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 and I had to do my macroeconomics homework — and then the next day that all just disappeared,” Myslytska, 18, recalled. “You were figuring out what was more valuable to put in your rucksack to take with you.”

The war upended her life. Her school canceled classes, and Myslytska and her family fled to Romania before resettling in Eastern Spain.

Since escaping Ukraine, she’s been reassembling her life with remarkably little disruption to her education. She took her economics and general studies courses completely online, including a class called “Greek and Roman Mythology” taught by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and produced by an American company, Coursera.

“They made the schedule more flexible during spring,” Myslytska said. “I was quite satisfied. I like the visuals and the way they gave us the material. You can take subjects which are not linked to your field of studies.”

While the United States is ramping up its military presence across Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, American-based online learning platforms are increasing their educational presence there, too.

Ukrainian professors and students say they’re using these online tools to continue their teaching and learning and, perhaps, to secure democracy and fight authoritarianism.

Some American-based education institutions like Coursera and edX are stepping in.

“When the unfortunate war started in the 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 MIT and Harvard. The platform offers existing courses taught by professors at more than 160 colleges and universities.

Since the start of the war, more than 1,500 Ukrainian educational institutions have been 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 have burned books, libraries and archives. They've shelled theaters and schools, including the main campus of Kharkiv University.

Rubble and dust cover a small library room. The door has been blown to pieces, and a tree outdoors is visible through the opening.
Destroyed library in the school where a graduation ceremony, called the Last School Bell, was supposed to take place in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, June 2, 2022.
Andrii Marienko AP

“Russia really seeks to eliminate Ukraine from the map and replace it with some kind of proxy state,” said Alexandra Hrycak, who teaches sociology at Reed College in Portland, where she’s researching how women in Ukraine are working to prevent violence there.

Hrycak, a Ukrainian immigrant, says the Kremlin is trying to turn back the clock to a Soviet-era filled with misinformation, indoctrination and silencing. That’s why, she says, Ukrainian academics seeking freedom are moving online, recording 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 kind of learning materials and replace them with a Russian curriculum that completely erases Ukrainian history,” she said.

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.

“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.

“Higher education is a bulwark against the threat of authoritarianism,” said Georgetown University president John DeGioia.

In 2012, Georgetown was one of the first universities to make some of its courses available via 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 at the Capitol and threatened American democracy — Georgetown’s Center on Education and the 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 coursework. Essential parts include the formation of young people’s intellect, the research of faculty 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,” said DeGioia, adding authoritarian tendencies — preferring strongman leaders and uniformity — are at odds with the mission of a university that supports autonomy and diversity.

“We are committed to the widest exchange of expression, of ideas and opinion,” he said. “We try to ensure that we allow for that untrammeled quest for knowing and for learning and to be open in that way puts us right in the target of those forces that contribute to authoritarianism.”

Anant Agarwal speaks at the TEDx conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in June 2013.James Duncan Davidson via Creative Commons
James Duncan Davidson/James Duncan Davidson

Today, 80 percent 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 Freedom House.

Still, Georgetown’s Jack DeGioia is hopeful democracy will prevail at home and in Ukraine.

“The current numbers are moving in the wrong direction and we need to be attentive to that,” he said. “I’m optimistic because at the root of our ethos of the American university is the commitment to freedom — freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom to exchange ideas.”

And that exchange of ideas, DeGioia said, should now include exporting the American courses to young people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access them through online education.

“The [online] platforms enable us to share some of the rich content that is developed on our campuses by such exceptional faculty across our nation,” he said.

In Ukraine, the stakes for continuing open education are high. Stuck in Spain, Ukrainian student Anna Myslytska said while she enjoys taking her Ukrainian and American-based courses online she's eager to get back to Kyiv, to resume in-person classes and to earn her degree.

"I want to go home so much," she said.

By getting a broad-based education, she says she’s supporting a future democracy in Ukraine.

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

After Myslytska earns her bachelor’s degree, she says she wants to stay in Kyiv and help her country rebuild.