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Rector of the University of Belgrade

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We are confronted by two challenges prior to the start of the new academic year: maintaining all forms of teaching and testing of knowledge. However, perhaps the greatest part of the story of the pandemic is the story about personal responsibility, solidarity and collegiality, as well as respect for academic integrity in school activities

The University of Belgrade, like other universities worldwide, is confronted by the challenges of working during the pandemic. Estimates of the intensity and spread of the virus to date lead us to conclude that it will be part of our daily lives for a long time and, until appropriate protection against it is found, we must learn how to function with its presence in the safest possible way. We will continue to adhere to the regulations on healthcare and will, within the possibilities available to us, provide academic space. The security of the academic space depends largely on the behaviour of staff and students outside academic buildings and accommodation. A major part of the story of the pandemic is the story about personal responsibility, solidarity and collegiality.

The University of Belgrade, with great energy, enthusiasm and the will of all participants in the process, entered into remote learning, and did so practically overnight, within a deadline of ten days. This is an exceptional result, given that most colleges don’t have developed systems for remote teaching and that many lecturers only encountered the tools for such teaching for the first time when that happened. Actually, it was in March 2020 that we implemented emergency remote learning. Although the 2020 summer semester opened the era of mass “online” teaching at the University of Belgrade, many questions were raised about the adequate preparation of both lecturers and students for this way of working. Time is running out and we need to prepare for the new academic year and bring the old one to an end in every aspect, just not under normal circumstances. Two key challenges are being considered: maintaining all forms of teaching and testing knowledge.

We have to support and monitor, more intensively and constantly, how our students cope under conditions of increased self-discipline when they attend classes completely or partially outside the faculty

A symposium on the experiences of “online” teaching at universities in Serbia was held at the Rectorate of the University of Belgrade on 7th July 2020. It included exchanges of experiences and problems encountered during this work. In preparing for the new academic year, we don’t know whether classes will be held live, at a distance, or in a combination of the two. Of course, we would most like to be able to organise classes in the regular way. However, we will most likely hold combined classes and use the “online” experiences acquired, particularly in the domain of theoretical classes. Although most lecturers have exerted great efforts to implement remote learning, there are still a small number of teachers who need to be more actively involved in the process and adapt to this new way of working.

Ivanka Popovic
Photo: Wikimedia

When it comes to practical teaching under extraordinary circumstances, we mustn’t neglect that. We will make every effort to maximally open the academic space for as many forms of practical teaching as possible, of course doing so with full respect for applicable regulations. This would be very important for maintaining essential direct communication between teachers and students. A special challenge is represented by the organisation of practical classes at the faculties belonging to the medical group, where it should be made possible for students to interact with patients.

I believe that we have to support and monitor, more intensively and constantly, how our students cope under conditions of increased self-discipline when they attend classes completely or partially outside the faculty. There are students who enter higher education from high school without abilities that are of crucial importance for studying successfully. The abilities that are often lacking include: effective learning techniques, defining priorities and allocating time rationally. In an environment of colleagues and an academic atmosphere, these weaknesses are overcome through regular joint activities at the faculty.

In an environment where personal incomes are reducing due to the limited workloads of business, the pressure on students to ensure they have access to appropriate IT equipment can be a serious societal challenge

Left to their own devices during quarantine, some students had problems arranging their day and forcing themselves to have the discipline to work regularly. With full understanding for the fact that the general state of affairs and atmosphere around the pandemic impacted on the way we all function, we have ahead of us the challenge of reasonably planning future activities under conditions of the constant presence of the COVID-19 virus. The Institute for Student Health Protection in Belgrade regularly monitors the epidemiological situation and recommends, due to the expected second wave of the virus in the second half of November 2020, that the 2020/2021 academic year begin without delay and as early as possible this autumn. On the other hand, some people expect the academic year to be extended, without sufficient understanding that the lost time cannot be recouped and that we are confronted by a new reality and a fundamental change in the implementation of teaching activities.

Ivanka Popovic
Photo: Wikimedia

Another fact that should also be noted is that not all students have the same working conditions, adequate internet access and computers, which they perhaps have to share with other members of their household. In an environment where personal incomes are reducing due to the limited workloads of business, the pressure on students to ensure they have access to appropriate IT equipment can be a serious societal challenge. This problem must be resolved if we are to include remote learning in regular teaching activities. The United Nations has just published a comprehensive document on education during and after the pandemic (Policy brief “Education during COVID-19 and beyond”, August 2020), in which it is stated that the educating of 99% of students at all levels of education in low and middle income countries has been disrupted. They estimated that a possible total of up to 23.8 million pupils and students globally will have to suspend their studies or drop out of school entirely due to the economic consequences of the pandemic.

In cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, we are preparing pilot programmes for the introduction of the remote testing of knowledge. This is a complex issue that cannot be solved and implemented overnight

All participants in the teaching process, alongside their regular work, also have obligations related to their immediate family environment. All this, along with the justified fear of infection or even the disease itself, hampers the achieving of the planned goals of remote learning. The implementation of exams, even when organised in the most conscientious way possible and with full respect for protection measures, is burdened by the fear of infection. It is for this reason that the issue of sitting exams at a distance has been raised. The Law on Higher Education of the Republic of Serbia does not allow the taking of exams outside the seat of the institution, which currently prevents “online” exams. In cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, we are preparing pilot programmes for the introduction of the remote testing of knowledge.

Ivanka Popovic
Photo: Media Centar

This is a complex issue that cannot be solved and implemented overnight. For some situations, this type of testing of knowledge is feasible, while for some it is not, particularly if we are referring to mass exams in the earlier years of study. Imposing itself as a priority is the condition of preserving quality, implementing a system of remote knowledge testing that will prevent (or reduce to a minimum) unpermitted activities such as copying. Tools for knowledge testing are being developed intensively, and what often appears as a solution is for students to take exams in specially equipped testing centres within academic institutions under strict security control conditions. Alongside good will and logistics, taking exams at a distance is also connected with considerable material costs.

All these aspects of working under the conditions of the pandemic only reinforce some obvious things. Any system, including education, can only function if participants follow predetermined rules. In the case of higher education, these rules are linked to collegiality and solidarity in minimising the spread of infection, and to academic integrity in school activities. Regardless of the situation with the COVID-19 virus, academic integrity is still a key determinant of the future of higher education.