The acceleration of digitalisation within education as a result of COVID-19

Federico Frattini on the impact of COVID-19 on society and changes within education

There is no doubt that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will be profound and will have a significant impact on multiple sectors of society, in the Global North and beyond. In particular, the education sector, from schools to universities has been deeply impacted, and we have certainly seen the emergence of new models and teaching approaches that are different to those we are used to. At the international level, all universities and business schools have been forced to transform some or all of their face-to-face courses into online programs, to allow students in lockdown to work from home, whilst also continuing their studies.

These shifts have occurred at different speeds and in different ways. In some cases, universities and business schools have demonstrated remarkable responsiveness and an ability to rapidly implement valid, well-structured approaches to digital training. In other cases, the response has been slower and the approaches used for online training rather rudimentary. The differences in speed and maturity are largely due to each individual school’s previous experience with online training. The institutions that had experimented and applied tools for online training in the years prior to the pandemic found themselves ready for this sudden transition.

The institutions that were best prepared for this transformation had already demonstrated that they understand that online teaching requires pedagogical models and approaches that are completely different from traditional methods.

The problem at the heart of good digital learning is not technological. The core digital tools for online learning platforms are widely accessible at low cost (indeed, most of the major technology players at a global level are offering free licenses for the use of their tools during this period, just to help organisations overcome this emergency). It is not even an internet connection problem, although one often hears this comment. Most of the online platforms available today also work perfectly through mobile devices, equipped with 4G connection. The critical aspect is rather one of organisation. Designing an effective and quality online program requires experience and knowledge in areas such as instructional design and the moderation of online sessions, in addition to the will and ability to train teaching staff to use these tools.

Another challenge in this transformation is recognising that online teaching is not limited simply to using a digital platform to replicate what would have been taught in the classroom. In fact, learning in a digital context requires a profound restructuring of the teaching approach, and the use of different digital tools to meet different educational objectives. In a traditional, face-to-face lesson, teachers generally mix three different approaches and training tools. First, teachers must be able to transfer concepts, tools and notions (i.e. knowledge) to the students.

Secondly, in face-to-face teaching the teacher encourages students to apply this knowledge to discussing and solving exercises and practical cases, thus activating the transformation of this knowledge into skills. Finally, these skills are tested by the students through practical discussions. Obviously, these three components have a different weight and importance depending on the educational context. In postgraduate training programs, for example,the application of knowledge and its transformation into skills, in addition to students’ socialisation, has a radical importance.

In the digital context, these three components cannot be mixed using a single digital tool. They must be decomposed and managed using different and properly designed methods. Knowledge is transferred more efficiently and effectively using digital content such as video clips recorded by teachers. Lessons should be carried out through live, synchronous sessions, supported by tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco WebEx, Zoom, or similar platforms. Finally, the combination of the skills acquired can be supported through semi-synchronous tools such as social discussion tools, suitably moderated by the teacher or tutor. It is only by carefully designing and planning these three different components of an effective educational experience that institutions can transfer their training into an online format.

At MIP Politecnico di Milano, we call this approach to online learning Smart Learning, and we have been using this in our Masters and MBA programs since 2014. This is an area where we have achieved great results, with over 550 students studying via our digital programs since 2014, while our International Flex EMBA was selected as one of the top 10 programmes in the world according to the recent rankings in the Financial Times. Indeed, at MIP, even prior to COVID-19, we recognised that there had already been a growing demand from students for greater digitalisation, flexibility, and accessibility in learning, and this has only been highlighted further in recent months.

The pandemic has also emphasised the value of digital tools for inclusiveness. Several times in recent years I have encountered students who, whether for health or work reasons, have had to ‘pause’ their participation in a traditional, face-to-face training course. The pandemic that we are currently experiencing has only served to bring attention to these needs on a very large and global scale and has shown how digital training can have a great value in ensuring the continuity of the training path for those in difficult situations.

Ultimately, the pandemic will accelerate the process that has already led universities and business schools to develop effective tools for lifelong learning. Today it is unthinkable that training would stop at the end of a master’s degree or other professional training.

However, in the ‘new normal’ I nonetheless do not expect any widespread or extensive shift from face-to-face training to online training. This is because face-to-face training has great benefits, not least that it allows you to develop richer interpersonal relationships. Yet traditional face-to-face paths will certainly be increasingly amplified and integrated with digital tools. For example, we will see blended training models with a mix of digital and online experience. Furthermore, the number of face-to-face programs will probably increase, which will enable students to follow the same lessons also in streaming mode, from a distance.

This will certainly be necessary in the so-called phase three of the pandemic, where it will be possible to return to the classroom, but with strict social distancing rules. This will require us to reduce the number of students present in the classroom at any one time, thus meaning that those who are not physically present will still need to be able participate in the lesson remotely.

Therefore, I believe that universities and business schools should direct their efforts and investments towards reconfiguring their physical spaces, integrating digital tools so as to make it possible for simultaneous face-to-face lessons and distance learning to happen seamlessly. An increasing number of educational institutions will find themselves with a ‘physical’ and an ‘on cloud’ campus. In addition, these investments will be essential in ensuring more flexibility in how spaces are used to encourage group and interactive teaching, as these become a fundamental component of blended educational models, based on the principle of the ‘flipped classroom’.

Ultimately, the pandemic will accelerate the process that has already led universities and business schools to develop effective tools for lifelong learning. Today it is unthinkable that training would stop at the end of a master’s degree or other professional training. Education must necessarily continue and permeate the working life of students. Only by using digital tools, highly flexible and scalable, will universities and business schools be able to offer efficient and effective lifelong learning services.

At MIP we are experimenting with a new approach to continuous learning through FLEXA, an innovative digital platform for personalised training. Created with Microsoft and based on artificial intelligence, the platform tests the skills of our alumni and based on their personal career ambitions, it recommends digital content to fill the main skill gaps.

Of course, the ‘new normal’ within the education sector will be profoundly different from what we know today, and there is no doubt that the digital world will play a decisive role in this transformation. Certainly, this evolution will require universities and business schools to undertake profound reflection as well as an acceleration of investments and experiences in applying digital tools across their programmes.

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