Pilot Project in International Electronic Distance Education in Russia

Pilot Project in InternationalElectronic Distance Education in Russia

Dr. Ludwig Slusky,Director
Center for Newly Independent States Studies
California State University, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, Calif.
Dr. V. Z. Yampolsky, Director and Professor
Cybernetic Center, Tomsk Polytechnic University
Tomsk, Russia
Dr. Parviz Partow, Professor
California State University, Los Angeles
Dr. Gregory Dubina, Professor
Cybernetic Center, Tomsk Polytechnic University
Dr. Veniamin Goldfarb, Director
Institute of Mechanics
Izhevsk, Russia

The U.S. Government, with assistance of public andprivate organizations, steadily implements policy in cooperation withthe Newly Independent States (NIS), a term that encompasses theformer USSR, in the areas of education, business, economics andculture. The purpose is to assist NIS countries in their transitionto individual enterprise and a market economy. Educationalinstitutions and information technology are playing increasinglyimportant roles in this cooperation.

In the NIS countries, educational reform proceedsin several directions: expansion of access to higher education inpart via electronic distance learning; flexibility and responsivenessto the requirements of the labor market; decentralization and relyingmore on regional educational centers; and revision and expansion offundamental sciences and humanitiescourses.[1]

Calif. State Univ. Reaches Out

As a major multicultural educational institution,California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) is reaching out tobuild more academic bridges in the world. Their Center forNewly Independent States Studies (CNISS) contributesto the strategic goals of building and securing educational, businessand cultural links between the U.S. and NIS countries.

The Center's activities encompass electronicdistance education and business cooperation between the U.S. and NIScountries. The CNISS collaborates with faculty of variousuniversities in the U.S. and in NIS countries to act as a center forpackaging, delivery and administration of low-cost internationaleducational courses over the Internet for students and practitioners.In some NIS universities, the Internet has already established itspresence in all three areas of faculty activity: teaching, researchand service. [2]

In 1994, one author of this paper (Slusky) visitedTomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) in the city of Tomsk -- theoldest and largest scientific and educational center in Russia beyondthe Urals -- and its Cybernetic Center. This visitbecame a starting point in a pilot project in Electronic DistanceEducation provided by CNISS in California to TPU's Cybernetics Centerin Russia, held during the spring of 1995. This paper reports thefindings of this pilot project and views of its variousparticipants.

"Why," as well as "What"

Since the printing press was first introduced,there has not been any development that has brought greaterrevolutionary changes to the education process than that which iscontributed by computer technology. Universities are now capable ofbypassing boundaries of distance and time, educate more students withless resources, and better relate teaching methods to individuallearning capacities. In the future, universities may cease to existin their current form as physical facilities. They may instead act asmiddlemen of educational services.

In evaluating high-tech options, universitiesstand among a new wave of technology consumers interested with "why"as well as "what." Why generate the investments required to bring newtechnologies on campus? For CNISS, new information technologies areat the heart of its mission to strengthen educational opportunity.The Internet is the embodiment of the power of technology to do justthat.

The course selected to investigate electronicdistance learning between two countries was "Decision SupportSystems" taught by another author of this article (Partow.) Thiscourse was designed and delivered via e-mail and the ElectronicDistance Education System (EDES) managed by CNISS. The course wastaught to a geographically remote group of students selected toparticipate in the project.

Partner University in Russia

Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), founded in1896, was the first and is still the largest, technical university inRussia beyond the Urals. The university's advanced engineeringprograms employ considerable computer resources including some 1,000personal computers, plus networks with a bridge to the Internet, toFidonet (a non-commercial global network), and to Relcom(a Russian information network).

The Cybernetic Center (CC) at Tomsk Polytechnic isa scientific and educational institution founded in 1988 on theinitiative of another co-author of this article (Yampolsky). Today,it includes several departments, a research institute and a center inthe field of new information technologies, plus joint ventures. Amongothers, CC staff includes seven Doctors of Science and more than 70Candidates of Science. The Cybernetic Center's teaching and researchspecialization is in:

  • Training bachelors, masters, post-graduates and those working for a doctoral degree in various disciplines of informatics, computer science and economics;
  • Development of telecommunications systems based on surface- and satellite- assisted communication;
  • Development of expert systems with elements of artificial intelligence;
  • Development of automated training systems with multimedia capabilities and electronic training systems; and
  • Development of control systems for different production branches.

With its faculty and information technology, theCybernetic Center is well positioned to provide the necessarytechnological and educational support for distance learning programs.Its Control Systems Optimization department was chosen as a base forthe pilot EDE project.

Overview of the Endeavor

The project was organized as a joint undertakinginvolving individuals from CNISS and CC/TPU. The EDE Administrator,Director of CNISS, had overall responsibility for the projectmanagement. The EDE Instructor, a CSULA faculty, provided coursematerials and EDE instructions. The EDE Coordinator, a CC/TPUfaculty, supervised the students' work at a local site. And EDEstudents were the TPU students selected to participate.

The role of each of the participants is describedbelow. The EDE Administrator acted as an EDES Administrator as well,managing the information base and communication system.

EDE Administration: The role of EDEAdministrator in distance learning is multifunctional. He or she isresponsible for:

  • Administering course enrollment, completion and certification;
  • Monitoring the course in progress: schedule and quality;
  • Monitoring timely exchange of course information between participants and the instructor, responding with urgent measures wherever the communication links break;
  • Administering the EDES system for electronic publishing of course material and controlling access to them; and
  • Responding to the administrative needs of the EDE Coordinators and instructors.

Some Conclusions

The EDE Pilot Project provided an opportunity toassess the impact of some features of distance learning:

  • Location transparency. Geographical location is not a factor in the quality of EDE courses. This was mostly affected by availability of access to the Internet.
  • Time zone transparency. The EDE Pilot Project was conducted to a remote location having 14 hours time zone difference -- with little implications on the learning process.
  • Time and place of study flexibility. The project provided some added flexibility in the pace and the place for individual study, although it is not clear to what extent students actually benefited from this.
  • Supervised exams. Course testing was administered in-person by the EDE Coordinator to assure more reliable exams.
  • Language barrier. The course was taught in English only, thus limiting prospective participants. Students who took part demonstrated a high proficiency in English as a Second Language (ESL). Although the barrier of language is the most difficult one to overcome in international distance education, teaching an EDE course in ESL promotes the "international" aspect and adds an extra value to foreign participants of practicing common and subject- specific terminology in English.
  • Local coordination. The importance of a partnership with a foreign university and the role of its EDE coordinator can hardly be overstated. No international distance education from a foreign country can be successful today in Russia without a strong partnership with Russian educational institutions.
  • Internet-assisted course instructions. EDE instructors are expected to be "Internet fluent," as operating its tools determines, to a large extent, the instructor's ability to communicate the course material effectively to students.

The Technical Bridge

Among the three basic components that determinethe quality of the distance learning process -- course materials,instructions and the underlying information technology -- the thirdone is the most rapidly changing. Three fundamental technologies areemployed in electronic distance education:

  • e-mail for individual access;
  • Telnet for group access (Telnet to EDES);
  • WWW for online multimedia access (Web Pages).

In this pilot project, CNISS distributed coursematerials and maintained all communication between instructors andthe students using EDES and e-mail. Web pages, although not used inthis project, would normally be employed as a front-end informationbase for courses. It would offer short course descriptions, andaccept and forward online enrollment requests to the closestparticipating university/college. The Web also enables multimedia inEDE courses.

CNISS, however, decided not to use the Web as anonline learning tool for the project. Russian universities'information technology is limited in comparison with those in theU.S., and there is also a relatively high cost per hour for Russianuniversities to use the Internet. Instead CNISS employed Telnet ande-mail as communication tools.

EDES, implemented by CSULA, is an applicationsystem based on the UNIX-run TEAMate Bulletin Board Software. EDESprovides a controllable, secure environment for storing, retrieving,managing and delivery of EDE course information. It d'es not requireany client software.[3] However, it lacks thefriendliness of Web pages.

The information in EDES can be stored as textfiles (primary information entries) and as binary files(attachments). Attachments are used to store documents in a wordprocessing format, graphics or pictures.

Stored information is organized by topics, each ofwhich may in turn consist of several levels of other topics, thusforming a topic outline. Information entries hold data and can belinked to any node in the topic outline. An entry has a title andcontains a stand-alone text, which can be a chapter, a module, adocument, etc. The EDES Administrator or an eligible user can createa topic outline of any complexity and depth with any number ofentries per any topic/sub-topic.

Security is controlled by the EDES Administratorwho specifies for each user a username, password and assigned accessrights. Security is a major concern of electronic publishing fordistance education as the cost of these materials is not chargedseparately but built into course fees. EDES provides all necessarysupport to protect the intellectual property from unauthorizedaccess. As security management in the Web environment becomes moreversatile, more educational materials will be relocated into Webpages.[4]

EDES also supports a CHAT mode -- real time,interactive discussion -- between users. Chat discussion can bepublic when any online user can join the discussion. Or it can beprivate with a restricted membership. To facilitate variousdiscussions, users can set up forums. Each is controlled by adesignated user who organizes its information.

Accessing EDES from a remote location d'es notrequire any client software except for Telnet capabilities over theInternet. EDES offers easy uploading, downloading and printing to aremote PC, as well as an FTP function to transfer data. Users of EDEScan exchange messages, which are stored in individual user mailboxes.A message can be broadcasted or moved to a topic.

The pilot project showed that solely using Telnetcommunication with a counterpart in Russia may not be reliable, soe-mail is very much needed throughout an EDE course.


Course material underg'es significant changes whenpresented in a distance learning format. Pedagogically, it is notsufficient to deliver existing course material as it stands. Changesneed to be made to a course's general structure, presentation andlanguage. The pilot project showed that distance education materialsought to be prepared employing a different style. Consider thefollowing while developing such materials:

  • All the learning materials should be developed in a modular format.
  • The materials should simulate a communication channel between the instructor and students similar to the regular classroom teaching environment.
  • The materials should be inclusive. There is no second chance to further expand the material in class.

One of the advantages of EDE is that allcorrespondence among participants can be saved electronically. Thisdiffers with the fully momentary nature of oral conversation intraditional classes.[5]

An EDE class requires more detailed structure thana regular class. The course syllabus should include all assignmentsand dates of anticipated projects. Also, full explanation of coursemanagement is essential. An instructor has less opportunity toimprovise. If he/she d'es so, presentations and activities may seemto be chaotic and arbitrary. Since EDE students cannot engage inface-to-face communication, they need more structure to direct theirstudies.[6]

Just as those working in such areas as law,medicine or business deal with ethical issues specific to theirprofession, so those involved in EDE face ethical considerationsunique to their domain. Among them:

  • How do you ensure the privacy of the student and the confidentiality of data?
  • How do you provide sufficient compensation to providers of classroom activities? Some of these activities are software related, which brings in all the well-known questions of software piracy and alteration already in the courts.
  • How can hackers and cheaters be kept from interfering with the system?
  • How can we guarantee that humans, not computers, are still identified as the instructor?[7]

Local EDE Coordination

One of this article's co-authors (Dubina), afaculty of the Cybernetic Center, was appointed an ElectronicDistance Education (EDE) Coordinator. Although he had 20 yearsexperience in teaching and practicing informatics and computerscience, the problems of global information telecommunications anddistance education were new for him.

His lack of understanding of EDE problems wasshared by other CC faculty. They were not prepared. Distanceeducation as an idea had been discussed at CC department meetings,but under Russia's existing difficult economic conditions and withminimum state financing for higher education, such an idea seemed tobe only a romantic future.

Thus the pilot project with CNISS can beconsidered a beginning of the EDE Coordinator's new specialization.He is responsible for making sure the educational process is up andrunning; for assisting students, handling class registration,distributing course materials, managing exams and assignments; andserving as liaison between the students, the instructor and EDEadministration.

As a first step, the EDE Coordinator provided ashort description of locally available computer resources. He furtherstudied Internet concepts, architecture, tools and technology(e-mail, FTP, Telnet ,Web). Selecting proper Internet tools forbeginners that are also convenient for classroom settings isextremely complicated. It would be very desirable for the EDEprovider to not only analyze the pilot partner's computer resources,but also to recommend the most appropriate and desirableconfiguration of hardware and software, in particular, Internettools. The EDE coordinator also installed an e-mail system at thedepartment, using it for correspondence with the CNISS.

The pilot course curriculum was interesting andmet the requirements for students specializing in Informatics andeconomics. A short length of the course (8 parts), its reviewcharacter, a lecture format suitable for e-mail correspondence withsimultaneous Telnet access to EDES, direct contact with the courseinstructor -- all this made it easy to enter the world of distanceeducation.

In the opinion of TPU, their experience of thepilot project suggests that an introductory course on the Internetlike "Internet: Architecture and Work" may better suit projects withan EDE-beginner partner. And it would be a desirable pre-requisitebefore other specialty courses are offered to a university notexperienced in EDE.

The EDE Coordinator formed a pilot group ofparticipants including three instructors (with himself as one ofthem) having English language reading skills and eightstudent-volunteers of TPU's Russian-American Center (RAC). RACstudents are in an undergraduate program specializing in "Informaticsand management in banking" in cooperation with Ohio State University.These students took their language and vocational training at U.S.universities; most are fluent in English and use computerseffectively. Thus, there were no difficulties in preparing studentsfor the pilot course.


The EDE learning process was methodicallyorganized in four stages:

  1. At first, course study materials were received via e-mail by the EDE Coordinator and distributed to students in a printed and electronic form. Simultaneously, students were taught the principles of the Internet.
  2. Students have since learned to use e-mail, independently communicated assignments and examinations, and worked with material directly on the computer.
  3. The EDE Coordinator has gained an experience in EDES operations: entry scanning, entry of messages for the instructor with the text editor VI, and study materials transfer through EDES FTP tool. Several times, FTP was successfully used instead of e-mail to speed up receiving study material.
  4. Students have used Telnet from the workstations on a LAN at the Cybernetics Center, and obtained an Internet-related knowledge for their subsequent independent work in the EDE environment.

There were occasions for concern about Internetcommunications reliability, improvement and backup. Partly as aresponse to a specific problem, Tomsk Polytechnic established asecond Internet bridge directly through Moscow and expedited its workon a direct satellite communication link.

EDE Students

The pilot EDE course proved very useful tostudents, expanding their knowledge from a preceding course. It wasnot difficult for students to understand EDE materials, and in manyrespects, the course heightened their interest in distanceeducation.

As to comprehending English terminology, studentswere puzzled with some terms, (e.g., "ad hoc analysis") that arerarely used in scientific literature translations and practicallyabsent in the English- Russian dictionaries available in Russia. Itwould be very desirable to provide foreign- language students withEnglish terminology references.

Exams based on multiple choice and true/falsequestions, from a methodological point of view, appeared somewhatunexpected for Russian students. In the Russian system of education,examinations use a different approach.

Each student is given a particular set ofrelatively equivalent written and oral exam questions aimed atunderstanding the course subject matter, and the instructor providesan individual analysis of answers for each student. Such anexamination technique takes into account a group approach to study inRussia where stable student groups are maintained for the entire 4-6years' period of study and sharing of study experience is promotedbetween students. Conversely, the American individual approach tostudy is based on a student's choice of courses (within limits),which results in a changeable composition of student groups overtime.

Magnificent Opportunity

One main goal of the TPU educational developmentprogram is the university's integration into internationaleducational collaboration by importing and exporting educationalservices. The TPU's first opportunity as a potential provider ofdistance education can be to export its educational services to theremote areas of Russia (the Yakutsk autonomous region, the Far East,the Altai and others) where TPU is well known as a prestigiousuniversity and a recognized leader in engineering education. Thus itwas TPU's main task in this Pilot Project, and its course "DecisionSupport Systems," to learn the best methodology to use with EDEdistance education.

TPU administrators were interested not only incomputing environments, but also in organizational, legal andmethodical aspects. The project allowed TPU to assess needs for EDEtechnologies, to enrich EDE experience in a collaborative settingwith colleagues from the U.S., and it also raised new questions andsome problematic issues. These involved improving control of learningin the EDE environment; use of workshops and labs within an EDEcourse and the required technology; and legal aspects of relationsbetween EDE providers, the cooperating universities, and EDEconsumers, the students.

Delivery of education and training throughelectronically mediated instruction has opened new opportunities forhigher education and the training of the workforce. Changingtechnologies will remain a persistent factor in higher education, andthese changes can provide magnificent opportunities for life- longlearning, economic growth and service to our communities.

While more research needs to be done, it seemslikely that EDE has the power to offer an educational experiencesimilar in methodology and outcome to those provided live, in anon-campus class. In addition, the EDE is built on informationtechnology that is available on a world-wide basis. The EDE approachtakes advantage of existing educational resources and has thepotential of fulfilling the promise of cost-effective onlineeducation.[8]

EDE's implications for education and training areenormous. The importance of distance education is well recognized inthe U.S. and other countries. It should be noted that the UnitedStates Congress has designated the third full week of March of eachyear as Distance Learning Week.

Ludwig Slusky is director of the Centerfor Newly Independent States Studies (CNISS) at California StateUniversity, Los Angeles. E-mail: [email protected]

Co-authors' e-mail:
Parviz Partow: [email protected]
Gregory Dubina: [email protected]
V. Z. Yampolsky: [email protected]
Veniamin Goldfarb: "VeniaminGoldfarb"<[email protected]


  1. Vladimir, Kinclev (1994), "Higher Education in Russia: Priorities, Trends and Objectives," JCDED '94 Proceedings: Distance Learning & New Technologies in Education, July 5-8, 1994, Moscow, Russia, pp. i5-i7.
  2. Ellsworth, Jill H. (1994), Education on the Internet, SAMS Publishing, pp. 185-424.
  3. TEAMate User Guide (1991), Manhattan Beach, CA: MMB Development Corp.
  4. Heslop, Brent & Budnick, Larry (1995), HTML Publishing on the Internet for Windows, Chapel Hill, NC: Ventana Press, pp. 283-284.
  5. Albrektson, J. Raymond (1995), "Mentored Online Seminar: A Model for Graduate-Level Distance Learning," T.H.E. Journal, 23(3), Oct. 1995, pp. 102-105.
  6. Whitaker, George W. (1995), "First-Hand Observation on Tele-Course Teaching," T.H.E. Journal, 23(1), August 1995, pp. 65-68.
  7. Boschmann, Erwinn (1995), The Electronic Classroom, Medford, NJ: Learned Information, Inc.
  8. Cartwright, Carol A. (1995), "High Technology in Higher Education: A Presidential Perspective," Tech Exchange, Fall 1995, pp. 6-13.

Products mentioned:

TEAMate bulletin board software; MMB DevelopmentCorp., Manhattan Beach, CA, (800) 832- 6022,teamate.mmb.com.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.