Email, Whatsapp, Facebook. Instagram, Tiktok, YouTube. Smartphone, PC, tablet. There is no escaping it. Today’s student scrolls, clicks and swipes their way through the day, acquiring, processing and sharing information faster than ever before. Students are changing and it is essential that the education sector keeps pace with this digital education revolution which is unfolding.
Covid-19 has created an extraordinary opportunity to accelerate digitalization and create a new learning environment that is a much better fit for today’s student. Any organization failing to embrace digitalization risks obsolescence, as a new wave of education start-ups is waiting to grab the baton. Investing in the digital education revolution today is an important priority for all education providers. Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne (EHL) is known around the world as a pioneer in hospitality education. It is with great pride that I count our transition to digital education as a strong example of our innovation, as we aim to always deliver the best learning experience for our students, on campus or at home, wherever they are in the world.
Digital transformation is shaking up every industry, and education is no exception, though perhaps our motivations are different. This is not about cost saving or efficiencies, this is about meeting the expectations and the new learning needs of today’s students. They are the primary driver that makes digital transformation essential for education providers. As educators, we know that the classroom experience works best when it reflects students’ normal social interactions. If normal life is built on digital interaction, students are likely to respond well to this setting for learning. This delivers higher student engagement, but also greater understanding of complex ideas, if they are framed in familiar ways. At EHL, we pride ourselves on being student-centric. Our shift to digital education is part of our efforts to meet that goal and create a learning environment that best fits our students’ interests.
If established schools, colleges and universities fail to meet this student need, there are plenty of organizations waiting to fill the gap. The education sector is being disrupted and for now, it is technology companies, not educators, that are leading the way. For the traditional education providers, our pedagogic heritage is perhaps one of our biggest barriers to digital transformation – but it can and must also be our greatest strength for digital education. We have been educating students in much the same way for a hundred years or more; we are experts in education, not technology, so full-scale transformation is no small challenge. But this is not about starting from scratch. The techniques that have worked for a century still work, but should be complemented with hi-tech capabilities. The best of the old education world combined with the best of the new world is a powerful pairing. Our focus on pedagogical needs and learning outcomes must remain the number one priority for any education transformation project. This is why I believe it is so important for traditional education providers to lead the digital transformation of our industry. We will need help, for certain, from technology startups and disrupters with fantastic new ideas on how to create engaging content and how to deliver interactive lesson formats, but the key principles of teaching and learning that are so important for successful outcomes reside in us. It is time for our industry to embrace change and use our advantage to create a digital transformation revolution that is driven by education, supported by tech, and not the other way around.
Distance learning is not digital education
Be under no illusion; digital transformation is not easy. Organizations must not be misled into thinking digital education can be achieved through small changes and tinkering with new tools in online environments. Whatever we change must enhance quality. Many organizations dipping their toes into the waters of digital transformation imagine that putting lecture videos online is enough, but there is a huge difference between distance learning and a truly digital education setting. Distance learning is typically an extension to a traditional in-person course, with key videos and resources made available online, for added flexibility. Conversely, digital education requires providers to totally rethink their content and the way students interact with it. At EHL we are seeing the difference. Our longstanding 80% online MBA in hospitality has been extremely popular for students seeking a more flexible learning approach. This was only a first step towards the far greater changes we are now realising. This year, our Bachelor in Hospitality had to convert quickly and unexpectedly to enable distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, our ambitions are even greater, as we strive towards a truly integrated digital education offering.
Whatever we change must enhance quality
Interactivity promotes student engagement – both on- and offline
At EHL, we have seen huge success with the use of gamification and virtual reality (VR) to motivate and engage students in a digital setting. Our shift towards these interactive formats began before Covid-19, but we are accelerating our investment in these areas following the successful feedback received from students and faculty alike. Our Housekeeping Virtual Reality course allows students to experience first hand the best and worst of hotel housekeeping examples. We are now exploring immersive virtual reality, to enable students to be part of the world they see, and to interact with one another in that virtual world – an exciting opportunity.
Criticism abounds of millennials and their short attention span. In our experience, there is some truth in this stereotype, and even more so in an online setting. But they display numerous other strengths, that easily surpass the capabilities of earlier generations. Rather than ignore this trend and fight the screens that demand students’ attention, we want to employ the formats that our students already find stimulating.
Digital and real-world learning are complementary
This is where balance is essential. Digital education is not about replacing everything in the shift online, but using digital environments to enhance and complement learning. At EHL, we firmly believe in the importance of real-life social interactions, and this in-person element should not be lost in the rush online. In the future, we may see the emergence of better tools that enable informal interactions and promote spontaneous information sharing and collaborative idea generation, but so far, we are yet to see anything that can beat real-world exchanges over coffee, dinner or sport. Our campuses are set up to facilitate social learning and our students profit hugely from one another in these informal settings, in addition to their formal studies. They also learn the benefits of innovation by seeing constant change in our EHL campuses, where we test numerous new technologies and pilot new ideas – many of which become standard, from keycard payments in the café, to classroom layout and timetabling optimizations based on keycard-linked student mobility data. This is an indirect, even an unintended benefit of life at EHL, but it is one we wish to keep – whereby students see innovation as normal, as their world constantly evolves and improves. This is true to our core values and our commitment to pioneering leadership. Digital transformation is an essential path for education providers today, to complement, not replace, tried and tested learning environments.
Digital education is a high-value investment, with high-value returns
Investing in digital education is invaluable, if done correctly. There is no denying that, at the outset, this is a costly investment, both financially and in time and effort. But the fastest returns are the most important – with improvements in education quality and student satisfaction. Digital transformation is also essential for keeping pace with a changing world, and ensuring today’s renowned education providers like EHL and many others retain their position as leaders in education. From Kodak to Blockbuster, Nokia to Thomas Cook, there is no shortage of warning examples of how easily organizations can fall from leadership positions if they fail to acknowledge and respond to a changing world. An ability to react to changing environments and adopt new technologies is one of the biggest barriers to digital transformation.
At EHL, we are still at the start of our digital transformation journey, but we have already seen the benefits, in strong student engagement, inspired and motivated faculty, and simpler, streamlined processes. As our digital initiatives scale, we expect the benefits to extend further to reap greater operational efficiencies, which should in turn bring financial savings. Investing in digital education is an essential move for the industry, not for the financial gains, but for the education gains it brings. EHL is proud to maintain its heritage as a pioneer, innovator and leader in education, and our digital transformation project is helping us to deliver motivated, curious, entrepreneurial students, who go on to thrive in successful careers. By sharing our experiences and working with education institutions around the world, we hope to help the whole education sector grasp the opportunity of digital education, for the benefit of students everywhere.