In February, Anna Myslytska was studying at the Kyiv School of Economics when war broke out in her family’s hometown. A Russian missile hit a nearby block.
“I had to take an English exam. I was preparing for this exam and I had to do my macroeconomics homework – and the next day it was all gone,” recalls 18-year-old Myslytska. “You were figuring out what was most valuable to put in your backpack to take with you.”
The war changed his life. His school canceled classes and Myslytska and her family fled to Romania before resettling in eastern Spain.
Since fleeing Ukraine, she has rebuilt her life with remarkably little disruption to her education. She took its fully online economics and general studies courses, including a course called “Greek and Roman Mythology” taught by a University of Pennsylvania professor and produced by an American company, Coursera.
“They made the schedule more flexible in the spring,” Myslytska said. “I was quite satisfied. I love the visuals and how they gave us the material. You can choose subjects that are not related to your field of study.
As the US increases its military presence across Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US-based online learning platforms are also increasing their educational presence there.
Ukrainian teachers and students say they use these online tools to continue their teaching and learning and, perhaps, to secure democracy and fight against authoritarianism.
Some US-based educational institutions like Coursera and edX are stepping in.
“When the unfortunate war started in Ukraine, we felt we had to act,” Anant said. Agarwal, founder and CEO of edX, a nonprofit created 10 years ago by computer scientists from MIT and Harvard. The platform offers existing courses taught by professors at over 160 colleges and universities.
Since the beginning of the war, more than 1,500 Ukrainian educational establishments were partially or totally destroyed in what appears to be a deliberate attempt to undermine the ability of Ukrainians to teach their own history and culture. Russian soldiers burned books, libraries and archives. They bombed theaters and schools, including the main campus of Kharkiv University.
“Russia is really looking to take Ukraine off the map and replace it with some sort of proxy state,” said Alexandra Hrycak, who teaches sociology at Reed College in Portland, where she studies how women in Ukraine work to prevent violence there.
Hrycak, a Ukrainian immigrant, says the Kremlin is trying to turn the clock back to a Soviet era filled with misinformation, indoctrination and silence. That’s why, she says, Ukrainian scholars seeking freedom are moving online, recording violent acts of war, teaching in bunkers and preserving their culture.
“There was a deliberate attempt by Russian occupation forces to erase textbooks and other types of learning materials and replace them with a Russian curriculum that completely erases Ukrainian history,” she said. .
Citing the military actions of the Russian government against Ukraine, edX severed relations with Russian institutions.
“We had a number of universities in Russia that we had partnered with, so one of the steps we took was to cut our ties with Russian institutions,” Agarwal said.
Then, in March, edX announcement it would work with the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine to offer all Ukrainian colleges access to its platform.
“These are courses and programs on our platform that Ukrainian students enrolled in universities can now take completely free of charge,” Agarwal explained.
Since February, edX claims to have served nearly 3,000 students like Myslytska at more than 40 Ukrainian institutions.
“Higher education is a bulwark against the threat of authoritarianism,” said Georgetown University President John FromGioia.
In 2012, Georgetown was one of the first universities to make some of its courses available through edX. In 2020 – before the war in Ukraine and before former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen inspired a violent insurrection on Capitol Hill and threatened American democracy – the Center on Education and the Georgetown Workforce commissioned a study examining the role of education in taming authoritarian attitudes in the United States and abroad.
DeGioa says the mission of the American university goes beyond the courses. The essential elements include the formation of the intellect of young people, the search for teachers and the 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 strong men and uniformity – are at odds with the mission of a university that supports autonomy and diversity.
“We are committed to the broadest exchange of expressions, ideas and opinions,” he said. “We try to make sure that we allow this unfettered quest for knowledge and learning and to be open in this way puts us squarely in the target of these forces that contribute to authoritarianism.”
Today, 80% of the world lives under autocracy. Despite efforts to “democratize” higher education by making courses available online, liberal democracies peaked at 42 countries in 2012, the same year edX was founded in Cambridge. Ten years later, there are only 34 – the fewest since 1995, according to liberty house.
Yet Georgetown’s Jack DeGioia hopes democracy will prevail at home and in Ukraine.
“The current numbers are going in the wrong direction and we need to be mindful of that,” he said. “I’m optimistic because at the root of our American college philosophy is a commitment to freedom – freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom to exchange ideas.”
And that exchange of ideas, DeGioia said, should now include exporting American courses to young people who might not otherwise be able to access them through online education.
“The [online] the platforms allow us to share some of the rich content that is being developed on our campuses by such outstanding faculty across our country,” he said.
In Ukraine, the stakes for open continuing education are high. Stuck in Spain, Ukrainian student Anna Myslytska said that while she enjoys taking her Ukrainian and American classes online, she is looking forward to returning to Kyiv, resuming in-person classes and graduating.
“I want to go home so badly,” she said.
By getting a general education, she says she supports a future democracy in Ukraine.
“The more you know, the more tools you have in your brain to deal with certain issues, including huge issues like the Russian invasion,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Myslytska says she wants to stay in Kyiv and help her country rebuild.