How Universities Go Beyond Online Learning

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How are universities around the world responding to the Covid-19 pandemic?

by Zornitsa Licheva

Exchange Lab
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These times of the Covid-19 pandemic are challenging, but universities around the world are pushing through them by taking care of their communities and their study experience. Although online learning has been around for a while, now it is really coming in handy to help universities keep up with the challenge. Access Masters looks at some examples and lessons learned from around the world of international education.

Staying in a safe environment

Some universities are already witnessing the results of their hard work to take their teaching online over the last few months. As Italy ventured into national quarantine, Bocconi University managed to gain considerable experience with its distance learning and to test its digital teaching methods. As of 12 March 2020, the university based in Milan has delivered a total of 2 million teaching minutes, while almost 9,000 students have watched livestreamed or on-demand video lessons.

What do teachers say about this fully digital transition? Alessandra Cappelletti, Associate Professor at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou (China), shares for Times Higher Education:

“It was not easy to adjust to these conditions at the beginning. I missed the direct daily contact with students and colleagues, and I had to familiarise myself quickly with new channels to deliver classes and participate in the many vital meetings.” 

During this period of adjustment, graduate schools are analysing the constant feedback they receive on which teaching software works best and what could be improved in the overall learning experience. Take Loughborough University (UK) as an example – the school has a webpage with frequently asked questions for professors that need advice on how to deliver teaching remotely. Depending on their goals, teachers can use a variety of digital tools such as ReVIEW, Learn, Adobe Connect, and more.

By endorsing experimental learning practices, universities can take the study experience to a new level, even in times of crisis.

Staying flexible

With new technologies and cutting-edge inventions, life has been moving at an incredibly fast pace for the past decades. As they look for the most appropriate response to the closing down of their campuses, universities are finding themselves moving in a lane that is even faster.

To be able to respond swiftly and mindfully, most schools have formed teams that have the expertise to discuss the topic and look for solutions. Russel Furr is the associate vice provost for Environmental Health & Safety at Stanford University (US) and he is coordinating the institution’s response to the local situation around the coronavirus. His team had to quickly learn the value of flexible decision-making:

I think the bigger takeaway has been how much our perspectives can change in a short amount of time. We can’t make a decision one day and think that we won’t have to revisit it, because once we make a decision, the circumstances on campus can change.

Being quick on their feet is even more essential for universities that have campuses in different countries and, therefore, have to follow differing government procedures. This is the case for ESCP Europe and its six campus locations on the old continent.

Staying in touch

In dynamic times such as these, it is important to communicate openly and inform every affected person about the latest developments.

Most universities now have dedicated pages on their websites where you can find new and important information about Covid-19. Communication is one of the vital tools that can help students, graduates, and potential school applicants cope with the uncertainty of the situation. How does this happen in practice? Here is one example.

Frank Bournois, Dean of ESCP Europe, has provided email contacts where anyone from the school can ask for additional information. “Starting [16 March 2020], students and employees will be able to express their pressing questions and they will get the school’s answers within 24 hours,” he explained in an online announcement.

Ms Cappelletti also highlights the importance of keeping the communication timely as a team:

University teaching continues via videoconferencing, and we have regular online meetings with colleagues and other departments of the university. I have a lot of meetings because I am my department’s nominated liaison with the university personnel working on the management of the emergency.

Mental health support is another essential topic being addressed by education institutions at the moment. Students can contact their university counsellors if they feel overwhelmed or need someone to talk to as events unfold.

Staying productive

To paraphrase the famous English proverb “My home is my castle”, for many students today their home is their classroom. However, as students and university staff continue their education by working from home, some will need to learn how to make the most of their “home office” and “home classroom”. Although we have been living with technology for a while, many of us are not used to being confined to the online environment at university or work.

While it is true that today’s university students are digital natives, the drastic switch to online learning can still be challenging to get used to. This transition will inevitably take time. Fortunately, you can find excellent tips on the topic online and with the help of your university.

For example, IE University (Spain) has compiled a guide that every student should consider when studying from home. From productive study techniques to practical advice about video calls and meetings – the guide can be useful for working professionals too. Here is one recommendation for people who have to take care of group projects alongside their individual tasks:

If you have a group activity for your homework, schedule a weekly team meeting to manage priorities for the week […]. As a team member, you can also reach out individually to your teammates to see how they are managing. Everyone is in the same boat and will need to be looked after – you could simply ask them ‘how are you feeling about this new way of studying?’

Staying optimistic

Good communication initiated by schools and their willingness to adapt quickly is helping the academic community get through the current challenge. Their efforts will also enable us to return to our usual work and study environment as soon as possible – a process which has already started in those parts of the world where the pandemic is coming under control.

Having worked in conditions of lockdown for six weeks, Alessandra Cappelletti advises: “In this kind of situation, it is important to just keep going, with awareness, optimism and willingness to learn new things. Difficult experiences are the best teachers, and I constantly tell myself: ‘I am able to cope with all this, and everything will get back to normality soon.’

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