been held, and more than 2,000 new video materials have been created for students. These are not only lectures, but also simulation technologies and demonstrations of various manipulations. All in all, the activity in the RSU e-studies environment has increased from 50,000 activities a day in February to 150,000 activities a day in April.
So far the record for how many online lectures, classes and meetings have been held at RSU on one day is 561, and the list of the geographic locations from which students log on to Zoom represents RSU students' main nationalities: Latvia, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Italy, the USA, the UK, Israel and Portugal.
‘The pandemic challenged all universities around the world in the same way, as everyone had to switch to remote studies. How smoothly this was managed depended on the how much universities have invested into IT – online platforms, the e-study environment, training lecturers and study materials,’ says RSU Rector, Professor Aigars Pētersons.
Prof. Pētersons emphasises that the greatest satisfaction is that the study process has not been interrupted even in such practical study programmes as Medicine or Dentistry.
Zigmunds Zitmanis, the Director of the RSU IT Department, adds that ‘undoubtedly, the rapid pace of the pandemic, which forced us to go online in literally one day, was a challenge. We managed to do it thanks to the technology, the strong IT team and the consultations on how to use various tools the team provided, but most of all – lecturers’ flexibility and ability to adapt.’
The rapid switch to remote studies also meant extending communication both within the university and with media. Regular and comprehensive communication and feedback between students and lecturers, as well as between the administration and the university’s structural units played a decisive role in moving studies online. Strategic management and communicator teams were involved in this process, as well as each individual employee.
As psychiatrists and psychotherapists attest, the uncertainty and indignation that is characteristic of crises can most efficiently be dispelled by open discussion. This is exactly what RSU has done by organising online meetings for the more than one hundred heads of structural units.
Meetings between deans and students has already become a daily routine using Panopto and Zoom. So has the online support that lecturers from the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy is providing to local and international students, as well as university employees. Each RSU lecturer and researcher has made an invaluable contribution to public education, explaining the reasons for the pandemic and offering their advice for how to overcome it in mass media.
Tips for studying from home
Preparing for classes has not changed significantly for medical students, says Lauma. ‘The faculty’s requirements have always been as follows: the student has to arrive to classes well-prepared, because they are only intended for discussing unclear issues, as well as for communication with patients. The only thing that is missing online, however, is the patients.’
Laura's groupmates are happy with the huge time savings, because these weeks they don't have to travel to the training centres at the Riga East Clinical University Hospital, Pauls Stradiņš Clinical University Hospital or elsewhere. The students reveal that they invest the time they save on travel to search for additional information to get an in-depth understanding of certain topics.
The survey distributed by the RSU Centre for Educational Growth was filled out by 2,071 students by 25 April, among them 711 international students. Most respondents admit that they appreciate the benefits of this new study process, specifically highlighting the possibility to study flexibly and to be able to plan their time and place (69 %), as well as the possibility to acquire new IT skills for communication and cooperation (40 %).
At the same time, 60 % of respondents, in particular students from earlier years, note that the new situation requires twice as much motivation and independence.
Lauma admits that this time serves as a test for students' self-discipline and time management skills.
‘There are so many distractions at home. Suddenly, you realise that the kitchen has not been cleaned thoroughly for a very long time, or you see a very interesting video online that you have to watch immediately.’ For Lauma, it helps to start each with a specific plan – how much time will be spent on each activity. Other things that help to focus is to change into daywear and to switch off her phone while studying. Lauma advises that finding time for exercise helps break up the daily routine.
Recalling her first study years, Lauma points out that the key word in any difficulty is "communication". She encourages her younger peers to reach out to one another and with the faculty in case of any problems.
'I have noticed a welcoming and interested attitude from RSU to make sure that students feel as comfortable as possible during this situation,' says the future doctor.
In conversations with her friends, Lauma has the opportunity to compare how the emergency situation is handled at other Latvian universities. 'The number of digital opportunities available at RSU and the number of teachers using them is not comparable. This is not just about lectures, classes and tests, but also regarding online meetings with the dean and vice-rector,' she says. Psychological help is also available in the form of webinars, consultations and various materials in the e-learning environment. Lecturers can also seek psychological support, and there are online meetings for lecturers to share their experiences.
However, no matter how advanced the remote study process is, Lauma admits that she longs for a time when she will be able to meet her classmates in person again. Only Gusto, who has been asleep on her lap for the duration of the conversation, seems to want the situation to remain unchanged.