Since Covid-19 became a pandemic, we have witnessed the replacement of physical face-to-face learning with online learning in what has become the largest technological experiment in human history. But when the crisis passes, what will remain of the online learning experience?
Some say that the answer might be: Nothing. Why? Because, in the minds of policymakers for national education, the physical institution symbolises a history of teaching and research that cannot be challenged. At least, in degree programs. There seems to be no room for any other mainstream higher education paradigm. Some university colleagues have pointed out the woeful lack of preparedness in the forced digital transformation of higher education. They say: “Students aren’t having a real university experience. We shouldn’t pretend that they are”.
Good online teaching requires training, preparation, and support. This has been well-known for a long time. In reality, there was never any incentive for the digital disruption of higher education, particularly because the cost or time savings were not apparent. The lockdowns forced that. But the speed in which online learning had to be adopted did not allow time to prepare students and instructors to perform their roles online effectively. Online learning has significant challenges not only for instructors but also for the non-digital-native students. Teachers who are very good at capturing the attention and engagement of students in the physical classroom will not suddenly transform into similarly great online instructors.
Should educational institutions, then, give up and revert to the traditional ways when this “bad dream” goes away?
Not really. Online has already demonstrated its value and acceptability among young urban professionals, although not the official acceptance by the national regulatory agencies to confer academic qualifications recognized for the purpose of employment and respected positions in society. Will a university, for example, hire a professor who obtained his degree online?
On the other hand, online delivery is the only option in some cases, such as working professionals who cannot afford to leave work to attend classes, stay-at-home parents, students living in rural communities or with other life commitments. In fact, the segment of Executive Education has been the most affected by the pandemic but, at the same time, has also seen the most innovation. With corporate clients unwilling or unable to travel because of COVID, schools had to rethink how to meet their individual and organizational development goals. Many have created innovative approaches to educational delivery using digital tools and methods.
According to the 2020 Survey of UNICON (a global consortium of executive education providers), the percentage of schools that had employed synchronous learning platforms for executive education in 2020 was 98 %. They implemented live online learning, with digital breakouts rooms, chats, and collaboration tools, all of which has had a positive outcome on learner engagement. In the years before the pandemic, the preferred method of delivery was face-to-face, either on campus or at the client site. Thus, the pandemic has caused the industry to innovate at a rapid pace. Schools have adapted by enhancing technical infrastructure, focusing on online participant experience, and encouraging faculty to collaborate with instructional designers on a regular basis. These human-centered approaches have been effective in delivering high-quality learning experiences, according to the survey.
But online learning is neither “cheaper nor easier”. It requires more work for the instructor to deliver the same learning outcomes as a traditional face-to-face course. Online delivery will cost more than face-to-face delivery: either there will be more costs to deliver the same level of quality, or there will be consequences (and costs) from delivering a poor-quality experience or, worse yet, from not achieving the learning outcomes.
With all of these issues, it is understandable that many institutions are quietly thinking about putting all this online hassle (inconvenience) behind. Of course, in public, some school directors make statements such as “COVID-19 has accelerated change towards online. This trend will continue post-COVID-19 and we need to think about how to respond to this opportunity…” This sounds hollow.
Where is their digital transformation roadmap post-Covid? Most institutions don’t have one.
In Portugal, Porto Business School is an institution that does have such a roadmap. In an interview to Forbes magazine, Rosário Moreira, Programme Director of The Digital MBA, explained how innovation and digital are, from the very beginning, part of the School’s mindset.
In a time where technological growth and digital innovation are on the spotlight, The Digital MBA, an MBA programme organised in the middle of the pandemic, offers a unique solution for those who want to lead companies focused on the future.
During these unprecedented times, educational institutions should not yearn to return to business-as-usual, but to revisit their notions of education and learning. They should take this as an opportunity for transformation. Now is the time for experimentation and validation. The validity of online and hybrid learning needs to be established for all stakeholders to see. It will invigorate higher education for the next generations of students, with their increasing digital lifestyles.
Technology providers as well as many other organisations are ready for a future that does not return to “best practices” from the past. It would be a shame if universities did not seize the opportunity by reimagining future-proof educational programs and learning methods.
Article originally published in Jornal de Negócios in 25.05.2021