Volume 21 | issue nº 1 2020

Virtual Learning Is Here to Stay

By Raissa Batakji

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What lessons can we draw from the pandemic, and how will they shape the future of higher education?

Paradigm shifts in education have long been building up for this moment: a mandatory embrace of virtual learning, admittedly expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All evidence indicates that the shift is more of a transition than a crisis-driven short-term response, just as, for instance, women were compelled to join the workforce during World War II and never looked back. This mass experiment in online education has yielded a vast amount of lessons that need addressing.

One of them is that virtual learning is here to stay.

By definition, online learning is an evolved form of education that uses technology – in particular internet and computer applications – to advance skills and deliver knowledge. From a higher education lens, and according to LAU Provost George E. Nasr, a university’s role “is not restricted to knowledge dissemination but also the creation of knowledge and development of scholars. Inevitably, this forces universities to evolve.”

At LAU, faculty have powered through the shift not only by using available tools, but also by creating their own.

While most educators have identified that electricity and internet cuts in Lebanon posed a main challenge to sustaining online classes, many were quick to come up with solutions, and assess what works and what does not.

“We have to think of challenges as opportunities to rethink how to innovate in our education system,” notes Dean of the School of Engineering Lina Karam. For instance, online education can help educators connect their students with elite innovators and industry experts, who would otherwise not be able to join the in-person classrooms, she explains.

At institutions with international ties, such as LAU, remote learners can even make use of expensive or inaccessible physical resources available at partner institutions, adds Dr. Karam. More efforts are currently being invested in advancing immersive technologies, namely Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), which can be exploited for learning, and “can open up new doors in exploration and innovation.”

While prospects seem to be infinite, virtual learning still has its shortcomings. Feelings of isolation and learning from behind a screen are counterintuitive to the development of the whole person – a fixture of the university experience.

Through her work at the LAU Center for Innovative Learning, Associate Professor and Assistant Provost for Academic Affairs Rula Diab believes that students are the key to overcoming this hurdle.

“Today’s students are digital natives, who are extremely responsive to technology-enhanced learning,” she says, adding that the educators’ roles are to empower them to become responsible for their own learning, guide them to use their digital skills to work together and help them make the best of learning resources beyond the scope of a single course.

Proof of that is the approach adopted by Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Laval University and LAU alumna Nadia Naffi (BS ‘95). She designs her classes using the Hyber-Flexible (HyFlex) course design model, the problem-based learning approach and the connectivist learning theory, where her students get to alternate, at their convenience, between three modes of participation: in-person, online synchronous and online asynchronous.

“Professors must move away from teaching to facilitating learning,” recommends Dr. Naffi, adding that students should not only be encouraged to lead discussions, but also moderate them and decide on the topics.

Indeed, as Dr. Diab notes, building a sense of community in the online classroom can be instrumental in making students feel that they belong to a peer group or a cohort of students, motivating them to excel. “This gives students the agency to interact with and comment on their peers’ work.”

“Professors must move away from teaching to facilitating learning.”

Dr. Naffi, who is also a holder of the Chair in Educational Leadership in Innovative Pedagogical Practices in Digital Contexts – National Bank at Laval University, observes that when students become part of an ongoing community of active learners, they can all benefit from what each of the members brings to the table, professors included.

These experiences are not only limited to the classroom context. LAU takes pride in being a student-centered university and has made a conscious decision not to compromise on this distinctive benefit while migrating to online delivery.

From online counseling, career development webinars, virtual civic engagement and leadership simulation all the way to student recruitment and exchange programs, the vast majority of Student Development and Enrollment Management (SDEM) functions thrived online.

“The numbers of participants alone tell a fascinating story,” says Vice President for SDEM Elise Salem, affirming that no matter what happens moving forward, they plan to continue to complement their offerings with virtual and online services.

Current and prospective students are signing up by the hundreds for financial aid webinars, free tutoring sessions, and school or major-specific open days. Judging by the high engagement in the chat feature, both in terms of numbers and quality of the questions, Dr. Salem says that “it’s clear that some students are less inhibited in virtual formats and more willing to probe our programming and services further.”

While recognizing that nothing can fully replace the in-person campus experience, Dr. Salem asserts that digital modalities have been a positive addition. “We are all struck by the creativity this sudden pivot to online learning has generated amongst the youth but also amongst many of our own faculty and staff.” She cited one example where faculty and staff of the Arabic Language and Culture Program (SINARC) created videos of virtual excursions across cultural sites in Lebanon, so that international students would still experience the cultural immersion value of the program.

In fact, according to Provost Nasr, the agility with which university constituents embrace and advance new technology will decide its fate. “In the not-so-distant future many universities that do not respond to this change will not be able to differentiate themselves among the global competition, will suffer and may have to shut down.”

“The agility with which university constituents embrace and advance new technology will decide its fate.”

This grim outlook of traditional universities “vanishing” or being deemed irrelevant, has long been associated with their high cost, which inevitably fell under the spotlight as the dialogue progressed over the switch to online learning.

“The main cost of any university goes toward its human capital, which continues to be the same for high-quality online education,” explains Dr. Nasr, who identifies two possible means of bringing down the cost.

The first is a model that is similar to the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). However, this is not considered an effective educational method, in that MOOCs are attended by the thousands across the globe and therefore lack the interaction of smaller classes. Another potential for cost-cutting is in reducing physical space and some facilities, but this would have to be carefully planned for the long run.

Far from competing with one another, universities should create a climate that is conducive to forging partnerships.

Dr. Naffi describes how the pandemic pushed different communities within academia to actively collaborate and search for solutions collectively: “This worldwide shared experience is actually breaking walls and encouraging the sharing of knowledge.”

Drawing an example from how researchers from different disciplines worked together to fight the spread of COVID-19, she affirms that “interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary and multisectoral learning and research are our new reality in academia.”

Almost every feature of higher learning seems to have been lined up for review. In a world where change continues be the only constant, the success or failure of the new design will hinge on its ability to adapt and advance beyond the academic year.