The Strategist

The challenges Covid-19 is posing to learning, teaching, and working in society

11/04/2020 - 14:57

At enlightED Virtual Edition 2020, leaders of higher education institutions discussed taking “a crash course into the future”

EnlightED Virtual Edition 2020 brought together 90 renowned thinkers over a five-day online event to discuss the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on digital trends in higher education and the workplace. The third edition of the world conference, which was organized by IE University, Fundación Telefónica, Fundación Santillana and South Summit, hosted from Madrid between the 19th and 23rd of October and focused on the intersections between education, technology, and innovation.
The conference brought together 30.000 participants from more than 20 countries and featured discussions from some big names, including Harvard University professor of psychology, Steven Pinker; essayist, researcher and mathematician, Nassim Nicholas Taleb; Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy; Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of Coursera; Mariya Gabriele, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, among many others.
Some key takeaways were delivered during the “Beyond COVID-19: Europe and Higher Education” panel. Four heads of leading European universities came together to discuss their experiences overcoming the challenges imposed on course delivery due to the crisis. Speaking with presenter Cristina Manzano, they covered a lot of ground, revealing insights into the digital transformation of higher education, and calling for a European model of digital hybrid education founded in European enlightenment values.

The consequences of Covid-19 on learning and teaching

Many universities were forced to overhaul their degree programs to online formats amid the sweeping lockdowns that gripped Europe. Due to the unprecedented challenges imposed on faculty and professors, by the need to adapt curricula and course delivery methods for an online paradigm, a fundamental rethink of teaching was necessary. Each of the event panelists agreed that digital technology has incredible potential to enhance the learning process, but they also made interesting observations about the need to have in-presence interactions to cement learning experiences.
Santiago Iñiguez, the president of IE University, an international institution based in Spain with students from 140 countries, explained that IE University benefitted from existing deep expertise in hybrid teaching. 
“We have been working for the past 20 years in hybrid formats […] and thus we were able to jump into hybrid formats during the confinement on the spot,” he said. IE University launched its first hybrid Masters 20 years ago and is recognized among the top institutions worldwide in online education.
It can be very challenging running digital teaching environments. This is because virtual spaces demand that professors manage the delivery platform and the digital blackboard while keeping an eye on students, the president of IE University explained. For hybrid — digital and in-person — models, this means monitoring students onsite and those in online attendance simultaneously. “Already teaching is stressful, and if you add all those elements, it can be actually a very demanding task,” he said.
According to Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, rector of Vienna University of Economics and Business, simply switching original teaching concepts into the virtual world does not work. Her professors had to learn and develop new approaches on the job.
“It’s not just about technological competences […] they really had to redesign their concepts,” she explained.
Faculty also needed coaching, workshops, and community learning in order to meet the practical and conceptual challenges posed by online teaching methods — and in order to fully capitalize on the opportunities. Hanappi-Egger noted that it was much easier to switch to online formats in cohorts of students who already knew one another. This was because for first year students there is a greater need to form friendships and build informal learning groups before they are comfortable interacting through digital technologies.
Faculty need to be trained for digital teaching technology, so that they can make the best possible learning experience for participants. Iñiguez highlighted that, in his opinion, digital tools themselves, while bringing education forward and being very powerful resources, cannot entirely replace face-to-face teaching. He referred to studies on undergraduates and postgraduates, which reveal that they miss being on campus and interacting. He believed that this is only natural.
“Education is an embodied activity. When we are small children, we start learning not just by listening and seeing things, but even by touching: so the use of the senses is vital for the learning process,” he said. These kinds of consideration have been going into IE University´s Liquid Learning  model for the last few months, a program charting new ground in digital hybrid pedagogy. “Our new education model allows students to attend class in person or online with equal immersive experience and academic excellence. This methodology provides flexibility for students and reinforce active and personalized learning that focuses on solving real world problems”, Iñiguez de Onzoño added.

A hybrid model is the answer

The other panellists were in agreement, maintaining that the future of higher education is a hybrid model, and not the all-online offer at times deployed during the Covid-19 crisis.
“Because of the pandemic, each of us were forced to attend a crash course into the future,” explained Andrea Prencipe, rector of Luiss University in Rome. 
Of his faculty members, some were already familiar with digital learning, but now the entire faculty has had the experience and can use digital technologies effectively. Luiss University has now embraced a hybrid model that offers more spaces and on campus presence for students in their first year, and then overall for the other students, a 50-50 online and in-presence model. The in-presence interaction is needed to make sure that learning takes place, Prencipe explained.
“We shouldn’t forget that learning is a social process and, in fact, […] a socialising process,” the rector added. “It can be augmented by digital technologies […] [but] it cannot be substituted by them.”
At Maastricht University in The Netherlands, major lectures have moved online, along with all larger classes; but smaller groups, those with real social interactions, these are organised on campus, explained the university’s president, Martin Paul.
“In my view, this is the model,” he argued. “I don’t think a full-time digital virtual environment for the whole degree programme is going to be viable to replace what we have done in the past.”
 “If there is a lockdown, you have to go this way,” he said. “[But] if we can avoid that, I think the future is blended classroom-based hybrid education.”

A uniquely European model for future higher education

Together, the panelists evoked a picture of a future that is opening up before Europe, partly as a consequence of the pandemic, partly as a consequence of its particular tradition and character. When asked about the possibility of increased competition, even market concentration, caused by digital technologies entering higher education, the panelists had a positive message. "The response from European universities has been in face of this crisis much more proactive and quick than the reaction of American universities" said Iñiguez.
“There is one big strength of Europe […] a kind of innovative capacity due to the diversity that we have,” suggested Vienna University’s Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger.
While she acknowledged that European universities are in a global commercial competition, she saw a clear chance of a specific European model of higher education, which would create “a value-driven society of solidarity based on education.”
Maastricht University’s Martin Paul sounded a similarly optimistic tone.
“The modern university is a European invention, and so I think we should build the future on our tradition,” he said. “Our strengths and our future must be that we are non-elitist.”

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