Finding the right blend: Business education in a post-Covid world
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Finding the right blend: Business education in a post-Covid world

Finding the right blend: Business education in a post-Covid world

The overarching goal of blended learning is to combine the most interesting aspects of traditional classroom teaching with the advantages of online learning

Dr-Paul-Hopkinson-2

It wasn’t too long ago when schools and universities in the UAE and all over the world had to scramble to move courses online almost overnight. With lockdown restrictions earlier this year and the sustained need for social distancing, many educational institutions including Heriot-Watt University have adopted the blended learning model to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. For the uninitiated, blended learning combines digitally enabled dynamic learning experiences with traditional classroom teaching.

Is blended learning the new buzzword of the education industry? Or is it an absolute necessity, helping students and educators cope with the demands of the new normal?

Understanding blended learning

The overarching goal of blended learning is to combine the most interesting aspects of traditional classroom teaching and direct interaction with the advantages of online learning.

Programmes, learning materials and student experiences developed based on this model have made education more accessible to all kinds of students, especially adult learners, who can benefit from the flexibility to tailor their studies around their work commitments and family obligations.

While blended learning has been around for a while, it has naturally gained momentum in the wake of Covid-19, accelerating the transformational trajectory that the higher education industry has been on for some time.

Impact on student engagement and skills development

As an innovative and critically essential teaching approach, blended learning creates many learning possibilities, allowing students to choose the mode of interaction to suit their circumstances.

For some students who face travel difficulties and social responsibilities, online learning may be the only option. Moreover, it can open up educational opportunities to a bigger group of international students, who are unable to access quality education in their home countries.

Critical to the success of blended learning are the steps needed to create an active learning community which students feel a part of, wherever they are located and however they engage with their learning.

Blended learning facilitates asynchronous learning, i.e. students can learn independently and gain additional support provided by the instructor and peers. During group sessions, students have the opportunity to track and evaluate their progress and improve their areas of weaknesses. This has resulted in deeper levels of student engagement than before as they can afford to design their learning schedule to a certain extent around their work and play.

But an ability to demonstrate social and emotional or soft skills are as important as measurable learning outcomes. Blended learning offers students an opportunity to connect and interact with their peers who are otherwise unavailable, either due to conflicting schedules or geographical distances.

Heriot-Watt University formulated and adopted a forward-thinking approach called the Responsive Blended Learning (RBL) model, which combines active, supported online learning with contextually appropriate face-to-face learning opportunities. The approach we have taken has been designed to respond to the changing circumstances. For example, we need to anticipate the possibility that one, or more, of our campuses may be required to go into Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ at short notice at some point in the future. This approach also enables us to respond to the requirements of students whose learning has been disrupted, and to the ongoing wellbeing needs of our staff and students.

Our Heriot-Watt virtual learning environment (VLE) is the hub for interaction and engagement. The courses are packed with live sessions with lecturers and classmates, and the opportunity to discuss and share insights from practical activities. Our library, study skills support, careers and wellbeing support services are all available to students, both on campus and virtually. The on-campus learning spaces such as labs and studios are a safe space, reserved for group work and collaboration with peers, when absolutely necessary.

Need for collaboration

With the onset of Covid-19, students were faced with a wave of new challenges.

Numerous studies have shown that prolonged isolation could lead to heightened depression and other mental health challenges. The current crisis has seen students draw on their reserves of resilience and adaptability, steered and supported by educational institutions, academics and families.

Under these challenging circumstances, it is even more important to integrate collaboration into the digital classroom, which contributes towards strengthening the student’s resilience. Student collaborations via group discussions, debates, and breakout sessions offers students both a shared experience and interpersonal communication – vital for maintaining their overall wellbeing.

Heriot-Watt’s RBL model offers students the chance to interact with classmates from campus locations in three continents and a chance to be a part of a truly global community and to grow their social capital. The ability to work as part of global virtual teams is vital preparation for today’s business world and the post Covid environment.

No matter where our students are in the world, the university is supporting them to adapt to this new way of learning with academic wellbeing and study support available when it is needed the most.

We have also been working to create additional opportunities for social interaction with peers outside normal timetabled classes, augment the student experience with soft skills training, industry talks, workshops and simulations.

Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University Dubai offers a range of programmes to equip graduates to navigate disruptors and harness the opportunities offered by a digitally transformed business world.

These include our postgraduate programmes in Innovation Management and International Marketing with Digital Marketing, as our renowned global MBA and soon to launch MSC in Digital Leadership.

For more information, please visit: https://www.hw.ac.uk/dubai/

Dr Paul Hopkinson is the associate head of the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University Dubai and Academic lead for Heriot-Watt Online

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