Taras Danko, Professor of International Business at the National Technical University “Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute,” Ukraine
The Battle of Kharkiv 2022 is a significant part of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. As I teach international business at one of Kharkiv’s universities, I hope that my testimony on teaching experiences under the circumstances of war might be useful for anticipating the challenges for educators that are posed worldwide by the growing geopolitical turmoil nowadays.
Kharkiv before the February 24 invasion
On the eve of February 24, 2022, the Economist’s journalist addressed me with the question of the possibility of an all-out offensive of Russia towards Kharkiv in Ukraine. Honestly, I was somewhat skeptical about it. This did not make any sense. Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine. Its population is 1,5 million people. Nowadays, it is an essential hub of the IT industry, higher education, and technological development in Ukraine. As such, Kharkiv envisions its future as a European and global city. Our primary economic driver is human capital development. Nobody wished for Russia here. And, the city was prepared to fight for its future. So, in my opinion, there was no rational basis or justification for Russia to attack Kharkiv and to go with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The world turned upside down
Nevertheless, at 4 am on February 24, Kharkivites woke up with the sounds of heavy shelling heard from different directions. Very quickly, we understood that the Russian war against Ukraine has escalated to a dramatically new level.
In the morning, we discovered Russian regular troops approaching the city outskirts. Russian bombardments of Kharkiv continued. Yet the internet connection remained fairly stable. At the university level, the classes were interrupted until further notice, but the organizational communications proved to be resilient.
The first days of the intensive warfare as well as the reaction of the international community are well documented. There was some meager hope that together we could roll back Russian aggression. I am extremely grateful to all my international colleagues, who contacted me with their words of support and encouragement in those days. In particular, we are grateful to the AIB CEE board which members expressed unanimous condemnation of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and prompted the AIB statement on Ukraine (https://www.aib.world/news/aib-statement-on-ukraine/). In parallel, many Ukrainian scholars and academic institutions, including National Technical University “Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute” and Ukrainian Association for Management Development and Business Education, tried to reach out to their Russian and Belarus peers urging them to demand their governments to stop the invasion. But very quickly we realized that our calls are in vain as Russia proved to become a failed state corrupted by Putin’s regime, where any voice of wisdom, doubt, or opposition is ruthlessly and criminally punished.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Kharkivites, including students and professors fled their homes moving westward. Many of them have found shelter in European Union countries. Each of us has a story to tell of his or her personal tragedy that happened these days.
Study resumes: Focus on resilience
In the second half of March, Ukrainian universities started to resume classes. As for the National Technical University “Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute,” where I work, we had two weeks to reach students and figure out the most suitable options to facilitate learning. The university’s administration created two online questionnaires – one for students and one for faculty – asking about their location, access to the Internet, and equipment. Essentially, students and faculty were in the same situation. Some moved abroad, others resided in almost every corner of Ukraine including contested or even temporarily occupied territories with limited access to the Internet.
The big obvious issue was deep trauma and hard emotions. Some students expressed their frustration with professors who seemed to them weirdly fixed upon keeping teaching as if nothing happened. It took some time and effort to help everybody to comprehend our new circumstances and to come up with shared awareness of how we can jointly manage the damage, minimize losses and focus on solutions that will benefit students. The preferred mode of study turned out to be blended learning. Some students could join online classes synchronously when professors were available. Other students asked professors to distribute study materials and assignments for self-learning that would be sufficient to get the grade with minimum contact hours. The common problems for those who remained in Ukraine were frequent blackouts, unforeseen battlefield developments that could affect their places of residence, constant shelling, and missile strikes. We had to rethink our courses in order to deliver them in the most possible lean way with a clear focus on the major takeaways and competencies that students had to achieve. All this was possible only based on trust, compassion, openness, flexibility, and mutual support. Perhaps, some of the extra curriculum competencies that all our students gained were resilience capabilities, which are of top value for the dynamic global world they are bound to live in and cope with.
New initiatives and projects
There are many pearls of wisdom about coping with crises. One of them says, “The old man lost his horse.” For me, it is about the paradox of continuity in change. Many philosophers have dealt with the fact that for us – humans – the perceived rationality is about linear continuous development. The “normal” world is the one, which incrementally improves inch by inch every day. Discontinuous change seems irrational to us. This poses deep questions for educators. Should the universities strive to remain the Ivory Towers where the continuous flow of knowledge is assured in order to prepare students for some scholarly pre-defined version of the future? Or should learning be about developing capabilities of adapting to discontinuous changes? What quality education is about nowadays?
In terms of our international business program, I might say, that the war has led us to “lose the horse” of teacher-centered education. We became less focused on content and the teaching process but gained student-centered thinking. In this respect, we have discovered that we have many great friends in the world who were eager to help us to create new learning opportunities for our students. These initiatives and projects include, for instance, student mobility grants to Vienna University of Economics and Business and Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, DAAD-funded projects with Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences and Technical University Dresden, partnership with Global Leadership Mindset Development Program, COIL project with CEU San Pablo University, online webinars of international guest lecturers and practitioners, and projects on economics of sustainable and renewable energy in partnerships with US universities, as well as Slovak and Norwegian scholars.
Glimpse into the future. Implications for Teaching and Learning in Times of Crisis
At this moment when I write my reflections, the war is far from been over. It is hard to predict what new challenges and sufferings for Ukraine and the world will it bring. Will it undermine the liberal world order that is a cornerstone of modern international business practice and theory? Or, will the liberal view evolve into a new paradigm that will serve humanity to solve sustainable development issues and bring Global South and Global North in harmony? What will we learn about our resilience? What will be the role of higher education and universities in the increasingly dynamic world? Do we have appropriate answers for our students? Should we have? Should students trust us? Kharkiv is a frontline region today. We have learned how to cope with the Russian invasion. It is the right place to think about the frontline research and education problems now. Welcome to the club!
Taras Danko is a Professor of International Business at the National Technical University “Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute,” Ukraine. His research interests primarily focus on the fourth industrial revolution implications for international business, and international business management in the era of technology-driven disruptions. He is an elected chair of the board at the Ukrainian Association for Management Development and Business Education, 2021-2024. Also, he is a visiting professor at the Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, Germany. email@example.com