In Georgia, higher education institutions traditionally offered classroom learning and teaching before the Covid-19 crisis. The state of emergency changed this as universities quickly switched to online formats. As Irine Darchia and Lika Glonti discuss, the pandemic has resulted in a positive breakthrough in their country’s higher education system.
It might sound strange, but the Covid-19 outbreak has had a positive side effect on the development of the higher education system in Georgia while serving as a catalyst for the implementation of online teaching. The majority of Georgian universities have adopted instruments for remote teaching for quite some time (in many cases, as a result of Erasmus+ CBHE projects), but they have not really been used for leading degree programs. Higher education institutions were traditionally offering classroom teaching and this mode continued to dominate. The state of emergency announced in the beginning of March, followed by a near total lockdown, forced universities to switch to the online teaching formats swiftly.
It must be underlined that universities started developing and implementing alternative teaching approaches well in advance of official governmental recommendations. A special decree (#205) on the “Teaching Process at Educational Institutions during the State of Emergency” was published on 31 March, whereas the majority of higher education institutions started their online semester as early as 16 March, demonstrating full autonomy and flexibility. It was a litmus test for academic and administrative staff of at higher education institutions, and at the same time an excellent example of mobilisation and teamwork.
As a bottom up initiative, a Facebook group was created, unifying more than 5000 academic community members, to discuss and share the experience of distance teaching. Currently, all Georgian higher education institutions are using synchronous and asynchronous online teaching modes. There have been challenges of different natures (technical, methodological, managerial, etc.), but the transfer seems to have been largely successful. Thanks to joint efforts of academic and administrative staff, universities managed to avoid standstill.
The example of Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (TSU) - Georgia’s oldest and largest university - clearly shows that Covid-19 had an impact on staff and students, on the one hand, and on the university itself, on the other. Much has been developed and modernised at the TSU in just a matter of days and weeks. Professors started recording their lectures for asynchronous teaching – partly individually, partly with the help of the TSU Multimedia Centre. At the same time, lectures and seminars were offered synchronously via ZOOM, MEET or Skype. Syllabi were re-shaped, especially considering assessment methods (more emphasis is given to final and oral exams) and TSU administration developed new guidelines and video tutorials for e-learning. The administration also re-scheduled laboratory classes for some disciplines, shifting them to the next semester. The TSU library started digitalising textbooks, but considering the huge demand and lack of online teaching resources, professors were also scanning teaching materials using special apps on smartphones. This emergency transfer to the online teaching mode also revealed a lack of IT skills among professors, especially of the older generation, but actually all of them managed to overcome technical difficulties with the help of university administrative and technical staff, colleagues, family members, students and even neighbours.
The coronavirus affected not only the teaching process, but also other university activities. For example, information sessions for students on scholarship opportunities, career guidance processes, psychological support to overcome Coivd-19 induced stress, research group meetings, administration briefings, etc. were switched to FB lives/Zoom/Teams/Meet/Skype formats. The TSU newspaper is now published only online and the organisation of online national and international conferences and remote defence of doctoral dissertations is widely discussed.
Ofcourse there are challenges. Not all students have high-speed internet, therefore even recorded lectures are not accessible for them. The student assessment system is not yet fully adjusted to distance education and there is a lack of specific methodological knowledge. In some cases, there is a copyright issue of digitised or scanned teaching material.
With universities and governmental authorities busy with ongoing challenges, there was no time for reflection and analysis of the situation. It might also be too early to speak about long-term implications of this shift from classroom to online teaching in Georgia and there will be new challenges to overcome. Most probably, economic and financial challenges induced by the epidemiological situation will hit Georgian universities too, and eventually higher education institutions will keep, at least partly, online teaching to reduce costs and remain competitive.
The positive results achieved so far, however, might be very helpful in overcoming this crisis and in supporting the development of higher education in Georgia. We now have improved IT skills among academic staff; digitised learning and teaching materials; innovative approaches replacing conservative and in some cases outdated attitudes toward online and distance learning; transformed concepts of communication and internationalisation; as well as psychological shifts – meaning a better understanding of the benefits of virtual communication, which saves time, energy and even money.
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