Eight challenges facing distance-learning

By Jean-François Fiorina, Vice-Dean / Program Director at Grenoble Ecole de Management

The theme for this year’s GEM Geopolitics Festival was “Digital (R)evolution.” Little did we know that this topic was going to be 100% spot-on as the COVID-19 pandemic just showed us how central digital issues are for businesses and educational institutions’ crisis management (and survival).

The Festival’s event planning team, with its agile mindset, managed to transform the event into an e-festival while maintaining its initial topic. In the festival, originally set in the “World before the COVID-19 crisis”, I was scheduled to talk about the School of the Future. This is the online version of my contribution adapted to the current global context: “With the COVID, has e-learning earned its credentials?”
? The conference is available on YouTube.

The answer is obviously yes, as all institutions were obliged to find solutions to ensure the continuity of their teaching. The context was more about “Emergency remote learning” than pure e-learning. Nevertheless, a lot of preconceptions and stereotypes have been wiped out. Now, we need to “rethink” the future and for this I have identified 8 challenges. For those who have done me the honor of following me for a long time now, you will notice that I was already talking about some in the “World before”. The life-size experiment we have just faced makes them even more essential.

1. The importance of pedagogy

I have always said it and say it again loud and clear: Pedagogical skills must be the foundation. E-learning is only a means to convey knowledge or prepare for skills. Let us not confuse the end with the means! This will involve accepting the segmentation of faculty. Thus, future educational institutions will have to manage different faculty bodies.

2. A strategy for institutions or new actors for education?

We will need to position ourselves in relation to an educational value chain, by choosing to cover the entire chain or specific elements. This should lead to new strategic models based on:
  •  Coopetition
  • Mutualisation
  • Alliance
  • Eco-system
  • New actors
The b-school of the future shall be the school of different b-models at the heart of different eco-systems. For us b-schools, we will also need to imagine new pedagogical models: from blended to hybrid that take into account all activities linked to the student experience. Watch out for new actors, both “small” and “big”, who might disrupt the market, especially as all higher-education systems will suffer financially post-lockdown. Contrary to popular belief, e-learning is expensive. It would be risky for an institution to adopt a cost-cutting approach in this area.

3. Standards and quality criteria recognised by all

Planning must be on two levels:
  •  Taking into account e-learning in “global” procedures of major accreditation bodies AACSB / EQUIS / AMBA / CEFDG
  • Creating certification labels / specific procedures.
Some already exist: EOCCS (EFMD) – (GEM MOOC “Global studies” is accredited), 4digital (CGE label). They are necessary but it shouldn’t become too confusing either.

4. Addressing the issue of knowledge assessment and skills certification

Most of the articles on the topic of e-learning during the lockdown were on this issue. I also addressed it in a blog post. The assessment includes:
  •  Assessment method (how is the student going to be evaluated)
  • Procedures (how the professor is going to assess)
  • Preventing cheating
  • Process (how does the institution manage the entire process – electronic copies, for instance)
  • Data analysis by the professor
There is no comprehensive solution at this time but well-positioned players in each of these segments. Progress in this area will permit us to reach a real milestone for both key actors and institutions.

5. Training faculty

Training faculty to best use digital instructional technologies doesn’t happen overnight. I read last week that the use of these new tools had caused distress for some faculty members. It is essential to raise awareness, train, support, and value faculty members in this learning process. This has to be done from the very start of their training.
At GEM, we devote a lot of resources to our faculty’s continuing education with, in addition, a dedicated help desk. It also entails adopting a policy to reinforce and support educational innovation.

6. Training and prepping our students

We do not learn in the same way “at a distance” as face-to-face. A recent article in the Figaro talked about a sense of weariness even in the best of students.
This is completely normal and we must prepare students to this type of learning. But this assumes that they have good general knowledge (to be able to identify fake news, for example), autonomy to be able to be organized, sturdy work discipline, as well as supervision and follow-up by their professors, school and close personal circle.

7. Leave room for experimentation and initiatives

This is probably the most difficult challenge in France because of the strong centralization of the ministries of “Education Nationale” and “Enseignement Supérieur”. How do we solve the agility – flexibility equation in a constrained environment?!

8. Access to digital for all: students (financial costs) and “white areas”

Let’s be careful that this does not create new inequalities. For this very reason, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research (MESR) refused that some exams be carried out 100% online.
Many challenges remain but I have noted a lot of goodwill. Let this not be about a new trend or dogma. One may wonder why this talk was included in our Geopolitics Festival. The answer is clear (or more accurately, the answers are clear…):
  • Education is a soft-power element
  • The economic challenges are enormous (and will be even more so after the crisis)
  • The issue of “educational sovereignty” is essential with the arrival of the GAFAM on the market (I had announced in 2016 that they were to become our competitors)