destroyed room with books

US educators step up to help displaced Ukrainians continue their studies

Several American-based online learning platforms have made their coursework free to Ukrainians whose education has been upended by the war in their country. Students, as well as universities, are embracing the new offerings.

The World

Destroyed library in the school where a graduation ceremony, called the Last School Bell, was supposed to take place in Kharkiv, Ukraine, June 2, 2022.

Andrii Marienko/AP

In February, Anna Myslytska was studying at the Kyiv School of Economics when the war came to her family’s hometown. A Russian missile hit a neighboring block.

“I was supposed to have an English exam. I was preparing for that exam,” Myslytska, 18, recalled. “And then, the next day, that all just disappeared. You were figuring out what was more valuable to put in your rucksack to take with you.”

The university shut down. Myslytska and her family fled to Romania before resettling in eastern Spain where she’s rebuilding a new life. With her country in chaos, she’s managed to continue her education with remarkably little disruption. She took her economics and general studies courses completely online, including a Greek and Roman mythology class taught by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and produced by an American company, Coursera.

Myslytska said it’s a class she wouldn’t have taken before, because it’s a subject not linked to her field of study — economics.

woman with laptop

Kyiv School of Economics student Anna Myslytska fled Ukraine when Russian missiles destroyed her hometown. She’s continued her education, taking courses online from Spain.

Credit:

Courtesy of Anna Myslytska

In Ukraine, it’s estimated that half of all universities switched to online teaching by the end of March and more are likely to reopen in an online format during this coming academic year.

Several American-based online learning platforms, such as Coursera and Boston-based edX, have made their coursework free to Ukrainians whose education has been upended by the war. Students, as well as universities, are embracing the new offerings.

“When the unfortunate war started in Ukraine, we felt that we had to act,” said Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of edX, a nonprofit created 10 years ago by computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The platform offers existing courses taught by professors at more than 160 colleges and universities.

Citing the Russian government’s military actions against Ukraine, edX severed its relationship with Russian institutions.

“We had a number of universities in Russia who we had partnered with, and so, one of the actions that we took was that we cut our ties with the Russian institutions,” Agarwal said.

Then, in March, edX announced it would work with the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine to offer all Ukrainian colleges access to its platform.

man speaking

Anant Agarwal speaks at the TEDx conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in June 2013.

Credit:

 TEDx under a Creative Commons license

“These are courses and programs on our platform that Ukrainian students who are registered at the universities can now take up completely for free,” Agarwal explained.

Since February, edX says it’s served nearly 3,000 students like Myslytska at more than 40 Ukrainian institutions. The courses are offered in English, however, so only a minority of students can take them.

Some of the most popular courses for Ukrainian students include Exercising Leadership and Introduction to Computer Science — both from Harvard — and Advanced Data Structures from New York University.

For institutions like the Kyiv School of Economics, which offers mostly business classes, these new broad-based classes mark a major shift.

“We reshaped the curriculum,” said Yegor Stadny, vice president for undergraduate programs at the economics school.

Stadny said the school has resumed some in-person classes, but online courses offered by Ukrainian and American universities have been critical in providing shell-shocked students with more stability and opportunity.

“The mental condition of our students was not so good,” he said. “We just thought it would be better to make the curriculum and the schedule more flexible.”

Higher education is a ‘bulwark’ against authoritarianism

Since the start of the war, more than 1,500 Ukrainian educational institutions have been partially or totally destroyed in what Ukrainian academics say is Russia’s deliberate attempt to undermine their ability to teach their own history and culture. Russian soldiers have burned books, libraries and archives. They've shelled theaters and schools, including the main campus of Kharkiv University.

“The most important thing right now for Ukrainian higher ed is to try to continue in an era when many higher educational institutions have been destroyed,” said Alexandra Hrycak, who teaches sociology at Reed College in Portland, where her research focuses on Ukraine.

Hrycak’s parents immigrated to the United States after the Soviet Army occupied their hometown and declared them — and their families — “enemies of the people.”

Today, she said, the Kremlin is trying to turn back the clock to that era filled with misinformation, indoctrination and silencing.

“Russia really seeks to eliminate Ukraine from the map and replace it with some kind of proxy state,” Hrycak said.

That’s why, she said, Ukrainian professors seeking academic freedom are moving online, using their smartphones to record violent acts of war, teaching courses from bunkers and preserving their culture.

“There has been a deliberate attempt by Russian occupying forces to expunge textbooks and other kinds of learning materials and replace them with a Russian curriculum that completely erases Ukrainian history,” she said.

“Higher education is a bulwark against the threat of authoritarianism,” said Georgetown University President John DeGioia, who applauds how educators in the US have stepped up to help Ukrainians stay in school.

In 2012, Georgetown was one of the first universities to make some of its courses available for free online. Back in 2020, Georgetown commissioned a study which found that education can help tame authoritarian attitudes in the United States and abroad.

DeGioa said the mission of the American university goes beyond coursework. Essential parts include the formation of young people’s intellect, faculty research and contribution to the common good.

“These are three inextricably linked elements, but all three contribute to this challenge of responding to the threat of authoritarianism,” DeGioia said, adding that authoritarian tendencies — preferring strongman leaders and uniformity — are at odds with the mission of a university that supports autonomy and diversity.

For students like Myslystka, the free, online courses have been invaluable. But while she’s learning a lot in her Ukrainian and American-based courses online, she said, she’s eager to return to Kyiv and resume in-person classes.

Like many Ukrainians, she fears that if the educated don’t go back to rebuild the country, Ukraine will never fully recover from the war.

“The more you know, the more tools you have in your brain to deal with some problems, including huge problems like the Russian invasion,” she said.