Advance HE has had a long relationship with the academic community in Ukraine through our work leading sector development initiatives alongside the British Council Ukraine and the Institute for Higher Education Ukraine. Since the start of the war we have continued to communicate with colleagues to understand what we can do to help and to let them know that the global academic community want to support them. In this blog post, we hear the experience of Dr Anastasia Yakovenko, a lecturer in mathematics from Bogdan Khmelnitsky Melitopol State Pedagogical University, which has been in the occupied territories since the first days of the wars. This blog, is compiled from her reflections about her experiences of teaching during the war and the emotional impact on, her, her friends and family, and students.
This is the first of two articles about teaching during the invasion of Ukraine. The second, from Olga Yashenkova, can be found here.
April 2022, six weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine
Six weeks after the invasion, the educational process has begun. Most of my students live in the occupied territories. Of course, like the rest of the higher education sector, we developed our techniques for remote teaching during Covid-19. This has provided us with useful knowledge and skills, but even teaching in a global pandemic doesn’t seem to be such a big challenge, compared to now.
The first half of every day is spent essentially meeting our basic physiological needs – where can we find food to buy. Psychologically, we are all under huge stress, it is difficult to concentrate on anything when you are constantly on the alert, listening out for signs of immediate danger, which of course leads to anxiety.
This constant feeling of danger is exacerbated by the large number of Russian soldiers, and their vehicles, which are moving around the streets, creating an atmosphere of fear. This impacts everyone in society, young and old, so there is a constant need to try and reassure and comfort our children and older relatives.
And under all those conditions we feel it is necessary to continue to teach, and our students want to continue to study. Staff and students are familiar with our VLE, which has long been used to support learning. Familiarity with the platform was a great asset during the pandemic, but now that format is less effective. I participated in the British Council “Higher Education Teacher Excellence Programme (TEP)” which provided me with lots of useful teaching practices. I am so grateful to the programme lead, Kathy Wright, from Advance HE, who showed us the value and approaches to partnering with students. Consultation with our students was critical to develop a new teaching strategy.
As we cannot have classes, and the internet and power is not always stable, we had to think carefully about how we can communicate with our learners and create a supportive learning community, without putting any unreasonable additional stress on our learners.
- I use Telegram (the free instant messaging service) as a low bandwidth approach to communicating with students
- I send structured tasks to the students using Telegram, which include the text of the lecture, short video instructions for the lecture material, practical tasks and video analysis of some worked examples. All of the videos are shared on YouTube, and the other files are on our university VLE and also sent via Telegram.
- I make most of the videos myself. These are short and dynamic, 2-10 minutes long - I speed up my own recordings and use screen capture to help students navigate the learning. I don’t include a talking head, again to keep things simple I use ‘GeoGebra’, a free tool for teaching mathematics and then edit the final video and add in prompts and question using ‘InShot’. The aim is to create a high quality video that engages learners and supports their development, whilst keeping it as short as possible.
- I recognise that the current situation places an enormous stress on my learners, so it is important that instructions are clear to reduce any further cognitive load. Additional support is provided via Telegram – providing academic and emotional support.
This process is not new, working with senior students, we began to implement it two years ago. In the current circumstances, it provides an opportunity to keep both students and teachers connected and, as far as possible, minimise learning loss. Both I, and my students, are finding it a useful distraction from our day-to-day experiences and the relentless stress of the surrounding events.
Of course, preparation of bespoke teaching materials for my students does take time, but it is worth it. I know there is a lot of interesting and high-quality content publically available on YouTube and other channels, however most of it is in the form of recordings of whole classes which are long, my students do not have the internet, time, patience or attention to watch long videos.
May 2022, 10 weeks after Russian invasion
After two-and-a-half months of war and asynchronous learning, we are settling into another new normal.
The state of shock, panic attacks and the feeling of hopelessness, periods of intense activities and exhaustion, was followed by a stage of uncertainty. The head is mostly jelly instead of brain, which does not allow you to tune in to study and focus. Relatives and friends are scattered around the country, the world or on the frontline of the war. Watching news 24/7 puts you into the state of excessive anxiety and despair.
"I can read the material for several times and still do not understand what it is about at all," – a message received from one student, who has to hide periodically with her family in the cellar and lives surrounded by the enemy in Nova Kakhovka.
Absence of electricity, water, and the shortage of food and medicines puts survival at the forefront of our minds. Some students spend their day taking care of their relatives and neighbours, whilst others are volunteering, distributing humanitarian aid.
The internet either doesn't exist at all, or it comes on intermittently, at low speeds. Access is not universal. The occupying power disconnects any communication channels based on their needs, so we have become accustomed to the instability and unreliability of communication channels. This is most powerfully illustrated by these two comments from students in occupied Melitopol.
"I climbed a tree in my garden to download the task and send the answer"
"We had no electricity, so we could not access the task- receiving information in the format of short videos, with explanations and examples is easier to assimilate"
Leaving the occupied territories does not return us to the normal life. Housing conditions are getting worse, there is often no space for study, notes, study materials, gadgets, atmosphere and things that set you up for work.
I understand that the conditions are not conducive for learning, and as a teacher I feel very sorry for everyone trying to learn. Learning can provide a great support and make life more stable. Deadlines, learning tasks and feedback provides a structure, in all the chaos. We come together, speak Ukrainian, and give our students hope for the Ukrainian future. Communication and feedback via Telegram helps support our learning community. Together we overcome difficulties and support each other. We have had to modify our learning process even further to take into consideration the changing conditions.
I teach about mathematical culture and global perspectives on science, which are helpful to train future teachers for school mathematics courses, elective courses, research, and identifying interdisciplinary links. It is more important than ever to provide student choice. Students can elect to do calculations or undertake a creative task, something that will be of interest to themselves and future generations of mathematics students; the majority of students choose the creative task. They no longer ask about the assessment or format- we have moved on to learn for the sake of learning.
"Creative tasks are very interesting and distract from bad thoughts", "I do not want to change anything in the learning format. I don't have to force myself to study, I like it " – a first-year student
We all have two types of thinking, rational and irrational (emotional). When emotions predominate, then thinking rationally is very difficult, and sometimes impossible. And these are natural processes. You don't have to blame yourself for that. We must accept that this is already the case. But in the future, our country will need teachers, mathematicians and professionals in general for the development of our free Ukraine. We have to keep the educational front. When I start to solve something, it is very difficult at first, and then I enter the process and try to stay abstract from everything. You just have to start. In small steps.
Dr Anastasiia Yakovenko is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Physics at Bogdan Khmelnitsky Melitopol State Pedagogical University, Ukraine. This year Anastasiia has been teaching courses in Analytical Geometry, Linear Algebra, Olympiad Problems, Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics. In 2014 Anastasiia was awarded a PhD in Physical and Mathematical Sciences with a specialism in differential equations. She has written scientific papers on homogenisation of the spectral problem on small periodic networks.
Teaching and Learning Conference 2022
The focus on enhancing all aspects of teaching and learning remains a critical issue for those seeking to provide an outstanding student experience at all levels of taught provision. Advance HE’s Teaching and Learning Conference 2022 will continue to position the spotlight firmly on teaching in a global context. In particular, this year, the conference will explore how we are enhancing student success through all aspects of the student experience including transitions, curriculum design and development, enterprise and employability, assessment, engagement and inclusion, sustainability and much more.
Included in the Conference will be a panel on the situation in Ukraine. Find out more here.