On an evening at the end of November I found myself travelling by car from Domodedovo airport south of Moscow, passing through white snow-covered pine woodland. This was my first visit ever to Russia. I had been reading the novels of Turgenev as it happens, and while my trip had the perfectly practical purposes of visiting the Open University partner LINK, my thoughts lay at that moment at least with the very atmospheric world of Russian novels.
The business of the trip began with a meeting on Friday morning with LINK, the long-standing partner of the OU Business School. LINK is an independent higher education institution, formed by university colleagues at the time of perestroika, in Zhukofsky, a town based some 50 kilometres from Moscow and the seat of LINK HQ. The city was in Soviet times one of the ‘closed cities’, dedicated as it was to aerospace. LINK was established in the years of change to introduce modern management education in Russia using distance learning . The partnership with the Open University is now some 17 years old. My first meeting was led by Rector Sergey Schennikov, who gave a historical overview of LINK. Student numbers now stand at some 12,000 on Certificate and Diploma Programmes and MBAs, using both Russian and English language options.
The main topic of discussion at our first meeting was the impact of the economic recession expected by the two organisations. While it was difficult to know how the recession would impact on distance higher education, it was clear to all present that we would have to prepare for significant problems. It can be in times of recession that individuals have to requalify and reskill themselves to an even greater extent when unemployment hits or is threatened. For organisations however who spend money on learning and development they may well find their budgets difficult to sustain. It is too early to see the effects of the recession very directly now, but this blog will surely reflect on this topic over the next period.
In the afternoon I travelled to Moscow for the evening degree ceremony organised by LINK for the Open University MBA. This took place in the British Embassy, with 18 graduates, and some 100 people present. The graduates looked wonderful in their Open University sky blue gown with yellow hoods. I was very pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest expressed in the press conference organised beforehand with some 12 journalists, and 4 even came for interviews after the ceremony.
I was able to go to the Bolshoi Ballet on Saturday evening, courtesy of LINK. Fabulous! The ballet was La Sylphide, a story set in the Highlands of Scotland, of a sprite who deceives and destroys a marriage. It was everything I had expected of Russian ballet, with wonderful lead dancers whose elegance and sense of timing was superb.
On Sunday I had a free day and was given a wonderful tourist visit by Irina Smirnova of MESI, seeing the sights of Moscow. The extraordinary churches in the Kremlin with their golden onion domes were, well, extraordinary. As was St Basil’s cathedral with its multi-coloured domes, in Red Square. As was the Tretyakov Gallery of Russian art, all of which was new to me. As were the blinis and borsch soup for lunch! And I really enjoyed what is called ‘Chekhov corner’, where the statue of the great playwright stands outside the Moscow Arts Theatre.
On Monday I travelled to MESI, an institution that is well known to some readers of this blog. For those unfamiliar, this is the Moscow University for Economics, Statistics and Informatics, a public university. It has some 5000 conventional students on its campus in Moscow and a much larger number distributed at some 80 sites run by partners across Russia and the ‘near abroad’, using contemporary technologies for the support of learning and teaching. I gave a lecture on contemporary issues in distance education, in particular concentrating on the way in which the 1970’s and 1980’s models of distance education, with their necessary concentration on the provision of well-organised content, must give way in the use of new technologies to the embedding of strategies for learning in which students have greater responsibility for the sourcing of content themselves. The rethinking of pedagogy, which is widely advanced, must lead the use of technologies for education.
So home on Monday evening, after an eye-opening trip to a country and culture that was new to me. I am sure it will not be my last.