COVID-19, higher education and shifting the learning experience

A reflection from Italy

According to a recent survey conducted by IlSole24Ore, a well-known Italian financial newspaper, when asked “what are the investment priorities to let Italy recover?”, half of those interviewed answered “research and education”, 26% said industry, and only 5% chose digital connection.

Whether these statistics represent the general opinion or the real needs of the country is irrelevant. What is truly significant is the dramatic change in mindset that has occurred. As devastating and severe as it might be, the crisis we are living has brought to the fore the importance of educational institutions as basic elements of social stability – forcing Italians to finally place education at the top of their priorities list, now conscious that the only way to recover is to invest in knowledge. An investment that’s not only essential to face today’s emergency, but also to deal with its long-term economic and social consequences.

As a powerful agent of change, education must be constantly adjusted to the needs of its communities. Shocking the system to the core, the pandemic gave us the chance to transform our usual ways of working, forcing us to quickly plan what tomorrow’s education should look like.

Online learning: a quick fix or long-term trend?

In the unexpected scenario brought about by social distancing requirements, technology has indeed proved to be vital in both guaranteeing continuous learning and providing constant support to students.

At Politecnico di Milano, in response to the news of a national lockdown at the end of February, we turned all teaching into virtual classes within a matter of weeks. We gave 45,000 students the opportunity to take exams and to graduate online, saving the semester. In September, as things seemed to improve, we allowed half of our students, mainly freshman and graduates, to attend lectures on-campus, thus providing temporary relief.

With the second wave of infections and more severe restriction, the need to adapt the system with a long-term perspective became evident. This is the reason why in spring, we invested three million euros in digital equipment, providing more than 300 classrooms with video tracking and streaming systems. Though longing to re-establish a social life on campus, switching back to a fully-digital university life became a necessity.

Faced with a constantly changing situation, we took the chance to begin designing and implementing a ‘Post-COVID University’ programme. “Distance learning is a life jacket in a stormy sea,” as I like to say, and now is the time to look forward and start plotting the route, conscious that the instability brought by the pandemic will remain for the short-term, and confident we can exploit the precariousness to improve our current practices.

At the heart of the programme is the idea of turning this crisis into an opportunity for positive change. We questioned not only how we can deal with its effects in the long run, but also how we can foresee what’s coming next, once the emergency is over.

At the basis of our approach are two main premises: first, education is a social process that requires face-to-face discussion and empathy, which no algorithm will ever replace. Secondly, we believe in the need of restoring student mobility as soon as possible. Now more than ever, we need to foster relations rather than widening distances.

Technology – a precious ally

In this scenario, digital and communication technologies are precious utilities, with an enormous potential of improving the quality of higher education, including allowing more students into our communities and increasing exchange through distance learning. The option of attending and providing classes across Europe, sharing lectures and co-designing new courses in joint inter-university groups are valuable possibilities which we’re putting in place with the pilot project IDEA League Digital Classroom.

IDEA League is a strategic alliance between five leading European universities of science and technology: TU Delft, ETH Zurich, RWTH Aachen, Chalmers University of Technology, and Politecnico di Milano. We are combining the change brought by digital tools with an international perspective.

COVID-19 has proven to be a great technological accelerator, a big opportunity for the industry to change and for us to plan tomorrow’s education. Although distance learning is easy and useful, surrendering to remote schooling only would come at its own costs, with the loss of valuable life experiences being hugely detrimental. Despite the worrying prospect of empty campuses and our yearning of an imminent return to normality, the process of teaching innovation must not only continue, but also exploit the learnings gained so far. An equilibrium must be found between presence and distance, tradition and innovation, local and universal.

“COVID-19 has proven to be a great technological accelerator, a big opportunity for the industry to change and for us to plan tomorrow’s education”

This is exactly what we’re seeking. Whilst it will not be easy and it might be too early to make predictions, today we are certain that the optimal educational system goes beyond the matter of which tools are the best ones to use. It doesn’t concern whether IP video systems, digital signatures or live stream technologies are going to be useful in the near future, but rather how and why these will be used.

“Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” It’s how we use technology to determine whether it can be considered beneficial or not. Technologies are social processes with intrinsic moral and human values. Let us not forget this, and exploit the numerous possibilities offered by technology to positively transform universities and its learning systems.

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