The Surprising Intimacy of Online Learning

Early last month, before coronavirus launched our massive, worldwide experiment in distance learning, Julie and I had the good fortune to spend a few days at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business. Over the last three years, Gies decided to take its MBA programs online — first creating a new kind of curriculum, custom-designed for the medium, from the ground up; then doubling down and discontinuing its residential programs altogether.

Now more than 3200 students from all over the world are enrolled in the Gies iMBA, where they learn from a first-rate faculty, supported by a large and innovative e-Learning Team and a small army of course assistants. For Gies students, recorded video lectures are only the textbook. The real learning happens in vibrant live discussions, running simultaneously on the main screen and in the chatbox; in well-attended virtual office hours; and in group projects worked out through Zoom, at all hours of day and night.

It’s technically and technologically dazzling. But after talking to dozens of students, faculty, and staff, what sticks with us is the human side of the equation. Over and over, students touted their networks: faculty-turned-mentors, classmates-turned-friends, people they will drop everything to talk to online or host when they are in town. Faculty, meanwhile, all came back to the intimacy of the online experience. For some who have spent a lifetime in lecture halls, it has been a delightful surprise to look their students in the eye, to feel the energy of digital engagement, and to watch some traditional barriers drop away.

Three of those experts — ­ Larry DeBrockNorma Scagnoli and Fataneh Taghaboni-Duttashare those experiences in a piece posted today on Inside Higher Ed, along with some great tips for cultivating that extraordinary level of engagement. It’s worth taking a look, whether you suddenly find yourself with a new, professional interest in quality online learning, or whether you would just like a little silver lining along with the hard news of recent days.

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