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How Educational Institutions Are Managing the Shift to Online Learning in the Coronavirus Era

We hear how digital-learning institute Academy Xi is keeping students engaged after its transition to remote learning.

On Monday, the Victorian government announced that school students will be learning from home in term two to help slow the spread of coronavirus. Premier Daniel Andrews said students will be provided with free internet access and laptops where required, and signalled a number of changes to the school calendar.

It’s the announcement students and parents were waiting for. Many Australians had questioned Scott Morrison’s decision to leave schools open, potentially putting students and teachers at risk of infection, and there have been similar concerns over university teaching.

While the government’s response to the situation at schools and universities might’ve felt a little slow, that hasn’t been the case across the board. Academy Xi is a school for digital design, marketing and product management, offering both face-to-face and online courses. As reactions to the pandemic began to unfold last month, the digital-learning institution quickly shifted to a remote teaching model, providing an example of how universities and schools could act if a similar crisis hits us again.

“Because the courses we teach are focused on the digital world, we were probably in a better position than a lot of educational institutions when this all hit,” says Academy Xi’s Melbourne general manager, Frank Guzman. “A few weeks ago, we were adjusting to government and health advice. At that time, there was no indication of shutting down schools or education facilities.”

Guzman says many Academy Xi students are working professionals looking to add to their skill set. This meant that a lot of students had been instructed to work from home, so it didn’t make sense for them to come into class after work. Because of this, students were given the option to dial into classes from home. But the academy quickly realised the full scope of the situation, and completed the transition to online learning around seven days later.

“In a week where things really escalated, on Monday we had about 80 per cent of the class there in person, and by Friday [attendance] was less than 30 per cent,” says Guzman. “Luckily for us, by the time government advice came out to move to a work-from-home model, we had almost fully transitioned.”

Academy Xi offers 16 face-to-face courses, all of which are now available online. Guzman says the transition wasn’t too hard from a technical perspective, although at first it proved difficult to get every student onside.

“Despite some students initially feeling uncomfortable about coming in, there was definitely some resistance to moving classes online,” he says. “Students were hesitant because it can be harder to collaborate, workshop ideas and work on projects online, but now we’re relying on online communication tools such as Zoom and Trello to help us achieve these things, just like everyone else.”

Some of the most difficult aspects of remote learning are keeping students engaged and fostering a sense of community. Guzman says the school’s transition has been successful because staff focused on these elements first and spoke to students individually about the situation.

“Before we made any changes, we wanted to understand exactly what the students wanted to get out of their courses, beyond passing or getting good grades. Things such as learning how to run their own business, changing careers, getting a promotion or landing a new job were all common.”

Guzman acknowledges that, in part, they were able to listen to each student because Academy Xi is still small in comparison to most universities.

“Being a small organisation, we’re lucky that we have the time to get to know each student individually and provide extra support, knowing specifically what they want to work towards.”

Guzman outlined some of the effective steps Academy Xi implemented and suggested that other educational institutions might do the same wherever possible.

“We brought in more one-on-one calls with instructors, we implemented online community-building activities in the form of games and group activities – small things, like challenging groups to take a themed photo or make costumes,” he says. “These things have nothing to do with the curriculum but a lot to do with how students are handling emotions and managing themselves throughout this period, as well as building rapport and a sense of online community.”

Guzman offered some tips for other education providers who are transitioning to an online model.

“Be confident in your ability to deliver online learning without jeopardising the student experience, but be conscious that it can be a drastic change,” he says. “Make sure you open up the floor to students and ask what their hesitations to moving online might be. Knowing the non-negotiable areas will help you focus on what you need to maintain when you move online.”

Despite all the uncertainty, Guzman remains positive that Academy Xi and other educational institutions can help the world find its feet again.

“For us, the opportunity as an educational organisation is that once we weather the storm, we can provide help and support for those who are struggling,” he says. “There are a lot of people in different industries who have had to adapt abruptly over the last month who we’d like to provide our services to in order to help them get back to their best.”

On a personal level, Guzman says he’s still adjusting to a new way of working.

“Even though we’ve always had the flexibility to work from home here and there, now that it’s mandatory, I find I’m working more than I would in the office because there’s less of that disconnect,” he says. “I’m starting early, finishing late and replying to messages at all hours because it all gets blended together.”

Despite some personal teething problems, Guzman believes this period will change how businesses operate in the long term.

“Something closer to this working-from-home model could be the future of work. I think we’ll see something more flexible, where employers are more task and result oriented as opposed to focusing on time spent at the office,” he says. “We tend to see that already in companies with more cutting-edge cultures or work policies.”

Aside from learning new ways of working, Guzman hopes businesses learn new ways of connecting with each other and develop thicker skins.

“I hope this builds resilience. Everyone has been impacted by this in one way or another – whether they’ve been stood down, had to work crazy hours or adapted to working remotely,” he says. “Hopefully this is not just a period of time we forget about. Hopefully it can bring some lessons in how we work, how we connect and how we interact with each other.”

Guzman says that while he worries for the future of Australia and the world, spending time at home has given him an opportunity to gain some perspective.

“I’ve been taking more time to reflect, to dial my life back a little bit. You really learn what’s important and what’s essential to you – hopefully there are plenty of people realising the same thing,” he says. “I’ve probably spoken to more friends in the last three weeks than I have in the last year, and I’ve been more in touch with my family. I think a crisis does that to everyone.”

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