CyberTPU: the University is Going Digital

The Rector of Tomsk Polytechnic University Petr Chubik has established a new position of Vice-Rector for Digital Environment and specialized Division, including Center for Digital Education and Information and Analytical Office. Alexander Fadeev, the former Head of the Center for Digital Education, became a new Vice-Rector. We asked him about the development of the university digital environment, the goals of new division, and new digital plans.

— Alexander, currently the digital economy is much spoken about.  Recently, something like this we could see by the example of nano-technology and everything with nano- prefix. Perhaps digitalization and the development of digital environment is just a simple trend? Why was it necessary to appoint one persons to be responsible for digital, administrative, analytical, educational and research resources?

— The digital economy is an answer for challenges that raised from ever-accelerating processes of changes in the technology area. In Russia, four years ago, one began to implement the National Technology Initiative (STI) - a program aimed to create conditions, ensuring Russian leadership in the new high-tech markets that will determine the structure of the global economy in the next 15-20 years. Digitalization and development of digital environment is a key activity in the scope of the STI. Two years ago a long-term strategy of scientific and technological development of the country was approved. It calls the transition to digital, intelligent, robotic systems and technologies is one of the main priorities. It is not a simple trend, it is a practical incarnation of a widely known rule which states the following:  We create the future today.

The STI experts predict that most of the existing profession will have disappeared by 2035. They will be replaced by new ones that we can only think about.


Photo: Alexandr Fadeev

We see the explosive development of information technologies. Hardware and equipment are not able to keep up with them. There is a completely new digital business: Yandex-taxi, Uber, Trivago, platforms for booking tickets and online sales. There is no place for intermediaries between a person and a product or a service here. These systems operate only with digital data, minimizing the need to manually add new information. In Yandex-Taxi there is no operator, the location of a car is determined by navigator, information about a passenger is automatically taken from the smartphone.  Due to constant data accumulation, the service is already able to predict who, when and where to go.  The quick development of such services and systems will continue, thereby increasingly affecting the most diverse types and forms of economic, managerial, and any other human activities. Among many others, it will affect research and educational ones.  In this area, the digitalization is developing rapidly and it is important for the university to carve out a niche here as a leader. Recently, the university leadership has brainstormed about this problem during the strategic session.  Almost all participants noted the extreme importance of the problem and agreed that TPU should ride this wave. Obviously, this was the decisive argument to make digitalization as one of the most important priorities of the university activities. Regarding HR and structural changes, resource pooling, in my opinion, is an inevitable managerial step, allowing to concentrate both available potentials and responsibility for the tasks.

— In many Russian universities, there are vice-rectors for Informatization.  However, you are probably the first Vice-Rector for Digital Environment...

— What is the difference between informatization and digitalization? Informatization is a toolkit in the form of soft- and hardware and information cable networks, facilitating staff work.  For example, accountants use software to maintain financial records, calculate salaries, and so on. However, this is just a tool. Previously, there were counting beads, now computer. Digitalization is a different level. After entering data, a digital system independently solves tasks, analyzes information, and provides a forecast.  It is not AI, but a kind of an intermediate link between the human and the artificial intelligence Computerization, informatization are an integral part of a more complex and broad concept of digitalization.

— Do we start with a scratch or we already have a basis in this field?

— TPU is one of the leading Russian universities in many aspects of digitalization. The university digital work flow system is one of the best in the country.

For example, to organize a business trip an employee should only enter parameters of the forthcoming trip (dates, destinations, mode of transport, and etc.) and the system independently prepares an estimate of expenses, necessary papers, and everything can be signed digitally.

Many universities are only trying to implement a paperless information system and at our university, it became a vital part of managerial process.

Currently, the development of curricula, distribution of teaching load, record of students’ academic progress, and e-service on recording scientific papers, and many others are provided in digital form.

The university academic staff actively uses e-courses, currently, there are 900 of them.  After one put educational content into these courses, they become elements of the 24/7 training ecosystem. They independently organize the educational process, prepare tasks for students, and evaluate their implementation.

The University has developed eleven MOOCs, two of them in English.  They are quite popular. For two years, 20,000 Russian and international students have taken these courses. A number of the courses was recognized by the expert community and won awards of national competitions and educational exhibitions.

Additionally, the number of other interactive forms of training is increasing: online-seminars, video-lectures, and AR and VR systems.  For example, we developed a Virtual Geological Training Ground. Our students can use it to get acquainted with the environment of the university really functioning geological training ground in Khakassia. Thus, when future geologists come there for practical training they no longer need time to adapt and study the terrain; they are ready to start working right away.

We are transferring our leading scientific laboratories into virtual reality.

Students will be able to conduct the same actions as they would do if they were in a real laboratory, such as get acquainted with the equipment and its operation principle.  For students, it will be like a video game, like “Tanks”, because we use the same graphics engine and the same control buttons.  However, at the same time, the game is training, allowing to get new skills.  It is crucially important since the equipment is usually expensive and constantly occupied. How can you learn to use it? This virtual complex allows you to practice all the details and nuances of an upcoming real experiment.

This year we have begun to transfer the university nuclear research reactor into a virtual format.  This is one of our immediate tasks.

— Are there quick wins in the field of digitalization you would like to achieve in the next year or two? Additionally, in your opinion, in what digital reality will TPU exist in the long term?

— The first direction is the digitalization of the university managerial activity.  We have to integrate the existing and developing information and software complexes so they form a single system. In addition, we are going to completely implement digital workflow, electronic system of orders, reports, and services.

Eliminate paper documents and non-digital electronic formats (for example, scanned documents are unsuitable for automatic computer processing).  To simplify interaction, at the next stage, there will be a digital integration with partner-organizations and enterprises, other Tomsk universities, research institutes, and authorities. Solving these issues we inevitably face need for the development of so-called digital trust, when inside and outside the university, its digital documents are recognized without confirmation by an original paper (with seals, signature, and so on).  It is not only about trust, but about the use of technologies for e-identification, bioidentification, digital signatures, and digital keys.

Digital analytics Currently, most of the time employees spend on making reports on all kinds of information requests from direction, colleagues, supervising instances, and others. These data are collected almost manually by phone, by e-mail and these reports do not interconnect with each other.  After that, they will be buried on paper or on hard disks.

We are going to alter ideology in the area of data operation at the university, allowing to enter data in information systems directly in digital formats, convenient for analysis, processing and further uploading in the form of reports, rather than in formats customary to the user.

In the future, all external reports should be prepared automatically.

The second direction is the digitalization of educational activities. Within the next two years, we expect to provide the School of Core Engineering Education with e-courses for all subjects.  Additionally, in the future, all university subjects should have a digital component, allowing students to work with instructor’s teaching material to independently study some topics to catch up with missed classes and topics.  All academic staff members should be able to independently develop and conduct e-courses. Currently, there are 50%. To activate this process, we are already implementing courses for 46 educational programs for the university teachers.

We should provide students with an opportunity to study individual disciplines in other national and international universities, recognizing these courses based on digital certificates.

We will continue the digital transfer of laboratories and unique scientific equipment into virtual reality to allow students to prepare for classes, exams, experiments, and so on.

The university Division for Digital Environment will closely collaborate with the School of Computer Science & Robotics in the development and implementation of educational programs, related to the digital economy.

Regarding digitalization of scientific activity, one of the next projects is dedicated to the creation of digital profiles of TPU scientific staff, containing information about their scientific interests, publications, achievements, participation in research projects, grants, and so on. These profiles will make it possible to assess the suitability of research topics of a particular researcher or their research group to the country priorities in the area of scientific and technological development and goals of NTI.  There are the NTI cornerstones - the markets of the future. Among them, there are AeroNet (distributed systems of drone aircraft), AutoNet (development of services, systems and modern vehicles based on intelligent platforms, networks, and infrastructure in the logistics of people and things), MariNet, NeuroNet, and so on. It is these markets, where one can create new technological industries, will have a particular interest to Russia.  Thus, there is a need for some revision of scientific potential of the university staff, perhaps even adjustment of a number of research areas and priorities.

In general, the digitalization of TPU is a large-scale, complex, and crucially important task.

We have to develop and approve a program for the implementation of the digital economy at TPU.  The university has a solid digital basis for this and we should expand it.