07 Jul Transitioning to Online Learning: The EIMF Experience
Without a doubt, COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the way we do business. During this pandemic, many physical offices closed, pushing people to work remotely and adopt technologies that, while already in existence, were not predominantly used. And just like the business world, the education sector has also been widely affected by the coronavirus crisis; a host of schools, universities and other academic institutions have moved their classes online, challenging instructors to rapidly prepare for and adapt to this new reality.
As with most academic institutions in Cyprus, EIMF was also required to temporarily shut its doors to traditional classes and fully embrace online education. Even though EIMF had already set up an advanced and extensive roster of online courses via its EIMF eLearning Experience, this transition has helped the organization perfect its delivery of virtual classes. At the same time, it has allowed EIMF to reflect on the importance of online education, its processes and overall potential, and its effect on the student’s learning experience.
In a recent discussion, as part of an online training session with the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment (CISI), EIMF’s CEO Marios Siathas delved deeper into what it has meant for the organization to take on the role of an online education provider, some of the challenges it has faced, and the many excellent prospects for the future.
What makes a good virtual training course?
The key components to making any virtual classroom work are the technologies applied and the support offered to students to help them work out kinks and navigate said platforms.
EIMF follows a dual approach in terms of delivering online education. On the one hand, via asynchronous eLearning, participants can find presentations, pre-recorded videos, books, student guides and other materials that are part of the course, and on the other hand, regular live online courses are hosted that are scheduled and carried out while offering participants easy access and support services if required.
More specifically, when it comes to the live online session, EIMF has assigned a staff member to concurrently log in to manage the virtual classroom at the start of the session and help participants with any tech issues (audio, video, connectivity, etc.,) that might arise. This allows the instructor to focus on the delivery of the material and not have to interrupt the session as a result of technical problems. This process generally occurs during the first meeting when participants are logging in for the first time and getting to know the platform to be used.
Finally, in order to continuously improve the delivery of the online course, it is crucial to follow up with all participants and attain their overall feedback on the online learning experience. Were their questions answered? Were there any additional materials that could have enhanced their experience? What did they think of the technology and the instructor’s teaching style? An exit questionnaire that is built into the course and available via the learning platform used, provides an excellent way to compile feedback that can be applied to future sessions.
How have you adapted your material to suit online delivery?
It was necessary to make several changes to the material enabling the transfer of EIMF’s courses (that were only offered via traditional methods) to the online world.
For instance, the content found in the course’s presentation had to be made more visual; this meant adding more colour and photos and keeping text to a minimum in many cases. In order to keep the screen more interesting for the participants, most of the text-based materials used were added to the student guide, which is available offline.
Additionally, in the spirit of interactivity, specially developed online materials that call for action by the participants were used throughout the learning. For example, a click to answer a question or to flip a card to get additional information on a subject, amongst other techniques.
Finally, EIMF encourages and prompts participants to talk more during the online session. Increased participation comes in handy when trying to keep virtual classes engaging and informative.
How do you keep students engaged throughout your courses?
For the live session, our tutors use several methodologies to keep participants engaged. This includes encouraging participants to share their own experiences, allowing participants to prepare deliverables and share their screen to present them to the rest of the class, and polls that are created beforehand.
Another valuable tool is to use breakout rooms where students can gather in smaller groups to discuss case studies and questions, complete exercises and presentations, thus also developing their teamwork skills.
Besides encouraging greater classroom participation, EIMF has broken down courses into shorter sessions in an effort to keep students engaged throughout their course. For example, courses that were once offered in one day have been split and are now delivered over two days. It is difficult for participants to remain attentive and engaged for long periods of time in front of a screen, and this breakdown helps retain attention and embed the knowledge delivered.
Furthermore, splitting the course into shorter sessions allows the EIMF team to develop more materials and exercises for students to do while they are offline. For instance, branching scenarios have been developed as well as simulations, short quizzes, polls and pre-recorded videos to stimulate students during their time away from the live classroom.
Finally, as explained by Tim Cakir, a digital business professor at ESEI in Barcelona, instructors should encourage students to turn on their cameras as “seeing each other’s faces might reduce feelings of isolation.”
“Sitting in the living room or on the bed while taking part in a class can also make students feel more at ease than if they were in a classroom,” something Cakir believes may also enhance the overall learning experience.
What challenges have you faced while delivering virtual trainings and how have you overcome them?
This might sound obvious but the main challenges EIMF has faced as it has transitioned to online classrooms are technological in nature. Below we will highlight some of the main challenges our team has come across.
Internet Connection: Shaky or unreliable Internet connections have posed a challenge in the delivery of some of our classes. Students cannot be heard or seen, the instructor’s delivery breaks up, or the presentation is blurry. It is always good to run a test session with the instructor to make sure everything, at least on their end, the internet is running smoothly.
Company Restrictions: We have found that many companies have policies or restrictions in place that prevent them from using Zoom, the software EIMF has opted to use. In this case, we have had to find alternative ways of bridging technologies and using Skype or Microsoft Teams to best accommodate those participants.
Record Keeping: In order to fairly hand out Continuous Professional Development (CPD) credits, it is crucial for us to keep close track of who attended each session and for how long. Equally important, industry associations and other regulatory bodies have the right to request our attendance records in the event that they want to challenge a CPD claim.
Recordings: In very rare cases, we may need to review a recording to gauge whether or not any complaints or concerns expressed about a trainer, course or, in extreme situations, another participant, are justified. Recordings take place to protect all participants and keep them safe during the remote experience. It also protects our trainers if participants allege that something has happened during the course that should not have occurred.
Coordination: A minor challenge faced has been the coordinating with participants to make sure they have all the materials necessary to participate in the class and complete all of its requirements. This includes providing them with materials in a format that will allow them to focus during the course and best execute assignments, classroom work and other activities required for its completion.
Building a Friendly Environment: Sitting in front of a computer attending an online class can be a lonely and sometimes a futile exercise. Hence, it is paramount to build a friendly classroom environment from the get-go. To do this, we ask participants prior to the beginning of the session to turn on their cameras and engage in a few icebreaking and getting-to-know-one-another activities. Our ultimate goal is to make everyone feel comfortable and provide them with plenty of information on how to use the technology, how the course will be structured, and what the instructor’s expectation vis-à-vis the students are.
Similarly, our trainers often express how difficult it is to train people they cannot see. Hence, we promote as much interaction (cameras on!) as possible between students and the instructor, even instances in which the actual students serve as trainers. Even with limited participation during a course, a participants facial reactions and gestures might shed light on their level of concentration and interest in the material and trigger a change to how the trainer handles a specific situation. For example, if everyone seems very interested in a particular subject, the trainer may delve into greater detail. If not, the trainer can move on and tackle something else.
How have you adapted your marketing for the delivery of virtual trainings?
This transition to virtual classrooms has also pushed EIMF to adapt its marketing efforts and retarget them to best suit the online education world.
In this regard, EIMF has primarily focused on the language being used, explaining in greater detail how the courses are delivered, how the technology works, and what is required from the learner prior to joining the first session, as well as other important information. Showing up to class on the first day to find out all the course’s intricacies and requirements is no longer applicable.
Furthermore, the move to more online learning has opened plenty of doors for EIMF to collaborate with companies and other institutions abroad looking to set up online trainings of their own. So far, we have worked with partner institutions in Israel, Romania and Bulgaria and are currently undergoing discussions to develop similar trainings in Nigeria.
What is the most exciting aspect of this new working environment for EIMF?
Undoubtedly, what excites EIMF the most about this transition is the further internationalization of the classroom. It is very refreshing to host courses with individuals from different geographical regions, each one bringing on board very specific experiences, perspectives and cultural elements that can only enhance everyone’s overall learning experience. For instance, in recent training sessions, we have had students from Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, Greece, England, Russia and Romania, to name a few.
Furthermore, online education provides EIMF with a wider breadth of trainers to choose from. Trainers no longer need to spend time traveling to teach a course but can do so from the comfort of their home or office. Similarly, we can now rely on more trainers without having to consider any geographic restrictions, even having multiple trainers cover a course that in the past was delivered by just one individual. We have even had specialized guest speakers pop in for a thirty-minute session to deliver a short lecture, something that was very difficult to do in a traditional classroom setting.
Overall, EIMF is very excited about the prospects of online education as we see more and more people transition to remote work, while more individuals are on the lookout for courses, certifications and degrees that will offer them an extra push to attain better paid jobs, promotions and increased professional satisfaction.