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.

Virtual classrooms: how do you make online learning social?

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. 

Find out more about the BSc programme at the world's first business school

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.

Photo: Professor Fabrizio Zerbini, ESCP Business School.

“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.

Interested in leading in a changing world? Find out more about ESCP's Bachelor in Management programme

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.

View videos showing students' experiences of ESCP's three-year BSc programme

“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.”

Anticipating change

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.

Photo: ESCP Business School

“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.

Want to find out more about studying at the world's first business school? Click here to download the brochure for ESCP Business School's Bachelor in Management .

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Explained: This is what studying in Germany will look like in autumn 2020

Germany remains a highly sought after study destination with lots to offer international students. With the autumn term set to begin, we spoke to students and experts to find out what it could be like to study here this year.

Explained: This is what studying in Germany will look like in autumn 2020
Archive photo shows students at workstations in the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center, the university library of Humboldt University Berlin. Photo: DPA

Moving abroad to go to university can be daunting at the best of times. So to do so in the middle of a pandemic might seem more than a little scary. But Germany’s roughly 350,000 international students still have lots to look forward to this year. 

“What students coming to Germany should know is universities still want to welcome new students and everyone in the sector is really committed to making sure teaching is high quality and that it’s safe,” says Gerrit Bruno Blöss, managing director of

READ ALSO: In Numbers: Who are Germany's international students?

In fact, Germany has seen an uptake in interest from students, Blöss says. This could be because of it’s late application deadline, or it’s international reputation for handling the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic well, he suggests. 

It could also be because of Brexit; UK universities may lose 84 percent of EU students to continental European universities, with Germany at the forefront of alternative study destinations, research from has shown.

But what will it be like to study in Germany this year? 

Mix of online and face-to-face teaching

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many universities around the world have been forced to close down class teaching and rapidly shift to distance learning, running online seminars and tutorials. 

For the Autumn 2020 term, universities across Germany and Europe are expected to use blended learning, which is a mix of online and face-to-face teaching methods. To be eligible for a student visa to come to Germany, international students must have at least some in-person teaching this year. 

Akos Kiraly, director of marketing and recruitment at Lancaster University Leipzig, says his university will offer a hybrid system where it will distribute classes on campus, as well as online through Zoom.

Alexander Pfisterer, lecturer at the University of Mannheim, recording a digital business lecture in April. Photo: DPA

“This year has been a challenge for all of us,” Kiraly says. “Generally speaking, we have adapted to the situation and are welcoming international students in the fall term. Most of the universities are prepared to teach completely online or in a hybrid model and can switch to online delivery if it’s necessary at short notice.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How (and where) to enroll in a Master's programme in Germany

Maxwell Shukuya, a student from the US who is doing a Mmaster’s in Cologne, says online learning can be tricky for international students.

“All of my classes were online last semester, and barring any unforeseen updates, the next semester will be online, too,” he says. “It wasn’t horrible, but it makes finding friends and practicing German difficult.”

However, Kiraly reassures new students that at many universities, those starting their courses online can receive additional support, such as extra tutoring and access to student support services.

No big parties – but still events

Everyday life for students in Germany and elsewhere will also be different to usual. Students shouldn’t be put off, though, Kiraly says. 

“With safety measures – such as wearing a mask and disinfectant – we can still arrange events and social gatherings,” he says.

“We know a big part of student life is meeting others. So even if it’s not the same, we are confident we’ll be able to provide events and gatherings. These won’t be big parties or gatherings any more, of course, but [gatherings in] a smaller circle.”

READ ALSO: 10 words that perfectly sum up student life in Germany

Many of the things that make Germany a popular study destination remain. The relatively affordable cost of tuition – usually around around €350 per semester – and living was a big factor in Shukuya’s decision to study in Cologne, he says. 

“I really appreciate that the education here is affordable. Not only do students receive an all-inclusive transportation ticket every semester, but they also have access to subsidized cafes, sports classes and gyms.”

Since June this year, foreign students within Germany can also apply for an interest-free loan of up to €650 per month to help facilitate their studies. 

Germany is an open minded study destination that offers unique opportunities, Kiraly says. “We offer one of the best educations worldwide, with an English taught offering.”

Student Constantin Pittruff watching a lecture from home in Sinzing, Bavaria in April. Photo: DPA

'Nightmarish bureaucracy'

Shukuya does have some frustrations with the German higher education system, though.

“Some professors can be fairly distant,” he says. “For example, office hours often seem rushed and straight-to-the-point.

“Straightforward things like signing up for classes and figuring out what exam you need to take for a certain module are way more complicated than they need to be, thanks to a pretty nightmarish bureaucracy. It often seems like no one, not even the instructors themselves, knows what to do.”

READ ALSO: EU students turn to Germany as a top study destination in light of Brexit

But overall, Shukuya is pleased to be able to study in Germany. “It’s a good idea to learn as much German as possible before getting here though,” he says. 

Blöss says he doesn’t want students to be put off from studying internationally because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Personally I would say if you can make it happen, still come and study abroad,” he says. “If you can do it later, then do it later, but don’t cancel your plans altogether. 

“This is a challenge that can be overcome,” he says. “That’s the message we want to communicate to everyone we encounter.”