Virtual Learning is Here: Understanding How to Manage It

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Global Virtual Learning Center

A Discussion With:

Amy Gillett

Amy Gillett

Vice President / Education
Secretary, WDI Board of Directors

Meghan Neuhaus

Meghan Neuhaus

Senior Project Manager, Grants Management

John Branch

John Branch

University of Michigan Professor, WDI Research Fellow 

Online learning has gone from an interesting endeavor to an absolute necessity for many institutions in just a few weeks. The reason, of course, has to do with the Covid-19 health crisis, which has shuttered virtually every school and university campus in the U.S. and around the world. For several years, WDI’s Global Virtual Learning Center (GVLC)  has worked to advance the practice of global virtual learning to create international linkages and promote economic growth in emerging markets.

To learn more about the present and future of online learning, we caught up with three experts affiliated with the GVLC. Amy Gillett is the vice president of the Education sector and specializes in designing and delivering executive education programs in emerging markets. She also leads the GVLC.

WDI Faculty Affiliate John Branch, is a University of Michigan Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Administration and teaches a variety of marketing and international business courses at the undergraduate, M.B.A. and executive levels. During the winter 2020 semester, Branch taught BA 310 Business & Culture: A Virtual Practicum—an action-learning course on international business cultures connecting U-M undergraduate students with peers from Egypt, Lebanon and Libya.

Finally, Meghan Neuhaus is a Senior Project Manager who works with WDI’s Education Sector. She has experience in curriculum and program design for e-learning programs, and a passion for connecting diverse populations through virtual exchange. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

WDI: The COVID-19 crisis has deeply impacted education across the board. I’m curious about what has perhaps inspired or surprised you when it comes to how educators and students are using online learning to advance education under some fairly fluid and often difficult situations?

Amy Gillett: Online learning has been around since the early 90s. While it has been steadily gaining a foothold in education, Covid-19 gave it a quantum leap. Many educational institutions did not offer online learning in their standard curriculum. So the transition was very sudden and left many instructors unprepared. Instructors without prior online teaching experience have faced a steep learning curve. Ideally, they would have had time to design courses from the start of the semester specifically for an online environment. 

There are many things that online delivery enables which can be embedded into a course. This includes, for example, more time for reflection via discussion boards and great opportunity for peer-to-peer learning by asking students to deeply reflect on what their classmates are posting.

Instructors who had prior experience teaching online have made the transition well. We at WDI were running an in-person course that had to transition online with five days’ notice. Fortunately, our professor was seasoned at teaching online. He was able to make the necessary adjustments to the online environment. This included cutting the duration of each classroom session, as it is difficult for students to focus on an online class session for more than 90 minutes at a time.

One of our instructors in a train-the-trainer program in Turkey was planning to conduct some training in Istanbul this spring. When the crisis hit, he was able to quickly pivot. Instead of the planned training on customer service, he delivered training on a topic that was catapulted to relevance: personal and team leadership skills to build resilience. This type of ‘just in time’ training is critical in times like this. 

Charismatic instructors are able to bring a lot of energy to online sessions. They can gauge student engagement and draw energy from little portrait squares on Zoom and similar platforms. They can involve students in discussions at the same level as in-person classes.

Amy Gillett

There are many things that online delivery enables which can be embedded into a course. This includes, for example, more time for reflection via discussion boards and great opportunity for peer-to-peer learning by asking students to deeply reflect on what their classmates are posting.

Can you provide examples of a successful SPOC, virtual exchange or and a hybrid model in action?

Gillett: We recently ran a SPOC on leadership for the Ford Motor Company Fund social impact fellows across 10 countries. We conducted the program on our proprietary learning management system, ExtendEd. The course helped participants understand themselves as leaders on both the personal and team level and drew on the Michigan Model of Leadership. We offered a series of instructional videos on ExtendEd, followed by quizzes to check for comprehension. Students could learn on their own schedule each week over the two-month duration of the program. Students were assigned to teams across countries to work on a project together and practice their new leadership skills. At the end of the module, we came together for a live webinar to sum up all of our learning and our next steps. We’re now extending the learning by sending participants a series of reminders on what they learned in the course. We call these “Memory Pings” — they allow us to remind people of key concepts and also nudge them to apply what they learned in the course back on the job.

On the virtual exchange front, we just wrapped up our first semester of a new program, Business & Culture, that connects learners in four countries: USA, Egypt, Lebanon and Libya to learn how to do business across cultures. The virtual exchange format was ideal for this course content. We took advantage of a range of technologies. We connected the classrooms via BlueJeans. Students connected with each other via their choice of WhatsApp, Google Hangouts and Skype. We ran a discussion forum via Facebook groups. Students were excited about the opportunity to work in teams with peers in other countries. They made new connections and learned to collaborate in geographically dispersed international teams. This is a great way to prepare students for the world of work in the globally connected 21st century.

Let’s take a look at three types of online learning: small private online courses, or SPOCs; virtual exchanges; and hybrid models. Can you define those terms and indicate how they are distinct from one another?

Gillett: Sure, let’s start with the “SPOC,” which is a small private online community. Unlike a “MOOC” — a massive open online course where you can have thousands of learners at a time — the SPOC nurtures an intimate learning environment where students can interact and really get to know each other. We typically have about 25-30 learners in a SPOC and they will work to complete assignments both individually and in teams. A SPOC can vary in duration, but typically we’ve run them for eight to 12 weeks. This format is ideal when you have a group of learners who need a certain type of training and benefit from having the content available so they can watch it on their own schedules. 

Virtual exchange is a form of learning that’s rapidly gaining traction. It has its origins back in the Cold War days, connecting students from the Soviet Union with students in the USA to build personal connections. Virtual exchanges connect learners across countries to learn together and collaborate on projects using technology. They afford students an opportunity to get to know people from other cultures without having to travel. Obviously, at a time when travel is not feasible, this is particularly valuable. Some virtual exchanges involve connecting classrooms across countries and are built around for-credit courses. Others are extracurricular and involve students connecting on their own, from wherever they may be. In both cases, students are assigned to work in cross-cultural teams to collaborate on a project.

The third type of learning WDI Education offers is the hybrid model. This combines online education with in-person instruction. Hybrid programs move parts of the course online that are best delivered this way. For example, basic concepts in finance or marketing can be taught through a series of short videos, followed by comprehension quizzes. By teaching these concepts in advance, the valuable in-person time can be spent in discussions – applying this material to learners’ own contexts and digging deeper into the implications of the concepts and models. 

Meghan Neuhaus

Design it to be as simple as possible, especially the first time around. It can be tempting given the number of tools and amount of information out there, to set a very high bar for yourself.

I’m sure there are many teachers, professors and other educational professionals who would like to develop in online programs, but simply do not know where to start. Can you provide a few things for these individuals to consider when designing a program?

Meghan Neuhaus: Absolutely. Some things that I recommend keeping in mind when designing an online program are: 

First, design it to be as simple as possible, especially the first time around. It can be tempting given the number of tools and amount of information out there, to set a very high bar for yourself. Instead, think simple simple simple. Consider when you are beginning what your minimums are, and just try to hit those as your default. You will learn a lot from your first time running the course. Once you are comfortable and can implement your minimum well, then think about adding some additional components to your course, like gamification or new tools, to make the experience even better for your students. 

Second, design the course itself first, and then find the tools to support it. This goes along with my last point, but there are so many tools out there and it is easy to get overwhelmed, or feel like you need to be utilizing everything. Don’t fall into this trap, and again, set out what your minimum is, look at how you want to design the course, then, consider how the tools out there can support your delivery. 

Third, making it as interactive as possible. Here are some ideas to do so:

•  Utilize features like “breakout rooms” on Zoom, which allow you to break students up into small virtual groups to work on activities together, without them having to leave the main Zoom call. These rooms are a very powerful feature to enable the same type of group work and smaller discussions that you would get in a physical classroom. 

•  Creating online quizzes as knowledge checks. 

•  Enabling more connections among the students, and between you and the students, through activities where you can all get to know one another, especially given an online course typically has less informal and face-to-face interactions. Tools like Padlet or Flipgrid for assignments and collaboration can add multimedia and social learning elements to your class that are simple to use. In the same vein, I would also recommend doing some icebreaker questions inside or outside of class as well, utilizing platforms like this, as it is more important than ever to build the camaraderie in the virtual classroom. 

•  Incorporating gamification (learning game) elements into the course when feasible, which are a powerful tool to encourage student learning outcomes. By gamifying elements of the course, you can create more excitement and encourage participation by creating a healthy sense of competition, either against themselves or their classmates. 

Lastly, provide offline support to students. This is very important as we have found in our programs that you can’t just depend on the virtual class time itself to provide the structure. As you do not have a physical space providing a container, it can be very helpful to communicate with the students outside of the classroom. For example, in WDI’s programs we typically send out a weekly email with a reminder of what the students should have accomplished that week, and what is coming. We also typically send out a reminder of the connection information along with protocols for the call. All of this helps to create a sense of structure and guidance as the students progress through the course. 

John Branch

Instructors need to consider online learning as something different … not just an electronification of their classrooms.

Professor Branch, can you speak to some of the challenges as well as the opportunities educators should anticipate when engaging students in a hybrid model of teaching?

John Branch: Instructors need to consider online learning as something different … not just an electronification of their classrooms. Indeed, a colleague who has been working in the e-learning world for many years, and I both believe that we are entering/have entered e-learning 2.0, which involves a re-thinking of e-learning as a distinct or unique mode of education. E-learning 1.0, we suggest, was characterized by attempts to simply simulate the classroom with online technologies. E-learning 2.0, on the contrary, means developing a new set of rules, practices and procedures for e-learning. A recent example will illustrate. A professor created a 24-hour online examination. It required students to manipulate data and formulae in Excel. Is it largely what she did in her “normal” course. What she did not consider, however, is that some students were 12.5 hours away, thereby creating communication challenges when technical problems arose. Many students use Apple products, and Excel for Mac is not quite the same as Windows-based Excel. Using Excel from the University with the aid of a virtual machine or virtual environment is not always easy given bandwidth challenges.

WDI’s Global Virtual Learning Center advances the practice of global virtual learning to create international linkages and promote economic growth in emerging markets. To follow our work, sign up for our newsletter and select Education. To discuss how we can partner, contact us at:

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