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With the new term in September on the horizon, higher education is still in a state of flux. After the initial lockdown, most educational institutions rushed to set up different ways of continuing courses through distance learning. As the crisis is worldwide and ongoing, most are now looking at more structured ways of coping.
“We often say that COVID 19 has done more for telecommunications in the last 10 weeks than the technology has done for it with their advancements in 10 years.” Dr Justin Collins is a British urologist that also works with University College London, where he sets up continuing professional development courses for medical professionals worldwide. For him, the crisis has accelerated a process that was already underway: remote learning, and more precisely virtual instructor-led training (VILT).
A term that has been in use for several years already, virtual instructor-led training refers to training that is delivered in a virtual environment when the instructor and learners are in separate locations. The better VILT environments emulatethe traditional classroom or learning experience, notably in terms of interaction. VILT can be conducted synchronously or asynchronously.
Re-defining value in higher education
An unforeseen side-effect of confinement and travel bans is that some universities, business schools and training bodies are struggling to re-define their specific value in this new environment. Following lawsuits in the US and UK it has become clear what students are complaining about in the current crisis: the variable quality of lessons taught online, no access to campus facilities, lack of contact with staff or networking possibilities and paying rent on accommodation they were not using. Given that the crisis has no clear end-point at this stage, some of these issues will be running for some time. At the very least, higher education will have to be crystal-clear about what sort of education they will be providing in the short term. Given how competitive higher education is worldwide, there is a fear that some establishments will see drops in enrollment.
A closer look at how we teach
At the same time, professionals such as Dr. Collins have been pointing to the benefits of the transition to distance learning and increasingly digital tools in education. In some cases, he believes its benefits far outstrip any downsides. “The two big advantages of digitalized training […] is that first you've got a standardized curriculum,” he explains. “That makes it easier to deliver things like sustained, deliberate practice. And maybe the biggest advantage is that you’re collecting data. If you run a typical [remote] classroom and five or six people turn up, you’re not really sure who is listening or what they have taken in. They often get signed off with a tick at the end and they are told they can progress to the next stage of their training. But if you do this in a more digital way, you get the data to assess them in real time and to say ,‘We know this person is quality assured and can move on to the next stage of their training’.”
Kathryn Skelton is chief transformation officer at FutureLearn, an online learning platform owned by the Open University. "Educators need to take a step back and ask not, 'How can I replicate what I do in the classroom', but 'How can I redesign this learning experience to take advantage of a whole wealth of technology that can deliver a full learning experience - not just the delivery of information?'"
One of Belgium’s foremost business coaches tried the weConnect virtual classroom. What did he think of it?
Beyond distance learning to deeper learning
At the outbreak of the crisis, remote learning was seen as a quick fix. Professor John Kelly, consultant urological surgeon specializing in robotic surgery for bladder and prostate cancer at the University College London looks further: “There was an assumption that if you want high-quality education, you need to travel. But we have come to realize that with innovative technology like weConnect, this is no longer true. The system even enables us to offer a much better environment in some respects. COVID-19 might have been the catalyst for this, but we were already moving in this direction”.
Nonetheless, Giuseppe Auricchio Executive Director, Learning Innovation &IESEOnline cautions against the idea that remote is the only way to go. From his perspective of corporate learning, he points out that different needs require different responses. “Re-skilling or upskilling is quite different to, say, leadership development,” he says. “So, I would say that [only] some parts of corporate education will never return to the classroom.”
Either way, a new wave of education seems to be on the horizon.
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