Neither online nor on-campus: Against a binary approach

Historically, the preferred form of education has been sitting down with a small group of students, discussing topics of great interest and debating highly complicated questions. Additionally, there is the lecture, or what the Germans call the Vorlesung (literally meaning ‘the reading’), with large numbers of students – sometimes hundreds – diligently taking notes.

Contrary to what is often said, the debate about online education versus conventional on-campus education is not a binary one.

IVL: Integrated Virtual Learning

What is happening now with the introduction of online tools for education and the COVID-19 crisis is real-time virtual learning. It is conventional teaching via Zoom or Teams.

The idea that a programme is taught either online or on campus is outdated. It is more sensible to look at it as a spectrum that goes from conventional face-to-face teaching through to fully online teaching. Covering a large part of the spectrum gives students the choice to learn in a manner that best suits them and their circumstances at the time. Moreover, in the middle of that spectrum is what I call ‘Integrated Virtual Learning’. This will be the ‘new normal’ in education and the COVID-19-induced crisis will have acted as a catalyst.

Rather than replacing conventional teaching with virtual learning – which would mean missing all the positive sides of on-campus education – or dismissing the positive elements of virtual learning when campuses reopen, we should pursue a merger of the two modes: Integrated Virtual Learning (IVL).

The goal of IVL is to ensure a seamless connection between on-campus and off-campus learning in real time. IVL enables some students to follow the same lecture or tutorial on campus, while others take part virtually.

The advantages of IVL are obvious in the current situation. Campuses and classrooms are unlikely to reopen to full capacity, which means that students can alternate between on- and off-campus modes.

IVL should not be confused with so-called blended learning. Though ‘blended’ and also ‘hybrid’ are probably the closest forms of teaching to IVL, there is a distinct difference.

Blended means that some parts of the learning are online, some parts face-to-face, on campus. Integrated Virtual Learning, as the term ‘integrated’ suggests, means that learning is delivered simultaneously on-campus and virtually, in real time. Even the students who are on campus participate virtually in the learning process.

Post-COVID-19, IVL will remain of value. It gives students greater flexibility and enriches the learning experience. There is only one thing students want: choice. Each individual has their own needs and preferences. The aim should be to be less prescriptive in delivery mode and create the opportunity for students to pick what works best for them.

The question is not only where colleges position themselves, but also how broad their presence is on that spectrum: the broader the scope, the more choice students have.

The challenges

Courses that require a lot of time in labs or studios obviously struggle with virtual learning tools. But if we approach learning from a spectrum perspective, the question is less about replacing and more about reducing the amount of time one needs to spend in labs and studios.

Another challenge is study abroad. Besides giving affordable access to many more students, if virtual mobility is integrated into the earlier stages of higher education, it can whet the appetite of students to take advantage of physical mobility at a later stage.

The same applies to internships. Virtual work experience does not necessarily replace a period in a company or doing volunteer work, but it can make the opportunity of experiential learning more widely available and prepare students better for the ‘real’ thing of a placement. In other words, these learning tools are not necessarily a substitute; on the contrary they can be complementary and improve the learning experience and possibly enhance time efficiency.

A less binary approach

What the COVID-19 crisis can do is be a catalyst: speeding up these developments, to the advantage of students. But for that to happen we do have to be willing to take a slightly different look at higher education, with a less binary approach to teaching modes, a modernised understanding of the role of professors, and last but not least, we need to approach learning much more from a student perspective.

To achieve the needed transformation, we need to address some fundamental challenges. We need to ‘unbox’ our thinking. We need to become forward-looking rather than defensive, welcoming enrichment rather than perceiving it as a threat.

Most importantly, we should shift our focus from supply (the course, the programme, the curriculum) to the user (adjusting to personal needs, enhancing choice, enabling students – and us – to respond to changing circumstances).

We need to change quite radically our thinking about education at all levels: seeing the way we teach no longer as a binary ‘classroom versus online’ position, but rather as covering a spectrum of modes, offering students an enriched choice, and embracing IVL as being at the heart of modern learning.

Professor Dr Maurits van Rooijen is chief academic officer at Global University Systems and rector at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Berlin and Hamburg, Germany.