Digital transformation in education is here, and here to stay. The central role that technology plays in our lives, and will continue to play, cannot be ignored, and must not be ignored if education providers are to maximise modern-day opportunities and prepare students as well as possible for their careers to follow.
A key part of the ongoing digital transformation for education naturally focuses on e learning – meaning a system of learning conducted entirely via online means. Even for the most ardent of traditionalists, the popularity and growth of e learning is hard to ignore. Research conducted in December 2020 estimated the e learning market to be worth approximately $144 Billion in 2019, a figure that is expected to reach $374.3 billion by 2026, indicating an annual growth rate of just under 15%. While the long-lasting effects of COVID-19 are still to be seen, it is foreseeable that the movements towards e learning, facilitated by necessity, will in some manner evolve into the provision of e learning, facilitated by preference.
Certainly, it is clear that e learning has many benefits for a particular sector of students. It overcomes geographical barriers and allows students from around the world to take part in the same course, at the same time, without them so much as leaving their house. E learning can also provide significant economic benefits, with educational institutions often having less overhead costs and students not needing to organise dedicated transport and accommodation. For students who require or desire to build their studies around other things, e learning also offers enhanced flexibility and the ability for personalized time management.
With that said, the advantages of e learning are not without drawbacks, and these can be significant. The central role in education is to prepare our students for their future lives and careers, and an overdependency on e learning risks underplaying the importance of social interaction, physical activity and adapting to different kinds of learning styles. To allow for this, and create the optimal balanced solution, EHL has prioritized the creation of a virtual campus to oversee our e learning activities, and this has proved essential in our continuing efforts to provide the best hospitality education in the world for our students.
There is often a tendency to want to reproduce virtually what we practice in a physical campus, which is further reinforced when we live in times of "physical" restrictions such as those resulting from the COVID-19 situation. However, with a bit of hindsight and especially by extracting ourselves from the current situation of restriction, it is important to be able to project the activities on a Virtual Campus as being additional to those that we could experience in real life. Indeed, if we can experience these situations in real life, we will always prefer to do it that way, so it is essential to open new possibilities that are not imaginable in real life. For example: "travel virtually in time" or "make a virtual trip around the world to discover customs and cultures.
A Virtual Campus - delivering a complete learning experience
Various definitions of a virtual campus exist, and it is worth being precise before defining the steps we have taken in creating it. In a broader sense, a virtual campus refers to an online learning location for students, primarily to access further information and educational programs.
At EHL, we envision our virtual campus to augment the pedagogical and social experiences offered on brick-and-mortar campuses.
A good example of this is the concept of time in education. The digitalization of education can mean, for instance, that classes or meetings can be held back to back, with only a click of the button separating one from another. In a sense this is simply more efficient, but in reality, the so-called physical limitation of having to move from one class to another creates time to breathe, to reflect and to analyze – all such important parts of the learning process. The EHL’s Virtual Campus therefore ensures that time is created between virtual demands to ensure the educational experience is the same as the physical environment, and students always have the opportunity to reflect and prepare accordingly.
Perhaps the most important aspect that we wanted to ensure that our virtual campus promotes is that of connectivity for our students, both to other students and to EHL as a whole. We want our students to feel that, no matter where they are or what their circumstances are, they are a core part of our special university and feel the same bond to each other that students do on-site. With this thinking in mind, we aim at creating a virtual campus that replicates our physical campus – with the same buildings, the same walkways, and the same surroundings. Making a virtual campus like this is requires additional effort and investment but enabling students to feel connected like this is crucial part of our offering, and allows for effective and efficient transition between virtual and physical campuses, for those partaking in blended learning.
Prioritizing students’ wellbeing
As the leading hospitality school in the world, the wellbeing of our students is of paramount importance to our mission and day-to-day activities. It is right that we recognize that education is not only about curriculums and coursework but also about meeting new people, exchanging ideas, and making friends and associates that can last a lifetime.
The benefits of e learning are clear, but it can result in feelings of isolation for certain types of students. This is something that most of us can relate to with the COVID-19 outbreak, which has forced many of us to isolate and limit our interaction with others. The importance of mental wellbeing, particularly for young people, has maybe never been so widely discussed and considered. A key part of mental wellbeing comes with social interaction and the feeling of part of a community, especially for students in intensive learning programs.
While the social environment of on-site learning cannot be fully-replicated virtually, the EHL’s virtual campus strives to create plentiful opportunities for interaction and peer-to-peer engagement. Even the bars that we have on campus can be fully replicated virtually, for example, allowing students to catch up after class with a few ‘virtual’ drinks, discuss their studies and build new connections. Young people especially have been shown to really benefit from peer-to-peer engagement, and the importance of learning and growing alongside others is a crucial dynamic that a virtual campus has helped us to retain.
When considering students’ wellbeing as being our first priority, it has been particularly vital to recognise the full scope of elements that go into this. In our case, we are proud to welcome students from all corners of the world and with their own, unique characters and learning preferences, and our virtual campus has enabled us to provide a platform that is flexible and can be tailored to our students’ unique needs. Whether they be more extroverted or introverted, for example, the virtual campus is be the ideal hub to suit both. Similarly, we need to recognize the role of professors and our staff in helping students’ wellbeing, and our virtual campus also creates a place for them to feel part of the community and offer tailored services to students, in a way that would not otherwise be possible.
Maintaining our educational philosophy
Each educational institution has its own unique philosophy, or attributes that are uniquely special and cannot be replicated elsewhere. This can sometimes be challenging to maintain with e learning, given the lack of physical presence and ‘feel’ for the place. In our case, for example, the EHL experience is grounded on excellence in service and so getting the feel for it across all educational outlets is important. Being a hospitality school, we also fully realize the benefit of having group sessions and being able to develop one’s skills in practical ways, not just theoretical.
To overcome any potential drawbacks of e learning in replicating this feeling, a virtual campus shall allow educational institutions to maintain their uniqueness. At EHL, it means delivering outstanding education in a well-structured manner with the feel of our physical campuses in Lausanne, Passugg and Singapore. It also means creating a framework that ensures our online offerings are treated on the same level of importance as those in-person, and enables those undertaking such offerings to get a true feel of what it is like to be an EHL student.
The benefits of e learning are clear for everyone to see, and the appeal of it to people of a multitude of backgrounds is understandable and should be encouraged. beyond carefully thinking about how best to provide the best e learning resources, education institutions should fully identify and embrace opportunities to replicate the physical attributes that their students usually experience on campus. The result? Students that are more fulfilled, engaged and prepared for their future careers.