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Moving Beyond “Emergency Remote Teaching”: Rediscovering e-Learning

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Online learning has never been as relevant as today, particularly for people working in an international context. During the pandemic, all regular courses at the University of Geneva have moved online in order to ensure continuity of teaching and learning. However, some continuing education programs had already been implemented as full-fledged e-Learning programs long before the pandemic. What does that mean exactly? Participants from all over the world embark on a learning journey, which is based on a solid instructional design that aligns learning activities with learning outcomes and participants’ personal learning objectives. Such an approach is indeed more comprehensive than the emergency remote teaching format that has emerged due to the pandemic. The short executive course International Water Law and the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, a 11-week online course delivered by Faculty of Law, is one of the University of Geneva’s flagship e-learning programs.


Brigitte Perrin, UNIGE

Since 2016, 170 professionals from a variety of backgrounds, involved in negotiating or implementing treaties related to transboundary freshwater resources, have been trained online. They learned about the principles and norms that govern the usage, sharing, management, and protection of this resource. The course is delivered in English and in French and is mainly addressed to professionals from developing and least developed countries. They can learn, work, and meet colleagues coming from all over the world for 10 hours of personal work per week over 11 weeks.

For international organizations, the e-Learning format may at times be more cost- and time-effective than a traditional face-to-face training course: participants keep working on their day job and no travel costs or per-diems are incurred. Courses are adapted to the professionals’ schedules, which sometimes involve operating in very challenging settings. “We could have set up face-to-face trainings in some regions, but it would require travel and staff time during entire weeks”, explains Dr. Mara Tignino, co-director of the program, lecturer and researcher at the Faculty of Law and the Institute for Environmental Sciences. This e-learning course is unique in the field of International Water Law. It is organized by the Geneva Water Hub, a global center on hydropolitics and hydrodiplomacy of the University of Geneva. The Geneva Water Hub believes that the training of professionals on transboundary water management may avoid tension among riparian countries, so that water can be used as a tool for cooperation and conflict prevention.


“Our main challenge was to create a close relationship with and between participants, despite the distance. We made it, but I must admit that it requires much more energy and work than to manage a group in a face-to-face format.”



24/7 Engagement to support motivation and build professional ties

“Our main challenge was to create a close relationship with and between participants, despite the distance. We made it, but I must admit that it requires much more energy and work than to manage a group in a face-to-face format”, says Monica Nunez, course manager and e-learning specialist. Both the course manager and the co-director work intensively to make sure participants get replies to their questions (in half a day maximum). “They must not lose their motivation, otherwise they may drop out. It is our responsibility to provide them with detailed feedback that they can use to move forward”, says Nunez.


“We usually create very strong relationships with participants, because we have to go through all their work and assessments in full detail. We end up knowing them personally…, even better than in a classroom sometimes!”


Some former participants have had the opportunity to meet colleagues, experts or teaching staff in person at international conferences. “We usually create very strong relationships with participants, because we have to go through all their work and assessments in full detail. We end up knowing them personally…, even better than in a classroom sometimes!”, Tignino says.


The challenges of learning during the pandemic


“They all wanted to succeed by all means necessary, despite the situation. I don’t think I ever experienced that level of commitment in a face-to-face course.”


The pandemic has exacerbated the issue of internet access for some participants, who no longer have access to their office. In their course, Tignino and Nunez provided special assistance, sending documents, assignments and course material by email and provided participants with additional time to submit their work. “They all wanted to succeed by all means necessary, despite the situation. I don’t think I ever experienced that level of commitment in a face-to-face course”, says Nunez. Flexibility is important for those studying from places with unstable internet connection or in a conflict zone. Instructor feedback has to take the learner’s environment into consideration.


Changing the way to teach

Mara Tignino worked hard on transforming her regular course into an e-learning program a couple of years ago. A smart move, as 2020 proved: “E-learning has completely changed my perspective on teaching. When I saw my colleagues struggling to teach remotely on Zoom during the Spring, I realized how important it was to think of a curriculum specific to distance learning. Most of the teachers had to shift to emergency remote teaching - but that’s not e-learning.”


“It is interesting to change the way we interact with people: we can see first-hand how they apply what they learn. It creates a stimulating exchange between theory and practice.”


Tignino and Nunez designed their course together in 2016. They adapted the original curriculum for online delivery, created specific assessment activities (including case studies), recorded videos and extended their teaching beyond the initial cohort of lawyers, nowadays half of the participants do not have a legal background. Among others, the International Water Law and the Law of Transboundary Aquifers short course makes use of interactive lessons, webinars and videos, scenario-based exercises, guided research assignments, as well as discussion forums. “It is interesting to change the way we interact with people: we can see first-hand how they apply what they learn. It creates a stimulating exchange between theory and practice,” says Tignino.


Constant updating

Some people may think that creating an e-learning course will mean that instructors will not have to update their course curriculum as much. Though some parts can be replicated, an e-learning format requires as many updates as a regular course. Participants have high expectations. They want accurate and up-to-date information. In the rapidly-moving field of Water Law due to political and geopolitical dimensions, new expertise is needed every year. The technical side of teaching is challenging too: e-learning platforms and tools are also in constant evolution. The program team therefore has to upskill constantly.

 


A recipe for success


There are many ways to build a successful e-learning course. The Center for Continuing and Distance Education at the University of Geneva has a dedicated team that works alongside Faculties to build e-learning courses or transform existing face-to-face programmes into blended or distance learning courses.

“The key for an efficient e-learning course that remains relevant is first and foremost a strong instructional design. Starting from the targeted learning outcomes and participants’ learning objectives, the curriculum should offer a diversity of learning activities, both synchronous and asynchronous, in order to keep participants engaged and motivated. It is also crucial that program leaders explain their choices in terms of tools and activities, so that participants may claim full ownership of their learning journey. In order to support learning, the pedagogical team also needs to remain highly engaged with participants, providing them with regular feedback. When possible, adding a face-to-face practical component can be highly beneficial. It enables participants to apply what they have learned through case-studies, role-play simulations and other collaborative activities,” says Dr Raphaël Zaffran, Head of Learning, Programme Development & Partnerships at UNIGE’s Centre for Continuing and Distance Education. The Center for Continuing and Distance Education provides support to all faculty and staff in their endeavors to create continuing and distance education programmes. It coordinates and is an active contributor to UNIGE’s Portal for Online and Blended Learning.

Les termes utilisés pour désigner des personnes sont pris au sens générique; ils ont à la fois la valeur d'un masculin et d'un féminin.