Digital learning platforms: learning on the cyber campus

Kiel Learning in times of pandemic can be a lonely business. Universities across Europe had to close lecture halls and seminar rooms to protect against the virus. But that does not apply everywhere: In September 2020, when the second corona wave was just rolling in, the French business school Neoma opened its fourth campus.

A lot looks like it used to: See familiar faces on the way to the seminar, chat with those sitting next to you in the crowded lecture hall, meet fellow students in one of the modern work rooms for group work and in the evening go to a live concert or an exhibition to network – for the next generation of managers no problem with the Neoma.

Neither a couple of indomitable Gauls invented a magic potion, nor is the new campus on a lonely island far away from the infection scene – although the latter is already very close to reality. Because the modern building complex with 85 different rooms only exists virtually, as a digital learning world on the Internet.

Professors, employees and around 9,000 students from all over the world can enter it at any time in the form of their personal avatar, take part in events live or meet up with fellow students to study. All digital rooms are equipped with interactive wall screens that can be connected to home computers for group work, presentations or video conferences.

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The pandemic gave the market for educational technology, or Edtech for short, a major boost in development. According to figures from the market research company Holon IQ, more than $ 16 billion in venture capital flowed into innovative learning solutions and business models in 2020 alone – more than twice as much as in the previous two years.

Digital learning platforms such as Coursera, Udemy or Udacity are now among the so-called unicorns; these are young technology companies that are valued by international investors at a billion dollars or more.

Germany has also produced successful start-ups in the field of digital learning with companies such as Babbel, Careerfoundry, Lecturio and Masterplan. The Institute for Innovation and Technology (IIT) counted almost 1,300 edtech start-ups in Europe over the past ten years, more than 100 of them in Germany.

For the French University of Neoma, the colorful world of learning is far more than an emergency solution to bridge the pandemic – it is rather an important part of its digital transformation strategy. At the locations in Rouen, Reims and Paris and now also on the virtual campus, the private university offers various full-time or part-time programs, including a part-time management degree for a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

Moving through a computer landscape as an avatar is not real life, admits Alain Goudey, Chief Digital Officer of the private French business school. Still, the social togetherness and personal interaction felt amazingly real. “The tool creates a feeling of presence and community that goes far beyond a video conference.”

International and working students in particular regularly use the virtual world to study together or to organize digital events without having to travel to the airport, says Goudey. The investment in the “new building made of bits and bytes” will pay off in the long term, the professor for marketing and digital transformation is certain: “Students learn differently today than they did 30 years ago, educational offers have to develop further.” been. The pandemic only accelerated development.

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Svenia Busson is convinced that educational technology will fundamentally change education and training both at universities and in companies. With her think tank Edtech Tours, the German-Frenchwoman observes the digital training industry, with her Paris-based company Learnspace she supports European start-ups and advises companies and universities on the use of digital tools.

Edtech also has advantages beyond lockdown and travel restrictions, says Busson. Big data and artificial intelligence (AI) enable personalized learning with content from the professional context. Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) allow experimental learning – without a mistake having serious consequences: For example, a risky repair or management in crisis situations can be practiced safely in a virtual simulation. Collaboration over long distances and the use of collective knowledge can also be optimized through innovative apps and platforms.

There is still a long way to go from the zoom meeting to the legendary holodeck from the Star Trek series, but projects such as the virtual Neoma campus bring cyberspace a whole lot closer to real and social learning. With your virtual self, you are in the same place as others at the same time and can interact spontaneously, explains Professor Goudey.

Just like the French business school, universities in other countries have recently invested heavily in technical equipment with the aim of making hybrid teaching possible over the long term. Some students live in the lecture hall, others switched on virtually – this is how normal lectures will look like even after the end of the pandemic.

The European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) in Berlin has invested 400,000 euros in converting three lecture halls into hybrid classrooms with state-of-the-art audio and video technology. “We are convinced that the need for remote participation in events will be high even after the pandemic,” says managing director Georg Garlichs. “Regardless of whether as a pure online or a hybrid format.”

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The next education debate

An assessment that education researchers, training providers and companies largely share – even if some raise concerns. In further professional training, practical skills have to be practiced in some cases, and one also often has to deal with very heterogeneous groups, says Andreas Groß, professor at the Fraunhofer Academy in Bremen. Online formats quickly reached their limits here. “In terms of interactivity and flexibility, presence formats are unbeatable for me.”

In addition, it is pointless to rely solely on technology. “If you don’t invest in the people who use the technology, nothing qualitative can and will happen,” says Edtech expert Busson. Because digital learning must also be learned.

Matthias Waldkirch from EBS Universität sees it similarly. With a research project, he scientifically accompanied the development of digital formats at the private University of Economics and Law for a year. Like any craft, digital teaching also requires time, practice and regular reflection, says the professor of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Seen in this way, the pandemic also has its good points: “Thanks to Covid, we are finally discussing what makes good teaching again.” Regardless of whether it is virtual or in person.

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