From necessity, we have embarked on a global experiment as more of life, business and education moves online, and social distancing becomes a requirement.
Virtualising social contact (friends, family, colleagues, teachers and students) is a new experience for many — but after the Covid-19 has receded, the experiment is likely to leave its mark. We will appreciate even more the value and utility of technology in the absence of direct social contact, but also appreciate even more the irreplaceable value of physical social contact and interaction.
Learning has always been a social process between students, teachers, schools and parents, but for working professionals who are committed to lifelong learning the options have evolved from correspondence courses to distance learning. And now, the blended learning format that combines online self-study and group-study with face-to-face workshops with teaching faculty and fellow students.
The mix of the blended format may vary (depending on the number of hours of face-to-face time), but it seems to offer the optimal solution for busy working people who need to juggle family, social, work and study time.
The current state of the world highlights the value of both elements of the mix — online and face-to-face. Social lives, entertainment, education and work, are all moving in lock-step and converging online.
Distance learning is growing at a time of social distancing and the global classroom (open and accessible for learning opportunities everywhere, any time, any device) is becoming more of a reality.
No nixing face-to-face for good
From our regional centre in Dubai Knowledge Park, we have supported thousands of part-time master’s students, mainly following the Manchester Global MBA. It’s clear from our experience of hosting students at our MBA workshops, students place a very high value on the face-to-face contact, which accelerates learning from faculty and peers, and provides the crucial relationship building and important networking opportunity.
So, when we were faced with the challenge and complexity of the impending arrival of more than 300 MBA students for workshops in Dubai in March, the decisive action of the UAE government helped guide us to the simple solution of creating virtual workshops — re-blending the format and learning experience for students and ensuring continuity of study.
This was relatively straightforward for a blended programme, with much of the ready content virtualised to some degree. The real challenge was to replicate as much as possible the social experience of the face-to-face workshop.
Fortunately, as many of us have found recently, while there may be no real substitute for eye-to-eye contact, a handshake, or a hug — whatever is appropriate — the virtual social and learning experience is improving dramatically, thanks to developments in the workplace.
Business was already ahead of the game. Blended learning is also gaining traction in business education as the corporate world goes deeper into digital business transformation. With technologies such as AI, chatbots, the cloud, blockchain and the Internet of Things being adopted rapidly, business education is increasingly mirroring the workplace.
Employees now commonly work flexibly, remotely, and collaborate and communicate with colleagues and third-parties using corporate networks and communications tools on their own devices and apps. Technology really is becoming second-nature as work is managed online, offline and in a blended format.
You could call it the gamification (or Netflixisation as it has been called) of business education for employers. There can be an element of this with corporate academies and third-party learning providers, with on-demand content, competitive elements, and instant gratification.
With a new generation of digital natives now launching their careers in the workplace, executive learning across all formats and disciplines is increasingly being remoulded and going online, as learners look to take the greatest possible control and convenience from the increasing learning and development opportunities open to them.
We are fortunate to be where we are. Cities rather than countries are developing stronger roles as talent hubs and will be crucial to reshaping the global talent landscape. This is because cities have greater flexibility in adapting to new trends and patterns, making them especially attractive for entrepreneurial talent.
But we are not all digital natives, which makes the current experiment even more challenging and interesting. It represents a mass learning opportunity for the entire community and across generations, a truly global online learning classroom and workshop for us all.
And a glimpse into the future of blended learning.
- Randa Bessiso is Director — Middle East at The University of Manchester.