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Will the educational system be able to cope with the challenge the coronavirus defied it?

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Most Russian educational institutions have bravely reported on a successful transition to online learning. However, reality turned out to be slightly less glowing than officials and heads of educational institutions imagined. decided to look into the problems that handicap efficient remote communication between teachers and students; whether or not will this format muscle out traditional lectures and classes after the pandemic, and who really has benefited from the forced flight into the digital space.

A significant part of the complaints are related to the lack of adequate online services on the basis of which classes could be taught. essentially, most popular websites are unable to cope with the load if too many users connect to the group; the sites begin to freeze or even disconnect. In practice, it also is impossible to assess the degree of involvement of children and adolescents in the process even when the system operates soundly. The electronic platforms used by the majority of teachers do not allow to be sure that no “more interesting” chats are open on top of the teachers’ “windows”.

Besides this, psychologists assure that self-organization at home is a priori at a much lower level than in the familiar learning environment in a class or an audience. Pupils and students are distracted by extraneous matters, and the longer they stay in self-isolation, the less they are able to concentrate on what the teachers say and on the tasks they give

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Among other difficulties, parents name, for example, the lack of a sufficient number of computers in the family. It happens that there is only one, and if dad or mom needs it for work, then the child may have no access to the “device” at all. Another, no less significant problem proved to be the teachers’ low level of computer literacy. Often they cannot or merely do not want to use basic telecommunication systems.

Difficulties with the transition to the remote learning mode have also manifested at the universities participating in the 5-100 program, which the government has been purposively allocating funds to for several years in a row in order to help them integrate into the international educational environment and improve their positions in the global QS, THE and ARWU rankings. The availability of services that allow conducting classes remotely is a prerequisite for obtaining additional state support. What then can we say about the rest? Especially about technical universities, where lectures take less than half the time allotted to the educational process as a whole. The rest consists of laboratory work and practical training, which certainly shall not be carried out remotely.

However, even in the current difficult conditions, Russian higher education institutions manage to attract students and postgraduate students not only to studies but also to scientific activities. On April 15 - 17, representatives of 66 universities took part in the All-Russian Forum of young scientists named “Topical Problems of Subsoil Use” which for the first time in 18 years tool place in the virtual space. 817 young people, staying at home, made reports on their scientific research on topics related to the extraction, transportation and processing of minerals. More than fifteen hundred people also watched their presentations as members of the jury responsible for evaluating the works submitted to the competition, external experts or fans.

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Such an extensive audience, which could have access to any of the 17 breakout sessions that were taking place in parallel, was able to get engaged thanks to the CISCO Company. Its CEOs decided to donate to the conference organizers, i.e., St. Petersburg Mining University and the International Competence Centre for Mining Engineering Education under the auspices of UNESCO, the Webex platform, which allows hosting up to a thousand webinars at a time.

Young researchers from various parts of our country talked about what could be done to increase the profitability of production processes and labor safety, reduce environmental risks and equipment downtime due to breakdowns through the commercialization of their developments. Not only they made presentations and commented on them but also took part in discussions, posed questions to their colleagues and listened to expert opinions.

After the end of the forum, all of them said that this new format proved to be a success. And this was not only because it allowed to “see and be seen” in the conditions of self-isolation; it also saved everyone time and money. Experts, including CEOs of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, representatives of the Presidential Administration, major business and public organizations, as well as rectors of foremost national higher education institutions and directors of research institutions, positively assessed the outcomes of the forum.

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Valery Falkov, RF Minister of Science and Higher Education:

«Without such conferences, neither our universities nor Russian science are thinkable. The world around us is changing, but national universities remain tasked with taking the most active part in achieving the country's development goals. To do this, it is necessary to understand what forms of communication at one stage or another correspond to the interests of the scientific community and allow achieving maximum efficiency. The experience of Mining University shows that if dynamic leaders want to find the optimal solution, then it will certainly be found».

Kirill Molodtsov, Assistant to the Head of the Presidential Administration:

«I was delighted with what I saw. We have a greatest scientific school and it must develop, partly thanks to such conferences. There is no doubt that, despite the current market volatility, hydrocarbons will play the role of the main energy supply in the world for many years to come, and demand for them will continue to grow. Hence, the industry needs promising and ambitious guys to look for new, more efficient and environmentally friendly methods of subsoil use».

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Andrey Guryev, Director General of PhosAgro PJSC (one of the world top producers of phosphorus-containing fertilizers):

«Employers are interested in holding such forums no less than students and postgraduate students because it is an opportunity to detect promising young specialists and invite them to our enterprises. It is they, the present-day participants of the competition, who are to lead the mineral resource complex in the future implementing their innovative ideas and working with the state-of-the-art equipment».

Grigory Ordzhonikidze, Executive Secretary of the Russian Federation Commission for UNESCO:

«As Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s Deputy Director General for education noted in her speech, ‘no one could ever have guessed that in 2020, more than half of the world's students, more than 1 billion 200 million children and young people, would stop going to schools due to the virus.’ In this regard, the format of the conference proposed by the organizers is innovative and flagship for the whole country. It simultaneously ensures the safety of participants and makes it possible to carry out effective scientific work online».

Julia Vorotnikova, Head of the Division for working with universities and schools at SIBUR LLC (the largest petrochemical company in Russia)

«Any conferences are open opportunities! These are the opportunities to show oneself off, to compare one’s results with other studies, to come up with new ideas during the discussions. Under such circumstances, in debates with experts and scientists, people can make vital for them decisions to pursue a career in science and enter postgraduate school, while others can find support in a professional environment, as well as a chance to receive an invitation to an internship. The conference is a marketplace of scientific ideas of the start-up format, where the professional success of ‘an intellectual product’ owner depends on the success of the presentation of the developed idea».

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Ivan Shibaev, MISiS graduate student (participated in the section "Information and telecommunication technologies and digital transformation")

«This was my first experience of online presentation. The organizers did a great job! They were able to organize a conference on an urgent basis, get in touch with everyone, and conduct communication tests. Of course, the classic format is more familiar; it allows you to get to know each participant personally, exchange information with a view to further collaboration. But the main plus of the remote mode is that there are fewer distractions here, both for speakers and experts. Everybody is focused only on the presentation of scientific research».

President of GEOTECH Seismic Services Vladimir Tolkachev, under the direction of whom 15 thousand people and 42 seismic parties operate:

«The major problem is the lack of personnel. And where, if not here, can you assess the potential of young professionals and find future employees for our company? Where else can you see them, especially in the conditions of self-isolation? I watched presentations of the participants in the section of “Exploration of mineral deposits” and several people impressed me, I wrote down their names. I will definitely turn to the Rector of Mining University Vladimir Litvinenko for a consultation on whether it is possible to invite them to us and whether he agrees that these students are promising».

Andrei Maksimov, Head of the Committee on Science and Higher School of the St. Petersburg Administration:

«Holding a forum of young scientists on the “Topical problems of subsoil use” online has become a real festival of science. This is a good example of the fact that people can overcome external circumstances. And this proves the fact that the Northern Capital continues to be the center of Russia's scientific thought even in such a complicated time».

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Shakhboz Kodirov, postgraduate student at the South Ural State University (participated in the “Drilling wells” section)

«This is my first participating in a conference in this format. And, to be honest, the results clearly surpassed my expectations; I did not expect such productivity, everything was just great. The team of organizers showed high professionalism. For example, they were competent and prompt in helping to eliminate technical problems in the process of preparation for the competition. By the way, in the future I would prefer to participate in online forums, because you don’t lose days on travel. That is, on the one hand, of course, lively communication, new acquaintances, and a cultural program are wonderful, but on the other hand, lack of time and other circumstances do not always allow you to participate in such events in person».

Vlada Streletskaya, Director General of the Russian National Committee of the World Petroleum Council:

«The Forum Contest of young scientists on the “Topical problems of subsoil use” is an event with a rich history and traditions. This is always an event expected in the youth professional environment, a great opportunity to exchange ideas and observations. I believe that under the current circumstances, holding a forum contest in a remote mode has become the correct and well-justified decision. In my opinion, this change of format dictated by external circumstances turned out to be quite successful. It proved to be interesting, relevant, and informative. The event got a larger scale and was more democratic. In addition, the online mode has become a good demonstration of the possibilities of digitalization in the business sphere: this is especially important for young professionals».

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Nadezhda Gavrilova, Chief Project Engineer, Institute for Fertilizers and Insectofungicides, PhosAgro Group:

“While studying at the institute, and later at the postgraduate school, I, unfortunately, had no opportunities to participate in conferences held in other cities due to the territorial distance from central Russia. Therefore, I absolutely support the decision to hold a forum contest in the online mode, especially given the current circumstances. In almost all sectors, there is a shortage of young and talented specialists who are ready for development and capable of self-education. That’s why the opportunity to speak and present their results which they got participating in this conference is worth a lot. On the one hand, it is a good springboard, which definitely contributes to the growth of professional competence of young men and women. On the other hand, any enterprise, inviting them to its ranks, seriously benefits from this, because young people not only go forward themselves, but also lead their organizations in the same direction”.

Aleksey Gorbunov, 5-year student of MISiS (participated in the work of the section "Geotechnologies of subsurface development"):

“The subject of my research is the creation of a new technology for blasting. It will help to improve the safety of personnel, equipment and technical structures by reducing the negative impact of the shock-air wave, the expansion of pieces of rock mass and seismic effects. I am very glad that I managed to make a presentation of the project to such a representative audience. It was an extraordinary and motivating communication experience”.

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Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of St. Petersburg Mining University:

“The effect we’ve got was times bigger than we expected. Thanks to our partners from Cisco, who donated the Webex platform for organizing the event, not only young researchers were able to take part in discussions but also to present their research and listen to expert opinions on their level. For 18 years, the "Topical problems of subsoil use" forum has been a springboard into science or profession for many students and postgraduate students. Therefore, it is essential that, despite the pandemic and the regime of self-isolation, it was not canceled, but took place in a virtual space”.

Let us note that all laureates of the competition will have the right to publish their articles in a separate collection of the prestigious Dutch publisher CRC-Press, which will be submitted for indexing and undergoing internal review procedures in the Scopus database. To do this, the authors must send it in Russian and English to the organizers no later than May 15. In addition, all winners have the opportunity to participate in the second, international stage of the forum, which will be held in June. A prerequisite will be the English language proficiency no lower than B2 level and availability of at least two published articles in journals indexed in the Scopus database. Partners of Mining University from Germany, Austria, China and several other states have already confirmed their consent to participate in the second stage of the forum.