Navigating Part-Time Studies: Adapting to Distanced Learning and Reduced Mobility

This article discusses the adaptation of higher education institutions to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It highlights the shift to digital teaching, the importance of new pedagogic methods, the emergence of hybrid learning models, and the need for innovative approaches to networking and maintaining a campus experience. The text also emphasizes the lessons learned from this period of change and the lasting impact on higher education.

Months into the situation surrounding COVID-19, the shock has started to settle. Sudden changes to lifestyle have become normal, and society has adapted to new situations in everyday life. A kind of ‚happy medium‘ has largely been found for how we can return to some aspects of social life, while still remaining safe before a vaccine is available. But this was months in the making – and is still changing and evolving constantly as the situation remains fluid.

Business schools were forced to react quickly, moving teaching and learning to 100% digital formats while the situation was still largely unknown, in order to avoid delays in the study timelines of their students. But now, 4 months after initial campus closures, how have schools adapted and prepared for a world where fully on-campus teaching will not be possible in the mid- to long-term, and students have adjusted to the flexibility of learning from home? How can they still meet the demands for in-person events and networking opportunities, while maintaining a safe learning environment? And what do these changes mean for the campus experience overall?

We can’t speak for every institution, but we can share what we’ve learned as the world has adapted to its new circumstances. Here’s our top takeaways for how Higher Education has adapted, and what it means for the future of learning particularly in a part-time professional setting!

A ‚new‘ pedagogic method is necessary

As the change to digital teaching happened quite suddenly and right before the start of the new semester, the first courses taught had little chance for re-designing courses specifically for online learning. Given the lack of time and prior online teaching experience, most faculty chose to replicate their in-class lecture style using Zoom for the first weeks. This worked well – but after the first few sessions it was clear that courses and content need to be adjusted to the new learning environment. Lectures which used to run for full days in lecture halls, where faculty could easily read their audience and adjust interaction accordingly, became challenging as participants and faculty alike sat live via camera at a computer for long hours.

This was an important lesson, and led to short-term improvements as well as the design of a ‚new‘ pedagogic concept for courses which did have the time to adjust their content. I use the term ‚new‘ in parentheses here, because really it was not new at all – just new to most of us, who had never been in the situation of designing courses for remote learning. The importance of dividing content into small chunks, increasing interaction through polls, forums, mini breakout sessions and other means, actively sourcing responses (it’s much easier to remain passive when the audience is not visible) and constantly reminding participants to have their cameras on so the lecturer is not talking to a black screen, led to faculty exploring new teaching methods and re-imagining their courses for an audience they cannot see. It may sound obvious, but the loss of body language in communication was indeed a great challenge – but led to the implementation of new tools, dynamic methods, and a critical look at how courses had been structured so far.

Hybrid as the new normal

Tying into the above, a need for new teaching methods led to exploring new study models as a whole. How could we provide the best study experience, while ensuring safety measures can be maintained, everyone can participate no matter their situation, and we can continue to offer all the benefits of the ‚pre-corona‘ time? The adoption of a hybrid model suddenly became widespread, with most universities choosing to move forward using this model in some way. With time to prepare, institutions can offer flexible learning options blending on-campus experiences with at-home learning and allowing the students to adapt their experience to fit their personal requirements. Reducing the time spent on-campus for each course (and consequently reducing the need for travel), ensuring safe distances can be maintained in the classroom while offering live streams to students who are unable to join in person, and offering the possibility to take exams from home or on campus allow for each student to have equal access to all content. Courses can become more efficient, with pre-recorded lectures or interactive online learning covering content-heavy blocks, which can be completed at your own pace, while on-campus sessions can make the most of opportunities for interaction and group work.

 Networking remains essential – in new forms

Networking opportunities carry a special importance in MBA and other part-time business programs. What used to be evening guest speakers followed by networking receptions, team events or company presentations on campus, giving the audience of mid-career professionals an opportunity to make key connections, is no longer possible in the same way. How can a business school re-invent networking events so that students don’t lose the precious social aspect of studying part-time? There are so many ways online networking can still be made possible – we’ve taken steps such as shifting guest lectures to webinar formats over lunch, organizing highly interactive online workshops for small groups to practice specific skills, and are also working on adding less formal events, such as online team quiz evenings or ‚speed dating‘, to meet other students and alumni you may not have spoken to in person yet. There are plenty of opportunities to take part in networking without having to come to campus, and the key to success lies in variety and regularity. A shift to online means a higher demand for flexibility – participants are less likely to block a special event in their calendar which is no longer in-person, but a higher number will take part if they have time from home. So offering a broader range of smaller events means there is always a way to participate, no matter where you are or what your schedule.

 The campus experience needs to exist in new ways – for students, prospects, and alumni

As effective as online learning can be, it does not offer a campus experience. Yet this is often something that is craved – not just by students, but also by prospective candidates as well as alumni. It is the ‚look and feel‘ of your institution, and often works to ‚set the mood‘ for learning – bringing the students together, away from their work and their at-home life, allowing them to immerse themselves in the weekend learning experience. So how can this be expressed, and how can it be replicated online? In short: it can’t. But it also doesn’t have to be entirely lost! Virtual tours can be offered for candidates (live or pre-recorded), as well as online information sessions and ‚in-class‘ visits. Investing in building good online tools to use for students and alumni can still give them a feeling of familiarity and connection while studying online. Make things like open forums available for students to post and chat informally, outside of the classroom setting and consider online ‚meeting rooms‘ where they can meet for coffee or discuss group cases outside of classroom hours. Actively engaging alumni in activities taking place will help to keep them feeling connected, and small gestures such as video messages from staff or branded items as gifts will let them know you are still aware of them as a student and want to connect – they are not just someone sitting at home consuming content. Also, remind students of which services they are permitted to take advantage of – visits to the library, or the use of outdoor spaces may be allowed, so they can still come to campus to study and separate themselves from their ‚every day‘ if they wish.

 These opportunities existed all along

Perhaps the most important lesson of all, is that none of these opportunities are actually new. Was this the push the world of Higher Education needed to adopt digital solutions? Why were these opportunities so widely ignored in the last, and only considered ‚fancy extras‘ rather than valuable steps forward? There are many cases in which an on campus experience cannot be replaced by online or hybrid solutions. But that is just it – it’s not about replicating or replacing them. It’s about changing and adapting the experience altogether. Moving forward, once the situation allows, it is unquestionable that fully in-person, on-campus programs will be offered again. But more importantly, it is now without doubt that such hybrid and online formats will be widely available, and institutions will be able to reach broader audiences and offer high quality educational experiences in a diverse range of formats. Taking the time to understand what has been available to us all along, and questioning whether what we have been doing until now was really the most effective, may be the biggest reward Higher Education can take away from this experience.