Technology and academic virtues in Ukraine. Escaping the Soviet path dependency
More than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union there still remain a lot of gaps in understanding how the societal transformation towards a postsocialist society occurred and what contributed to this process. Some aspects of this change were discussed during the EASST Plenary session on the relevance of the postsocialist condition for STS. While Ivan Tchalakov provided retrospective analysis of the science politics in the Soviet Union and explained how its unintended consequences assisted socialist modernization, Marija Vukovic looked into youth academic migration as inspiring re-evaluation of science foundation in Croatia and Susanne Bauer elaborated how Soviet nuclear ecologies unfolded environmental changes. The speakers and audience purported that such a complex process as a/the transition to a postsocialist society cannot be fully captured by political and economic reforms. Society had to gradually adjust (and is still adjusting) to a more open and democratic way of life, something that can only be achieved by the bottom-up rationale, as witnessed by the speakers’ presentations. In this short essay I want to build on the results of the Plenary session and continue reflection on the postsocialist transition drawing from the fields of STS and Philosophy of Technology.
I shall argue that in order to achieve a better picture of the societal transition to a postsocialist culture it is necessary to trace a change in the landscape of human beliefs, values and norms. In the speeches of all presenters, technology was always involved as a direct or indirect factor of change, enabling new ideas and reflection on dominant values. The concept of techno-moral change (Swierstra et al., 2009) can be a useful theoretical tool to reflect on the postsocialist transition period as a gradual process of review and reconceptualization of societal values and norms, accompanied by technological innovation. I would like to particularly inquire how the introduction of ICT challenged the moral landscape in the sphere of education in Ukraine. I chose to concentrate on education because this sector is especially relevant in the context of postsocialist transition, being entitled to produce critical reflective individuals whose actions will shape the future of the country. Since the aim of this essay is a preliminary reflection on postsocialist conditions, I will draw on existing academic scholarship and my own experience as I have obtained full higher education in Ukraine. Building on the methodology of techno-moral change, I will first explore the promises and assumptions regarding the education sphere that new technologies bring with them. Then I will sketch the educational practice in Ukraine prior to introduction of ICT and outline some of the dominant values in the field. Finally, I will analyse how ICT played out in Ukrainian educational and moral context and what it signified for a postsocialist transition.
It has been widely accorded in STS that technology can inspire and co-shape societal change and progress. New information and communication technologies (ICT) started to penetrate Western world already in the 60s-70s, gaining access to Easter Europe mostly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Following Osborne and Hennessy (2003), the introduction of Internet, computers and in the following decade of smartphones echoed the utilitarian “everybody-will-benefit” idea. Firstly, new technologies promised to expand and enhance educational practice, offering a cheap, fast and effective access to information and new educational tools. Secondly, they also carried a promise of forming a new generation of motivated and self-regulated students, who would promote responsible and honest learning and research practices in the age of cross-cultural connectivity and knowledge exchange. Therefore, the introduction of ICT led to expect a drastic change in the knowledge production practices.
Despite of the optimistic nature of promises that accompanied the introduction of ICT, it took more than a decade for such technologies as personal computers to become ubiquitous in Ukraine and be included in the everyday practices. The educators, however, still struggle to incorporate new technologies in their work, constrained by formal and practical factors, such as lack of regulatory framework, skills to operate technology and time to obtain those skills as well as hesitance to change their routine practices. However, the young generations are eager to use the promoted benefits of ICT and have embraced new technologies quickly. Notwithstanding numerous obstacles that constrain the effective implementation of ICT in the domain of education, teachers have to take ICT into account when designing learning material and assessing the work of students. According to Swierstra (2009), promises carry certain conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to be realized. This techno-moral change principle can be illustrated by the case of the ICT introduction in Ukraine.
On top of practical and formal conditions, also the moral landscape inhibits an effective integration of ICT into the educational sphere. As mentioned earlier, ICT are said to promote productive learning and the practices of academic honesty. However, it is assumed that such norms and values are ubiquitous and desirable everywhere. As we shall see further, the Ukrainian educational context is somewhat different. Academic integrity was often a matter of concern in the Soviet Union, when practices of plagiarism would be referred to not as borrowing and cheating but as a noble act of helping your comrade (De Witt, 1961). Ethical beliefs regarding academic dishonesty in independent Ukraine have not changed much since the Soviet times. Recent surveys report a high rate of academic misconduct among Ukrainian undergraduate students who mostly find it morally justifiable (Yukhymenko-Lescroart, 2014). These results are supported by Western educators teaching in Ukraine, who say that cheating in Ukrainian high-schools and universities is considered to be a part of collective battle for the better grade and a form of caring for your groupmates. The dominant reproductive model of education indirectly supports such behaviours and teachers often tolerate academic misconduct (Earich, 2008; Brand and Rist, 2013, p.51). Therefore, a moral landscape in the sphere of education in Ukraine, still tightly correlated with the Soviet principles of collectivity, does not directly fit with the values promoted by ICT.
However, there is a need for further reflection. On the one side, a famous STS claim that users often appropriate technology in other ways than foreseen by the designers proves to be fruitful in regard to ICT and education in Ukraine. ICT do provide novel ways to access and generate information, but Ukrainian students often use them to blindly copy reports and whole dissertations from the Internet. Looking for such “academic agencies” online, I was amazed by their number, range of services and flexible payment options, ranging from standard to overnight tariffs. On the other hand, the co-shaping of the educational sphere and ICT also generated positive changes in the mindset of students and educators. For instance, in the early 2000s some Ukrainian universities started using software to detect and discourage students and staff from plagiarism as an attempt to address numerous complaints on the quality of education in Ukraine and to better assess academic content. When I was submitting a master’s thesis in Ukraine some years later, department staff demanded that all works be screened by university’s anti-plagiarism software. Academic work would be accepted only if the software detected less than 30% match with other sources. Consequently, some students had to re-submit their work. Not being a legal condition, anti-plagiarism technology became a de facto widely accepted voluntary practice in educational institutions, inviting students to review their ethical beliefs. This initiative was recognized by the newly elected minister of education Serhiy Kvit (a former president of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a national university that is rendered as the least corrupt in the country), who promised to stimulate and support best local and Western practices regarding academic integrity on the national level (Onyshchenko, 2014). However, as witnessed earlier by Yukhymenko-Lescroart (2014), students who have been nurtured in the academic culture of cheating will not easily accept the new moral framework. Thus, dishonest academic practices still pertain. But the sole fact of questioning dominant norms is already a promising development in the gradual and contingent process of change in academia. Therefore, introduction of ICT in the sphere of education in Ukraine not only highlighted the dominant ethical beliefs of the scholars but also contributed to their reflection and re-evaluation, assisting the bottom-up gradual change in Ukrainian academic sector.
Inspired by participation in the EASST Panel on postsocialist condition, with this essay I tried to show that postsocialist transition, just like techno-moral change, is always a process, never linear and subject to renegotiation. Looking into the sphere of education in Ukraine as influenced by introduction of ICT offers many insights into society in transition and challenges it faces along the way. STS and Philosophy of Technology can be useful frameworks to further enhance existing knowledge on postsocialist transition and generate new one as to how this change can be facilitated.
Before turning it in, this essay was screened for plagiarism with 0% match result.
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De Witt, N. (1961).Education and Professional Employment in the U.S.S.R. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office for the National Science Foundation.
Earich, G. (2008). Accomplishments and obstacles in Ukraine: Continental divide.Peace Corps Online. [Blog entry]. Retrieved on November 13, 2014 from peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/3210290.html.
Onyshchenko, O. (2014, June 13). Serhiy Kvit: Na reformy navazhusia. An interview.Dzerkalo Tyzhnia. Ukrayina.[Online archive] Retrieved on November 13, 2014 from gazeta.dt.ua/EDUCATION/sergiy-kvit-na-reformi-navazhusya-a-scho-meni-mozhe-zavaditi-_.html.
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Swierstra, T., Stemerding, D. & Boenink, M. (2009). Exploring techno-moral change: The case of the obesity pill. Evaluating New Technologies.The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology. Vol. 3, pp. 119-138.
Yukhymenko-Lescroart, M. A. (2014, March). Ethical beliefs towards academic dishonesty: A cross-cultural comparison of undergraduate students in Ukraine and the United States.Journal of Academic Ethics, 1(12), pp. 29-41.
Olga Kudina is a Research Intern at Maastricht University, FASoS, Philosophy Department