Virtual classrooms: how do you make online learning social?

Personal interactions with your fellow students and teachers are a crucial part of higher education. The ongoing restrictions on life around Europe therefore pose huge challenges to educational institutions.

Virtual classrooms: how do you make online learning social?

ESCP Business School, the world’s first business school, has been quick to adapt and ensure continuity of education for its students. More than 2,650 courses are being delivered online and the London Faculty alone had delivered more than 500 classes online before the end of April, as well as running an online open day.

After switching to online learning, professors are using innovative technologies to make their virtual classrooms engaging and challenging.

Exams have also gone ahead online. Now ESCP is planning for a new wave of students to start its Bachelor in Management (BSc) programme come September, whatever the practical challenges. 

Find out more about the BSc programme at the world’s first business school

Smart solutions for students

All ESCP students have been able to attend courses and sit exams online since March 16th. But the transition started much sooner, first in Italy. Teachers at the Turin campus switched the BSc programme online without losing even one session.

Professor Fabrizio Zerbini, Associate Dean of the three-year Bachelor in Management, said: “We’re extremely happy about what has been achieved. Our experience in Italy helped when we had to provide smart and safe solutions also to our students in Paris, Berlin, Madrid and London.

Photo: Professor Fabrizio Zerbini, ESCP Business School.

“We also have a very dynamic faculty that is already digitally integrated. Most of our professors had expertise and experience of online teaching before and were able to expand those programmes.”

Frank Bournois, Dean of ESCP, has personally kept up direct contact with students through regular video updates with important news posted on the school’s website. These provide students with reassurance that their welfare and education are always the school’s core concerns and key information about the transition to online learning.

Leading in a changing world

The Bachelor programme uses the slogan “leading in a changing world” and emphasises the skills students need to have a positive impact on tomorrow’s societies. ESCP already views education as a social process that goes far beyond knowledge transfer.

Interested in leading in a changing world? Find out more about ESCP’s Bachelor in Management programme

Professor Francesco Venuti, of ESCP Turin, co-authored a recent article for Harvard Business Publishing explaining how online learning can still be social. It highlights different ways to keep learning interactive and allow students to socialise their emotions about the current crisis.

The article suggests steps such as shorter sessions to aid concentration, small discussion sub-groups and clear rules, including when and how students can speak or ask questions.

Students could use a handraising function in an online platform or post questions in the chat section. Inviting students to post emoticons and respond to quick interactive polls can further boost engagement.

ESCP’s BSc students have also been using Instagram Stories to share their thoughts. Sebastian Ponce de Leon, from Mexico, has posted tips for staying positive and focused while studying online.

These include working out instead of sitting down all day “to get the blood flowing”. He also recommends changing your online learning set up from time to time to keep things fresh.

A sustainable society

The near future may be uncertain. But ESCP already focuses on the major shifts of our time: digital revolution; climate change and ethics in action; expectations that business leaders will focus on multiple stakeholders to serve a better, fairer, sustainable society. The emphasis is on giving students the skillsets to make responsible choices.

Professors are given recommended technological solutions; a tool called Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is generally used for classes. But teachers can also suggest alternatives if they want to experiment.

Some content is recorded and made available for a given time window, so students do not miss out due to any internet connection issues. But the goal remains for students to interact with their professors and each other whenever possible in line with ESCP’s core values.

View videos showing students’ experiences of ESCP’s three-year BSc programme

“It’s a changing environment but it doesn’t change our philosophy: monitoring with a lot of degrees of freedom for professors to find the best solutions,” says Professor Zerbini. “We want you to be part of a social conversation about how management develops over time. That’s our distinctive value and we want to keep it even in a digital environment.”

Anticipating change

September may seem distant in the current situation. But ESCP’s courses will begin as normal, regardless of whether students join in person, online or through a mixture of the two.

Applications are considered on a rolling basis through until July or August, depending on the campus. ESCP says the BSc programme has seen a 70 per cent rise in candidates applying. Students can be reassured that they can do their English language assessment online.

Photo: ESCP Business School

“The etymology of the word crisis comes from the Greek language; a crisis is a cut,” says Professor Zerbini. “It means you cut with the past, look to the future and change the way you approach things.

“We try to foster a new mentality to take this as an opportunity to innovate and adapt or even to anticipate change. Our students are talented, they have the right spirit and energies and we empower their talent.

“We’re already leveraging our students to help companies adapt to the crisis with internships and other modalities. I’m very confident they can make a big difference.”

The world’s oldest business school turned 200 last year. And it is focusing firmly on the future – whatever it may hold.


US students ‘in limbo’ over delays to French visas

American students have told of their frustration at being unable to get visas processed, in spite of French government reassurances that they would be prioritised.

US students 'in limbo' over delays to French visas
US students hoping to start courses in France in September are still in limbo over visas. Photo: AFP

With people still largely banned from travelling from the USA to France, one exception to the travel ban is US students, who the French government says it wishes to welcome to start courses in September.

France is a major destination for American students and the country is keen to maintain and expand its international student programmes.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: “In view of the stakes involved in making universities attractive, international students will be allowed to come to France, regardless of their country of origin, and the arrangements for their reception will be facilitated.

“Their applications for visas and residence permits will be given priority.”

But in spite of his warm words, many American students have reported that they are unable to get visas.

Non-European students are required to get a student visa from the French consulate in their home country before they travel, so if the visa is not processed in time for term starting, they miss out.

Dozens of students have contacted The Local to say they been waiting for weeks for visas to be processed and are unable to get answers from the French consulate.

Many have had to rebook flights several times, as well as rebooking the Covid-19 tests that are now mandatory for all travellers from the USA and must be taken within 72 hours of travel.

READ ALSO Last-minute Covid tests and surgical masks – what to expect when flying from USA to France

Many students have had to rebook flights several times because of the visa delays. Photo: AFP

Faith Lewis, from California, is due to start an international business degree at Université Paris Dauphine.

She said: “I applied for my student visa at the VFS office in San Francisco on July 2nd. Of all the applicants I have spoken to, I was by far the first to submit my visa application, so it's been particularly worrisome that I have had no news.

“I have rebooked my flight three times and my Covid test twice. The cost for a one way flight from Sacramento to Paris was over $800 when I first booked (keeping in mind I can usually get a one way flight to Paris around $300 from the nearby SFO airport). It only gets more expensive every time.

“I have called and emailed the consulate in San Fransisco and Washington DC, VFS, and Campus France and no one has or is willing to give me any information. VFS and Campus France defer to the consulate. The consulate does not accept phone calls and sends out a standardised form response to any email.”

Leah Kim has a place at Campus Langues to study French starting in September.

She and many of her fellow languages students are also still waiting on visas. She said: “Clearly, there is a huge delay in this process for reasons we cannot understand.

“It's as if all our visa applications are just on hold at the consulates. We've had news of a couple rejections but zero approvals.

“Some of us have been waiting 6 to 7 weeks now with no end in sight and the fall 2020 school year is right around the corner. Due to this delay, many of us have already rebooked expensive flights and hard-to-get PCR Covid tests multiple times.”

READ ALSO LATEST: Who can travel from USA to France?

The Local has approached the French consulate in Washington DC for comment.