Redefining Connectivity in Higher Education

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Tuesday, October 5, 2021
By Esteve Almirall
Photo by iStock/ipopba
The pandemic has inspired us to create a world where we are more connected, whether we interact with each other in person or online.

For years, connectivity has been the defining paradigm of modern societies. In the 1990s, connectivity powered the outsourcing movement and the e-commerce revolution. In the 21st century, connectivity has driven the proliferation of artificial intelligence and cloud technologies that are making data centers obsolete.

However, in our human drive to connect, we cannot find a transformational earthquake as profound and sudden as COVID-19, which revealed the weaknesses in our seemingly connected world. Before March 2020, the average citizen defined connectivity mostly in terms of surfing the internet, buying products online, streaming movies and music, and interacting with friends and family on social networks. The majority likely viewed the internet as only a peripheral tool for work or education.

Once COVID-19 struck, online education suddenly went from being a convenient part-time option to the new normal. We saw a similar transformation in the workplace as many employees were forced to work from home over Zoom. Companies that for decades relied on “presence” and “eye contact” to manage their teams soon discovered that employees did not have to be in the office to be productive.

Our adaptation to this new normal happened more quickly than anyone had ever expected, revealing new levels of connectivity that we had not thought possible before. As one consequence of this widespread shift, business schools will need to redefine the way they view connectivity in their classrooms, in both how and what they teach.

Three Phases of Transformation

Like the rest of the world, Esade Business School in Barcelona, Spain, went through a three-phrase journey: experimentation with new technologies, interaction with others to learn the best options, and formalization of the most effective innovation:

Experimenting with new methods and technology. So many professors have had to quickly unlearn what they knew and relearn new skills. They have had to overcome their fears of new technology (Which camera or microphone should I use? How sophisticated does my lighting need to be?) and expand their interpersonal skills (How do I engage students online?).

As they shared ideas, many professors went from using basic tabletop lights, webcams, and mics to using sophisticated studio lights and professional DSLR cameras. Some even progressed to using virtual cameras such as eCamm or mmhmm, as well as experimenting with green screens and relevant background scenes in their course delivery.

Developing new ways of online interaction. As faculty mastered new tools, the technologies for online education soon became just a small part of their work. Because our classes at Esade are based mostly on interaction and case-based discussion, we next addressed the challenge of replicating these forms of connectivity in virtual settings.

While we could not provide the same educational experience online as we could in the physical classroom, technology opened up other possibilities unavailable to us in face-to-face classrooms.

While we understood that we could not provide the same educational experience online as we could in the physical classroom, we discovered that technology opened up other possibilities unavailable to us in face-to-face classrooms. First, polls and chats offered simultaneous interaction that engaged even the most introverted students. Second, these functions offered opportunities to present immediate and aggregated feedback to class questions quickly and easily. Finally, the use of chat allowed faculty to draw attention to students’ most interesting contributions in real time, which helped the class delve more deeply into the subject matter.

Faculty also asked students to conduct small-group discussions in breakout rooms where they could share their screens and develop ideas on a virtual board; students later integrated these ideas into the broader classroom discussion. As some professors grew more sophisticated in their online teaching, they used tools such as Mentimeter, an interactive presentation and polling platform, and Miro, an online whiteboard where multiple users could interact to construct a common narrative. These technologies provided students a broader understanding of how the ideas they discussed in class were interrelated.

Formalizing the implementation of innovation. To help ingrain teaching innovations into our curriculum, the Esade Center for Educational Innovation set up a series of online webinars where both professors and external experts could discuss new ways of teaching.

In the center’s earliest seminars, for example, faculty gave presentations on the technical aspects of online instruction, such as how they set up their lighting, used virtual cameras, incorporated green screens, and shared and edited video. Later seminars moved on to more nuanced aspects of online education, such as how to inspire class interaction through polling, chat functions, and virtual boards and how to increase student engagement. As the webinars grew more sophisticated, so did our faculty’s adoption of innovations in their online teaching.

At Esade, the process of experimentation-interaction-innovation among our faculty also sharply increased when two professors set up a WhatsApp group called “Tips & Tricks for Teaching.” Jan Hohberger, associate dean of the Esade full-time MBA, and Luis Vives, deputy dean for programs in the MBA unit, created the group because they knew that faculty needed an online space where they could share experiences, techniques, and ideas. Within this forum, faculty could make their achievements visible, foster competition, and spark the co-evolution of our school’s teaching standards.

Creating the WhatsApp group may seem like a very simple step, but it turned out to be a pivotal moment that redefined teaching at Esade. The group didn’t just support the bottom-up process of unlearning, relearning, and reskilling. It also underscored the urgent need to embrace change and face the new reality of online teaching. It helped us create a culture where staying connected is no longer an isolated activity, but an ongoing collective process of co-creation and continuous improvement.

Advantages of Asynchronous Education

Over the past year, we have learned another unexpected lesson during the pandemic: Sometimes greater connectivity requires less real-time engagement. By this I mean that, as faculty gained new skills in designing and delivering online classes, they discovered how well some subjects can be taught in purely asynchronous formats.

We are sure to discover new platforms, engage in new forms of interactions, and construct new social meanings around learning.

As we take advantage of new connectivity opportunities, we should rethink the format and delivery of each of our courses. Some might be best delivered fully asynchronously, with the support of online chats. Other courses might be best delivered in a flipped format, with lectures pre-recorded so that real-time interactions can be dedicated to deep discussion.

When applied and designed well, asynchronous formats can deliver even more accessible, enjoyable, and enriching educational experiences to students.

An Ongoing Shift to Greater Connectivity

While many questions remain as to how business schools will combine online education and in-person education, three areas of connectivity will remain central to the design of all business courses: engagement, active learning, and experimental learning.

Due to COVID-19, as business educators, we advanced our ability to encourage our students to engage with each other and with the topics we discuss. However, our ability to motivate students to become active learners and to deliver experimental learning opportunities online is still far from what we can achieve in the face-to-face settings. But as we build on what we have learned, we are sure to discover new platforms, engage in new forms of interactions, and construct new social meanings around learning.

Even the limited tools available to us allow us to produce interactive learning experiences online that cannot be easily replicated in the physical classroom. These tools include online chat and presentation tools that increase student engagement and algorithms that read students’ facial expressions to indicate whether they are struggling with course content. These technologies will only grow more sophisticated; there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle.

Esteve Almirall
Associate Professor, Esade at Ramon Llull University
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