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Remote teaching becomes vital during coronavirus outbreak


From Brisbane and Barcelona to Boston, the coronavirus has forced higher and further education institutions around the world to adapt teaching practices and manage student absences, while bracing for the economic and logistical fallout.

Joanna Newman, president of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, says the way things are done, both in the short and long term, will have to change. “There has been a lot of anxiety and a sharp intake of breath about the economic impact,” she says.

Ms Newman adds that the biggest effect so far is in Australia. The country has been heavily exposed because of its high intake of Chinese students — 200,000 attend universities across the country — forcing many institutions to adapt to managing remote learning and pastoral care for those stranded abroad or who have recently returned and are in quarantine. 

Mindful of the infection risks from a large number of international students and families, the University of Buckingham and the University of London have cancelled graduation ceremonies for students who finished their academic courses in December. Both institutions have a large intake of international students.

Many academic conferences have been called off. Even in countries where detected infections so far remain low, institutions are taking precautionary action. Harvard has banned all university-related international air travel at least until the end of April.

Institutions with planned exchanges and courses in Asia have delayed or even switched countries. The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business has altered its schedule so students due to attend programmes at its Hong Kong campus have instead been hosted in London.

Study trips — a core feature of MBA and other business programmes — have also been rescheduled. Olin Business School at Washington University in St Louis, has switched the final stage of its compulsory 38-day, three-continent “global immersion” tour from Shanghai to Lima. Mark Taylor, Olin’s dean, likens the approach to an MBA class challenge. “Agile business leaders pivot quickly when unanticipated events arise,” he says. “The team at Olin is putting those lessons into practice.”

Beyond efforts to limit the spread of infection, universities and business schools are switching to online teaching — after years of slow uptake. Stanford has cancelled all classroom lessons for the rest of the semester and will offer exams from home.

Coronavirus has created an opportunity for online teaching platforms to serve the masses, rather than a niche group, of students. Duke University has been using Coursera, an online learning platform, to enable classes to continue for students at their Duke Kunshan campus in China.

MIP Politecnico di Milano Business School in Milan has cancelled all face-to-face lessons and is using its AI platform, Flexa, originally developed as an online career coach for alumni, to distribute course teaching material to students. 

IE University in Spain has moved all classroom-based courses online for students on its Segovia campus, where two cases of students with Covid-19 have been confirmed. Another student from the school’s main Madrid campus has been hospitalised with the virus and is reportedly in a stable condition. Although classes are still being taught on the Madrid campus, all 7,000 students at the university are being offered online access to all lectures through the university’s video conferencing systems. 

“Our commitment is to protect the health of our community,” Gonzalo Garland, vice-president of external relations at IE says. “We were fortunate. Since we have been doing online programmes for 20 years we were prepared.” 

In the UK, the current round of strikes by some university staff in the UK following previous action late last year, has meant institutions have already been reviewing and developing more online resources including pre-recorded lectures to help students who would otherwise miss out. 

At King’s College London, where a student has tested positive for coronavirus, senior managers are meeting online by teleconference with no more than two allowed in a room at the same time.

Long term, universities are preparing for substantial economic fallout, both from demands for compensation from students and the risk that there will be fewer international — and higher fee-paying — students in their next intake. The International Education Association of Australia warned this month of a A$6bn-A$8bn hit if Chinese students could not attend the first term.

A recent poll by QS, the research group, suggested that among international students who had planned to study abroad for university 10 per cent would instead stay at home and 37 per cent would switch their planned country for studies.

Universities UK, the trade body, said it would like to explore “what flexibility could exist” over government visa requirements around English language competence for international students, which is required in some countries ahead of applications for study. That could include greater leniency on exam results or the option to study English on arrival.

David Hughes, head of the Association of Colleges in the UK, says his further education college members are particularly concerned about the disruption to exams. “It’s very difficult to see how schools, colleges and the exam system would cope with a pandemic. Students losing a few weeks of study is not great. Not taking their exams has a lifetime consequence.”

This article has been corrected to reflect that a student and not a staff member at King’s College tested positive for coronavirus

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