I particularly enjoyed this story about how some people are using videos of themselves paying attention, which they then play on a loop, so they can do other things while supposedly attending a meeting or class over the net. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought of my students listening to me in the background “just in case” I call them, while they are playing games or texting friends. What’s more, this is a ruse that wouldn’t be so hard to pull off: even the small jump that the restart of the loop would generate would be practically imperceptible and would likely be confused with a simple glitch or connection fault.

Fortunately, I am privileged to teach students whose attention span matches the money they have paid for their education and the selection process they have gone through. Our relationship is based on trust: they want to be taught as productively as possible in the best possible way under the present circumstances, and I want to do the same, teach the the best way possible under the current circumstances.

In some cases, particularly in courses where I use the old (about to be retired) Adobe Connect for delivery, it’s clear that interaction suffers, and what we usually do is have the teacher speak while students watch on camera and share the screen with our presentations, and ask their questions or answer teacher’s through the chat (they could use the microphone, but it’s clumsy). When we use more advanced tools, such as WoW in a Box or, in the case of other universities, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Webex, Google Classroom or similar, interaction is better and teachers can see the faces of their students, allow them to ask questions when they raise their hand virtually and, with practice, the experience is quite comparable to a classroom. In other cases, particularly programs that were designed for distance learning, interaction continues to be through asynchronous forums with constant moderation by the teacher (this week I am teaching one such group) and, occasionally, using video conferencing.

The differences are evident, and they raise a fundamental question: is online education just a substitute for face-to-face teaching, or are we already at a point where it could be considered comparable or even a better experience? The answer is complex. When students have expectations of face-to-face training, if the substitute for an emergency is proposed as an interaction through a forum or a platform with limitations, satisfaction levels drop, because there is an apparent gap in those expectations, and students may prefer to postpone their course and wait for normal service to resume. If the substitution is carried out with a tool rich in interaction, this happens less often.

However, there is another component, which which is why IE University’s online courses are among those that generate the greatest satisfaction based on student feedback: the forum format (supplemented with some opportunities for personal interaction and others for online conferences via interactive video), tends to be much richer than a face-to-face environment. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s something I’ve been testing for a very long time, bearing in mind that my first experiences in online environments were no less than twenty years ago: while students can only participate in a class discussion for a minute or two at best (before classmates get impatient), and they must do so loud based on their ability to think on their feet, in an asynchronous onlineenvironment they can participate whenever they want, use time to collect their thoughts, and even include other resources such as links to articles or videos. The result, from a relatively simple learning curve, is more in-depth discussions and better opportunities for learning.

Many institutions call online education the simple development of self-administered tools, content in which students progress through exercises and occasionally undergoing assessment tests. This methodology, which may be sufficient for certain subjects, corresponds to a completely different concept, where the teacher’s role is minimal, or is even replaced by tutors who answer questions more or less mechanically. This is a completely different product, which is not necessarily bad — as long as it meets the expectations of the student who enrolled in it, satisfaction may be high — that generally tends to have single figure achievement percentages: it is perfectly normal for only 2% or 3% of those initially enrolled to end up consuming all of the available course content.

A period of confinement like the present should be the time to consider experiments, to test tools and to try to provide our students with the best possible experience, comparable to the expectations we generated when they started their programs. If we are not able to do this, we will not be able to move on to the next phase, which will undoubtedly start after the lockdown: that all courses are developed simultaneously face-to-face and online, so that students can, at any time, decide whether to attend a class in person or follow it — with the right level of interaction — via the web when, for example, they have flu or any other potentially contagious disease. Whether we are talking about a class or an exam, the challenge is moving smoothly between a face-to-face and a virtual platform, without this impacting negatively on the learning experience.

I sincerely believe this will be the next phase, if only because we are going to be very wary for some time of anybody with the slightest cough. If we think the present situation is an exception and that, after quarantine, everything will return to how it was before, I think we are wrong. Education is one of the most important challenges, it will surely change after this episode (with all that this entails in terms of opportunity for those who know how to deal with it properly), and it will be essential for institutions to be up to speed.

About the Author

This article was written by Enrique Dans, professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com.

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