How can business students get the best from remote study?
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For students who have decided to start a masters in management this year despite the disruption caused by coronavirus, there is one key difference from previous years: they are as likely to be studying alone at home or in their campus bedroom as they are to be coming together with others in the business school classroom or coffee shop.
While many institutions are offering at least limited face-to-face teaching, there will be record levels of online study in the coming months, raising fresh challenges for those forced to study remotely as well as network and socialise at long distance. Faculty are gearing up to advise the new cohort on dealing with the disruption of the “new normal”.
“It must be very disappointing for students who were looking forward to attending campus-based courses to have to start their studies online,” says David Lefevre, director of the edtech lab at Imperial College Business School, London.
He argues that students need to adapt by taking firm control. “My main advice would be to be proactive in participating in this community, by speaking up in classes, engaging in extracurricular activities, reaching out to fellow students and quickly communicating any difficulties to administration staff,” he says.
That view is widely shared. “It’s very important for students to think about how to make the best of it,” says Caryn Beck-Dudley, the new head of accreditation body the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. “They have to take ownership of their education and force their school to give them the quality experience they want online: in coursework, networking, meeting other alumni, doing career development, seeking internships and jobs.”
For Leigh-Anne Perryman, a lecturer in online learning at the UK’s Open University, which has specialised in remote learning for half a century, the change could be positive. Online brings “a massive number of benefits”, she says, including the option to “study at your own pace, in your own time”. She points to the wide range of additional resources online — many of them free — that are available beyond those recommended by any particular school, including courses produced by platforms such as Merlot, the Khan Academy and the OU’s own OpenLearn.
Yet Perryman also cautions about the need for discipline, structure and techniques to avoid time-wasting, information overload and digital disruption. “Plan a schedule and be realistic,” she says. “Put time in for getting your set-up right and avoiding distractions. Study in the same place, with minimal interruptions.”
Practical tips, notably for those working from home, include negotiating with others in a shared household over use of the internet to maintain good bandwidth. That might mean others not downloading movies during a webinar, for instance.
Perryman stresses the importance of varying tasks during periods of study: “Reading, watching and listening, so it is not just all screen time.” In as far as students have flexibility in their timetables, she says it can be more productive to undertake the most challenging tasks in the morning and easier ones such as watching video or listening to a podcast in the afternoon. She also stresses the importance of building in down time, including informal breaks and chats with other students. “Best practice for online modules is 30 minutes,” she says. “You are limited by what’s being offered, but when possible take regular breaks.”
Professor Valérie Claude-Gaudillat, director of the Institute for Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship at France’s Audencia Business School in Nantes, agrees. “Take good care of yourself: fatigue and boredom are also learning inhibitors,” she says. “It is essential to have a quiet, dedicated study space, to be very attentive to physical posture, to take breaks, to relax mentally and physically, and to laugh.”
Prof Claude-Gaudillat recommends that students keep a “learning diary” and take notes during courses. “It may seem paradoxical in the digital world, but taking notes encourages reflection and learning,” she says. “Whether it’s traditional [style] in a notebook or via an app, students shouldn’t neglect this habit but reinforce it.”
A final area of advice relates to sensitivity to others. Perryman stresses the importance of using respectful, jargon-free communication, particularly in courses with students from different parts of the world. “Take time to understand others’ views, be open to difference, and remember that the to and fro of face-to-face classes is very different online. You need to be more mindful, respectful and constructive.”
François Ortalo-Magné, dean at London Business School, also calls for “generosity” and understanding from students towards course administrators because of the changes wrought by coronavirus. “Not everything will work at its best, but we have a shared responsibility in these times,” he says, citing one of last year’s student organisers who called for “no complaints without solutions”.
He has a final plea for students attending masters courses this year at least partly on campus, against the backdrop of the threat of Covid-19 transmission. With some US institutions imposing tougher controls after students failed to respect social-distancing measures, he says: “Students have a real role to play in helping to keep us open.”