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Connected Campuses: Connect to Reconnect

Three Questions to Gilles Babinet and Manon Guyot

INTERVIEW - 14 October 2019

Last May, the French Government announced the launch of thirteen "Connected Campus" spaces beginning of the 2019 academic year. The stated objective is to combine distance learning and student guidance in cities located far from university centres. Gilles Babinet, Advisor on digital issues at Institut Montaigne, and Manon Guyot, Policy Officer at Institut Montaigne, offer their analyses on this proposal for reconnecting the youth with their higher education.


What opportunities do you see in the development of connected campuses?

GILLES BABINET

The idea of establishing spaces dedicated to higher education with the potential of opening up territories without university systems is commendable, in so far as the experiments of which we are aware (mainly in the United States and Canada) have been assessed as being a real added value to students. This addresses the main weaknesses of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which typically face high dropout rates due to students being isolated in front of their screens. Centres provide virtual access to mentoring and group tutorials, but their most important feature is not necessarily digital. In fact, it is the ability to prevent the isolation that students tend to suffer from, for those in isolated territories, and for those based on university sites to a lesser degree.

For this initiative to be a success however, several pitfalls should be avoided. As a prerequisite, the digital platform must be of high quality. For the supervised course experience to be conclusively conducted online, as is the case for vocational training in large multinationals with scattered sites for example, several conditions must be met. Such conditions include having a high-quality video-conferencing platform which facilitates interaction between one or more mentors, teachers and students, in potentially large numbers. A Learning Management System that is flexible, allowing cinematic presentations in person, is also a requirement. Yet this is still far from a given among the most widespread market solutions available today.

It will also be imperative not to neglect the conviviality of the physical space. If the educational contribution of face-to-face interactions between students is undeniable, they will only make the effort to move beyond the virtual experience if the physical space is welcoming. This is far from the current reality in many universities.

Finally, some questions remain to be addressed. What type of interaction will be put in place with university systems? Will separate universities be able to share the same physical space? In this scenario, who will own the Learning Management System? Will universities have to harmonize their technical infrastructures in order to use such spaces? Far from being trivial, the quality of the experience will highly depend on the type of answers being provided to these questions. Independent of quality, these new centres’ success will be assessed on their dynamism, the quality of teaching and above all, the commitment shown to these spaces


What other developments should be considered to improve the use of digital technology in higher education?

MANON GUYOT

The OECD found that the under-exploitation of digital technology in higher education threatens France of marginalization on the global stage. This is why Institut Montaigne published in 2017 a report Digital and Higher Education: Stay Connected!, analyzing how higher education institutions should leverage opportunities offered by digital technology.

However, digital for the sake of digital is not enough. It is crucial to rethink traditional approaches to learning in order to develop digital pedagogy, to offer more dynamic content, to strengthen student support systems, and foster inter-student collaboration. Institut Montaigne recommends setting up Fablabs, projects led by groups of international students with trans-disciplinary backgrounds, currently a very rare occurrence in France. This would give students access to courses outside their institution and promote so-called "blended learning” that combines classroom and online teaching. These developments also require rethinking physical spaces and investing in new equipment.

Institut Montaigne’s 4th proposal: Renew universities’ and schools’ economic models thanks to a national concertation on the modalities and usages of digital tools in higher education, by carrying out the three following priorities: 

  • Reinforce the supply and organisation of courses: develop digital training, including in full-time courses, create dynamic, evolutive and collaborative content
  • Increase national investment dedicated to renewing training: significantly develop research or subject conversion leaves (Congés pour Recherche ou Conversion Thématique)
  • Initiate a great transformation of student life: invest in new equipments and infrastructures.

Digital technology can also be a solution against student dropout, by offering more personalised support to each student. This is indeed a major challenge. Only 40% of students pursue the same curriculum after their first year of bachelor’s degree. Given the completion rate for a three-year bachelor’s degree is only 27%, it is important to cultivate the use of learning analytics allowing teachers to receive feedback on their courses, through the Moodle software for example.

Finally, digitalized education requires from teachers that they develop the necessary pedagogical skills to provide interactive content enhancing students’ level of engagement with their learning experience.

Institut Montaigne’s 5th proposal: Develop the activity of research labs and digital and education experimentation centers, for higher education and research.


How is France positioned compared to other countries on these issues?

GILLES BABINET

In this respect, it is challenging to compare France with other countries because the stakes are not the same. With already several initiatives under its belt, Canada seems to have been a pioneer in this area, particularly with its "Centers for Distance Education" made possible by the intrinsic characteristics of its territory. The University of London has also had a centre of the same name for several decades that shares teaching resources with Commonwealth countries. Many other countries such as Australia, Germany and the United Arab Emirates have initiatives in the same vein. Educational and pedagogical work already exists to create a signposted trajectory for a country like France that would enable the launch of such an unprecedented historical initiative.

For this launch to be successful, partnerships should be initiated with the aforementioned foreign actors, and these partnerships should be managed by a team that is competent. For the growth and spread of these initiatives in the second phase, it would be a pity not to tap into the huge potential that Francophone Africa represents. That is, assuming that the first step is a success.

 

Copyright : ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

 

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