Virtual classrooms: how do you make online learning social?
Personal interactions with your fellow students and teachers are a crucial part of higher education. The ongoing restrictions on life around Europe therefore pose huge challenges to educational institutions.
ESCP Business School, the world's first business school, has been quick to adapt and ensure continuity of education for its students. More than 2,650 courses are being delivered online and the London Faculty alone had delivered more than 500 classes online before the end of April, as well as running an online open day.
After switching to online learning, professors are using innovative technologies to make their virtual classrooms engaging and challenging.
Exams have also gone ahead online. Now ESCP is planning for a new wave of students to start its Bachelor in Management (BSc) programme come September, whatever the practical challenges.
Smart solutions for students
All ESCP students have been able to attend courses and sit exams online since March 16th. But the transition started much sooner, first in Italy. Teachers at the Turin campus switched the BSc programme online without losing even one session.
Professor Fabrizio Zerbini, Associate Dean of the three-year Bachelor in Management, said: “We’re extremely happy about what has been achieved. Our experience in Italy helped when we had to provide smart and safe solutions also to our students in Paris, Berlin, Madrid and London.
“We also have a very dynamic faculty that is already digitally integrated. Most of our professors had expertise and experience of online teaching before and were able to expand those programmes.”
Frank Bournois, Dean of ESCP, has personally kept up direct contact with students through regular video updates with important news posted on the school's website. These provide students with reassurance that their welfare and education are always the school’s core concerns and key information about the transition to online learning.
Leading in a changing world
The Bachelor programme uses the slogan "leading in a changing world" and emphasises the skills students need to have a positive impact on tomorrow’s societies. ESCP already views education as a social process that goes far beyond knowledge transfer.
Professor Francesco Venuti, of ESCP Turin, co-authored a recent article for Harvard Business Publishing explaining how online learning can still be social. It highlights different ways to keep learning interactive and allow students to socialise their emotions about the current crisis.
The article suggests steps such as shorter sessions to aid concentration, small discussion sub-groups and clear rules, including when and how students can speak or ask questions.
Students could use a handraising function in an online platform or post questions in the chat section. Inviting students to post emoticons and respond to quick interactive polls can further boost engagement.
ESCP's BSc students have also been using Instagram Stories to share their thoughts. Sebastian Ponce de Leon, from Mexico, has posted tips for staying positive and focused while studying online.
These include working out instead of sitting down all day “to get the blood flowing”. He also recommends changing your online learning set up from time to time to keep things fresh.
A sustainable society
The near future may be uncertain. But ESCP already focuses on the major shifts of our time: digital revolution; climate change and ethics in action; expectations that business leaders will focus on multiple stakeholders to serve a better, fairer, sustainable society. The emphasis is on giving students the skillsets to make responsible choices.
Professors are given recommended technological solutions; a tool called Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is generally used for classes. But teachers can also suggest alternatives if they want to experiment.
Some content is recorded and made available for a given time window, so students do not miss out due to any internet connection issues. But the goal remains for students to interact with their professors and each other whenever possible in line with ESCP’s core values.
“It’s a changing environment but it doesn’t change our philosophy: monitoring with a lot of degrees of freedom for professors to find the best solutions,” says Professor Zerbini. “We want you to be part of a social conversation about how management develops over time. That’s our distinctive value and we want to keep it even in a digital environment.”
September may seem distant in the current situation. But ESCP's courses will begin as normal, regardless of whether students join in person, online or through a mixture of the two.
Applications are considered on a rolling basis through until July or August, depending on the campus. ESCP says the BSc programme has seen a 70 per cent rise in candidates applying. Students can be reassured that they can do their English language assessment online.
“The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek language; a crisis is a cut,” says Professor Zerbini. “It means you cut with the past, look to the future and change the way you approach things.
“We try to foster a new mentality to take this as an opportunity to innovate and adapt or even to anticipate change. Our students are talented, they have the right spirit and energies and we empower their talent.
“We’re already leveraging our students to help companies adapt to the crisis with internships and other modalities. I’m very confident they can make a big difference.”
The world’s oldest business school turned 200 last year. And it is focusing firmly on the future – whatever it may hold.
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