Diaries Of Executive Education During COVID-19 Pandemic
Chapter 4: Steering Corporate Mindsets towards Embracing Virtual Learning
By Reem Abouemera
Recount of Mariam Waguih, officer, Customized Programs
While the sudden move to virtual classrooms and online learning was a shake-up for many, it was an entirely different story in the world of corporate training. In March, when we notified our corporate clients of the unprecedented transition that had to be done, they all rejected the idea vehemently.
While they were most certainly still keen on up-skilling their employees, their concerns about the programs’ effectiveness took the upper hand. From worrying about the lack of interaction and communication all the way to assessment issues, dissatisfaction and discontent were the dominating emotions.
And since the change was a significant one, not to mention rapid, any attempts of assuring the clients that our team was perfectly prepared for the transition were unsuccessful. Hesitation was still center stage and the idea of a ‘Zoom’ or ‘Moodle classroom’ was displeasing.
That remained the case until we decided to execute a trial virtual session, gathering all of our corporate clients to showcase Zoom’s effectiveness in lively interaction. Step by step, we walked them through the precise tools intended to be used during the programs, how interaction was to be induced, how the sessions would flow, and more.
Only then did the clients start contemplating the idea and considering its pros, venting their worries and raising questions regarding attendance, quality control, and assessments. Their concerns were valid, especially considering that some clients (such as banks) required recruitment paper-pencil exams, while others taking rather technical courses required a written test format.
Our assessment unit tackled the testing issues by receiving training, executing simulations, and being fully acquainted with using Respondus, a proctoring and managing tool for online exams to replicate the classroom experience, eliminating all possibilities of cheating, opening books, accessing emails, and other support tools.
Receiving such a detailed and conclusive action plan for the clients testing concerns was the cherry on top of the trial sessions. It convinced almost all of our clients to proceed with virtual learning. Gradually, the 16 programs were collectively resumed, operating simultaneously. Over and above, new program runs have been requested and launched from scratch, catering to the diverse needs of corporates today.
Chapter 3: Authentic Learner Assessment for Online Programs: Rethinking Approaches
By Reem Abouemera
Recount of Yasmine Yehia, Instructors Affairs Manager and Naglaa Fawzy, Senior Program Development Manager
Only a year ago, before the COVID-19 wave began, the Program Development Unit was just a new initiative, with instructors working tirelessly and enthusiastically with instructional designers to set a new culture for program design and development. Between training subject-matter experts, reviewing designs and deliverables, and working closely with program managers, the overarching goal was to develop and deliver best in-class programs.
“We were at the doorstep of success and were waiting to celebrate it when we were hit by a new reality along with its challenges: COVID-19 and virtual learning,” reflects Naglaa, accurately describing the situation, and adding, “At one point, we felt like we were standing on shaky grounds again, overwhelmed by tasks and lacking clear directions.”
While the pandemic had hit earlier than March 22, it was only then that we were all confronted with its repercussions: shifting to online learning. The transition presented its unique set of challenges, but for Yasmine it meant that “My top priority was to adapt our 38 instructors to this changing learning environment, while turning to the program development unit for support.Primarily, my top concern was finding the sweet spot to blend swift action with a coherent learning experience that encourages interaction and meets the programs’ objectives. We decided to start by launching instructor training sessions to equip them for full-scope online learning.”
But then, there was a discussion regarding assessments in the new context. Traditionally, we had two methods for assessment: project-based assessments and timed exams. Within the online learning environment, timed exams were no longer feasible due to the difficulty of proctoring and their general ineffectiveness during the situation.
Accordingly, all timed exams were replaced with ‘major assignments,’ taking different formats, including reflection papers, case studies with presentations, or project-based assignments and presentations. This was undoubtedly a major variation from standard practice and required its own training to acquaint both instructors and participants with guidelines, outlines, and rubrics that evaluations were to be based on to corroborate the course objectives.
While seemingly simple, this was, in fact, a lengthy trial and error phase that involved significant A/B testing and experimentation. We continuously reset out training strategies to meet our almost daily changing needs. Not to mention that instructors were understandably taken aback by the situation in the beginning, and accordingly, their engagement levels weren’t at par with what was usual; we could sense it.
However, with more training and increased open-channel communication, the confidence levels began to elevate. What started with confusion and isolation, quickly escalated to teamwork and engagement. In turn, the participants felt the confidence and positive morale that came from the instructors. Sessions and participants quickly turned into busy hives with engaged bees working in groups, discussing opinions, brainstorming ideas, and delivering effective presentations.
One of our prominent marketing instructors, Lisa Assaf, tells us, “I always admire the quote: ‘Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.’ I had the passion to create a pleasant and efficient experience when moving from face-to-face to online teaching. Still, the significant challenge was how to replace human interaction and ensure high engagement levels with participants. Over time, however, I realized that there are different types of interaction made possible with technological tools.”
She continues, “Sure, initially it wasn’t my cup of tea, and it wasn’t an easy task, but training helped a lot. Ironically, although we were ‘forced’ to move online due to the pandemic, I have to admit that online teaching does have its benefits, the most obvious being the delivery flexibility. Actually, I like to think of the future of our learning experience to be a blended one.”
The new assessment methods were both successful and fruitful. Yasmine notes that “the depth of the discussions and engagement levels between participants and instructors was sky-high! There was harmony that I was immensely proud of, and I was impressed with how online tools were used to the fullest, including polls, breakout rooms, whiteboards, leveled questioning techniques, Kahoot, Nearpod, and more.I personally believe that this period benefited us in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The skills I’m learning are invaluable, and I think this goes for everyone on the team. If anyone had previously asked me what agility meant, I wouldn’t have really known. But now, I feel like I can put it into words.”
Naglaa wraps the situation up neatly, stating, “The experience made me think of all of us as the ‘Alchemist,’ who has an extraordinary capacity to deal with many situations at multiple levels simultaneously, creating something magnificent through a seemingly magical process. Like the Alchemist, we continue to explore, experiment, adjust and redesign. We fail at times but keep trying until we finally succeed. At some point, we did feel like magicians who always had hidden and unexpected solutions up their sleeves to resolve issues.”
We couldn’t agree more!
Chapter 2: Fulfillment During Crisis Management: An Anecdote Behind the Scenes
By Reem Abouemera
Recount of Mohamed Hussein, program officer
May 17, 2020
Last Thursday, during our weekly meeting, I found myself voicing how proud I was of myself and of my accomplishments since the day the university announced the move to online learning; Sunday, March 15. What appeared to be a ‘regular’ day at work had suddenly become not so regular, and almost overnight, the world as we know it had changed.
I recollect how stunt I felt as a program officer. The main thought at the forefront of my mind was how the participants of the programs I was responsible for, around 250 individuals, would receive this decision; with full resistance and rejection.
Since then, we’ve been working diligently and tirelessly to make the transition as smooth as possible and to adapt to the new normal. The real test came when we had to inform participants of the new learning method. As I anticipated, the flood of emails and calls was surreal. There was strong opposition to the idea and a refusal to accept the new ‘normal.’ From angry participants to refund requests, we saw it all!
All trials of showcasing the potential benefits of virtual learning were met with opposition and refusal to accept the idea, with some participants having already made up their minds on choosing to withdraw from the programs. A series of back and forth negotiations were enacted in hopes of persuading the participants to merely try the idea before passing judgment. Opportunely, the effectiveness of our trial sessions proved to be pivotal in retaining and reassuring our participants.
Fast-forward to today, after almost a month of online instruction, we are witnessing a genuine transformation in participants’ perception of online learning. The feedback we receive after classes is a testament to the fact that our hard work has paid off. Hearing comments like, “You are role models in transitioning to online learning” and “Online courses are not as bad as I thought before trying them” are among the best moments of my life.
Today, it has become an everyday occurrence to hear participants say that the experience is rewarding, fulfilling, convenient, and effective. What’s even better is that they aren’t praising us for the sake of complements; they attest to the same even when presented with anonymous surveys! The vast majority praise the swift action, while numerous others acknowledge specific aspects of the process, like the privilege of time-efficiency, the interactive tools, the effort exerted by instructors, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Around 92% of our 220 participants are truly finding the experience unique and rewarding.
I recall a notable testimonial by Mai Hafez, one of the participants who was set against online learning and was among those who chose to immediately pull back from her program post-lockdown. Hearing her today, she expresses: “Of course I was worried about different aspects; the chance of the learning experience falling apart, the absence of interaction, the unstable network connections, and much more. However, when I tried it, the interaction with the instructor is still as perfect, and regardless of whether my network is unsteady or not, the sessions are recorded so I can refer to them later. The experience also saves a lot of time because the commute aspect is gone. I truly need to thank everyone who made this shift so unique. I’m very happy that I reclaimed my decision and continued the course.”
Now, thinking back, I’m not only proud of myself, but of all my colleagues. While we are living in a time of crisis, this is the best period of my work experience, a true attestation to our teamwork, and the literal definition of ‘we’re in this together’ with loyalties demonstrated.
CHAPTER 1: HOW WE HIT THE GROUND RUNNING?
By Mohamed Abdel Salam
April 26, 2020
Who would believe that just one month ago, it was business as usual? With over 40 face2face sessions running regularly on a weekly basis, the only shadow cast by the Coronavirus (it wasn’t yet commonly referred to as COVID-19) was the University announcing the installation of hand sanitizers around campus with the advice that washing hands still remains the most effective method for infection prevention.
It took less than a week for the announcement that all face2face sessions had been suspended. This was followed closely by the decision to limit presence on campus to the absolute necessity for critical cases, and have all staff members ready to conduct their duties from the safety of their own homes; a frantic chase to secure equipment, establish VPN connections to university platforms and secure internet access to the ones who needed it.
Fast forward to the present day. Teams have settled into a comfortable routine of online communication and collaboration, 34 open enrollment courses are already stable and successfully running live online with 25 instructors and over 1000 participants, with the rest of the 40 programs scheduled to commence within the next week. Moreover, corporate clients initially shying away from completing their courses online and preferring to postpone the rest of their sessions, agreed to resume their programs online after receiving an orientation on online delivery and attending trial sessions that included their participants and their L&D managers.
Who can believe that all of this happened in just one month? Can’t wait to see what we’ll be doing one month from now.