Comment: Remote learning has benefits, but it has limits too

Covid-19 has accelerated the move to online learning at third level, but it‘s more important than ever to ensure that the development of a student stays at the centre of an industry that is increasingly controlled by technology

Susan Walsh, second from left, at a graduation ceremony: ‘We need visionaries who are willing to put strength and power behind human-centred models’

In an era when traditional industries are being disrupted, education had largely remained untouched, but the Covid-19 crisis has just changed that. Major disruption is now here.

The swift move to online learning could allow the large tech giants to get a foothold. It is early days yet, but these companies will likely build completely new systems of third-level education, unhampered by traditional structures or ways of being.

A one-size-fits-all approach with the aim of making education convenient, accessible and appealing may become the norm. This type of education will be very successful and will perfectly suit the needs of a large percent of the marketplace. But that does not mean it should be the only option.

There is also niche, of which I have had first-hand experience for the last 14 years. I spent 11 years of my life studying business, from degree right through to PhD. I walked out of that process not knowing how to apply what I had learned and, more importantly, not sure where I fitted in.

In 2006 personal circumstances led me to Germany, where I set up the Globe Business College in Munich to give the next generation the things I felt were lacking in my education. This involves an experience focused on character building. Each student is shaped constantly over the three years so when they graduate they are skilled and confident. They also know the contribution they can make to the world and they have a strong network to assist them in doing that.

Many of our students come from successful Mittelstand or family-run companies. Their parents believe in and are looking for a human-driven, relationship-based education for their children.

The journey to develop the college and keep it alive was incredibly difficult. At every stage, we swam against the traditional norms of the industry.

One day early on, I flew to Dublin at 6am for meetings with a number of universities to secure the partner we needed to offer an Irish degree in Germany. At one meeting, I walked into a boardroom of men, most over the age of 60, who grilled me on my plans. After I painted my vision for a bespoke college offering customised education to a niche target group, the first question was: “How big is your library?” My dream was alien in a world where the size of the campus or the number of faculties are the key measures of success.

We had to work hard from day one. I was adamant that we would build the college without any interference that could ultimately try to shape the model and system we were creating. We had a limited marketing budget so recruitment happened through word of mouth, which means we didn’t have the luxury of making promises and not delivering.

It was also a very slow process as people don’t recommend you unless they are convinced of the quality of what you are doing and you have gained their trust. That trust is also linked to pricing, and it has to be built before the marketplace is willing to pay the amount required to facilitate a bespoke model.

Through the hard times, the thing that kept me going was the success we had with the individual students. The traditional entry requirement to operate in the third-level educational industry is a government-recognised degree. The value in our education, however, has little to do with pre-determined learning outcomes. The real value is the exchange process that constantly challenges our students to stretch and move beyond their comfort zones to consistently become more structured and focused. It makes them think on their feet, look at the bigger picture, have empathy, be dynamic, communicate in real time and take effective decisions.

As one of our alumni, Max, puts it: “You can’t hide, they know your name. You write your assignments. You try to do a good job because you know you will meet the people who are reading those assignments in the small kitchen the next day and the day after and somehow you don’t want to disappoint them.”

In this relationship model, the parents form the third point of the triangle. They effectively accompany their sons and daughters on the journey of third-level education in a much more pragmatic way than is normal in the traditional educational system.

In our case, because we are aimed at the niche that is the sons and daughters of the Mittelstand, we have some of the top business leaders and family company owners in Europe feeding into our education as mentors, internship providers and case study sources for assessments.

Access to these companies and the individuals who run them, which otherwise would be impossible, is made easy because of the relationship we have with their children and the appreciation they have for the time and energy that we invest in developing their sons and daughters. This access becomes one of the key values in the relationship model, it cannot be bought and it takes years to build.

We recently held one of our “Globe at Home” events by webinar using Zoom, the video-conferencing platform. Globe at Home is a concept we designed to bring parents of potential students together with our network, and is held regularly, usually in person and in the homes or businesses of our parents.

During the event, Patrick von Hertzberg, an uncle of one of our alumni, described our education as “moving students from static to dynamic thinking which creates leaders, not sheep following the herd”. Our students don’t want convenience and the quick fix but rather an education that is holistic, consistent and centred on true skill and competence development.

While there is a push now for more remote access to third-level education and for online learning, there is an opportunity at this relationship end of the continuum too, not just a business opportunity but also an opportunity to ensure that the development of a student stays at the centre of an educational industry that is increasingly controlled by technology.

Remote, Zoom-based webinars and events leave me cold, but during this crisis they have also awakened a realisation in me. I stepped up in 2006 and did all in my power to develop a relationship-based model of education and keep it alive in a traditional industry that did not fully recognise its value. I know I need to step up again so the model is sustainable in the new industry.

But others must too. We need visionaries who are willing to put strength and power behind human-centred models before the Googles and Amazons of the world, who through this crisis have even more power and resources, decide to reshape what education is.

Dr Susan Walsh is dean of the Globe Business College Munich