A major outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe has been a surge in online distance learning. As they say, necessity is a great mother of both innovation and change. With schools, universities, and other educational institutions closed, online teaching became the only way to keep the learning process going, ensuring that students did not miss out on academic schedules, in the difficult, painful months since March 2020. At the same time, in many parts of the world, where online distance learning was long a norm and a method of choice, new ideas have evolved. A disaster thus becomes an opportunity, in its own way.
Let us be candid. Many foreign ministries have long resisted distance learning, be it out of conservatism, or resistance to change among the senior leadership at foreign ministries. Perhaps among the diplomatic training institution, faculty have been apprehensive over re-learning new teaching methodologies. However, in reality, neither is the change drastic nor difficult. And it brings a huge amount of value. Let us look at a bit of background, before getting into the real, tangible benefits of online learning.
Canada was among the first converts to online distance teaching. So was the United States. It was only in the past ten years that some European diplomatic academies began to experiment in this direction. We may note among them the UK Diplomatic Academy, launched in 2015, which from the outset has treated distance learning as a prime platform of choice. Australia, China, India and Japan were among the resisting foreign ministry training institutions, but that may now have changed. In contrast, both Africa and Latin America have been open-minded for quite some time, often in the sense of enlisting their officials in training programmes run by foreign entities.
As an online teacher with DiploFoundation for over 20 years, I have witnessed both successes and failures with convincing foreign ministries to experiment with and adopt online learning. Here is a balance sheet, listing the pros and the cons of online and traditional classroom teaching. Let us look at the shortcomings, some real and others a bit contrived, based on lack of understanding.
Pros and cons of online and traditional classroom teaching
First, direct teacher-student communication, where the eyes meet and student-teacher look deeply into one another, cannot be replicated online. True. But has that mythical ancient ashram or cloistered small academy, not long been lost in the mists of time? Do the modern bricks-and-mortar teaching institution replicate the ancient ways? And while Oxford, Cambridge and a few other elite institutions use the tutorial method, involving intensive personal teaching, that is no longer a norm at undergraduate courses.
In today’s crowded classrooms, sometimes with hundreds of students, or even at lectures to smaller groups, can face-to-face lectures accommodate more than a few Questions & Answers? Yes, the graduate seminar session or the workshop still carry that flavor of the past, but is it impossible to replicate that online? We manage very well at Diplo with seminar papers written jointly by groups of four or five participants, who work across continents and cultures, to produce jointly written essays of 1600 words.
Second, except in a compressed course, the online teaching pace is slow, usually offered as a part-time option. At Diplo’s part-time courses, the commitment for each participant is to spare up to eight hours each week to the course – all at times convenient to each, except for the weekly one-hour online chat that takes place at a fixed time.
Each lecture has a week-long cycle, during which it is chewed over by a class of 15 or 20, who examine the lecture text of 4000 plus words with between 50 to 80 comments, queries, and URLs that they provide. That permits the concepts, toolbox methods, and insights to be absorbed gradually by the class participants. We might even say that a measured pace is almost built into the online method. That makes for deep learning.
Third, with geography not a barrier, class members come from diverse locations, and for Diplo, different countries as well. That can be replicated in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) academy, in part because diplomats participating in a course will be from many embassy and consulate locations. Further, one can bring in officials from different ministries, representatives of civil society, think tanks, business, and others. And one might even blend into that locally-engaged staff that now increasingly handle quasi-diplomatic tasks. Incidentally, optimal use of local staff is one area in which Global South countries seriously lag behind the West.
Some points on how MFAs might shift to online methods
One. An online option needs investment into a good ‘learning management system’. That is not rocket science, and good templates are widely available. One should ensure that the ‘hypertext’ option is used, because that is central to good text-based learning. Not to use hyper-text today is like buying a fine car but rejecting the convenience of automatic transmission because one is hung up on a stick shift.
Two. National lockdowns and closed schools and colleges have accustomed all of us to Zoom and other fine video conferencing platforms. At Diplo we have moved beyond text-based teaching. But we still find much value in using text. Paradoxically, an online chat based on text is preferred by some class members, as superior to video chats. Why? For one thing, it allows participants to pursue several parallel conversation tracks, unlike what become video monologues. And we still confront video connectivity issues at places. Thus, the text-based chat is alive and kicking vigorously.
Three. It pays to look around, enlist one’s officials in courses run by entities such as UNITAR and Diplo, and others as feasible, and absorb their good methods. This is an easy way to gain insights into practical options for online learning, and avoid both omissions and errors. Incidentally, Diplo materials are mostly on a ‘Global Commons’ copyright platform, so fair use, with attribution makes it easy to re-use materials that we have developed.
What will online teaching involve for the MFAs?
First, the text should be written out, typically 3000 to 4500 words per lecture, with lots of embedded URLs; the latter is vital as the internet is an easy source for supplementary teaching material, besides of course one’s own MFA texts that can be supplied as PDF files. The text must be revised, updated each year. The online method is interactive in ways that face-to-face teaching cannot be, in the range of material that can be furnished for immediate access.
Second, the teachers can be drawn from both retired practitioners and academia. It is really the former that make the best teachers for courses run by MFAs, with a range of practical knowledge that is unmatched by anyone from outside the world of practice. One should also bring in people from business, cultural circles, the media, think tanks, and others from public life.
Third, leavening the class with those from other fields, i.e. different entities connected with foreign affairs produces huge advantage. More than elsewhere, much learning takes place among class participants. And this is intensified when team methods are used to write seminar papers and other class assignments. And since geography is not an inhibitor, such diversity becomes an asset.
Much of the distance learning materials are a one-time investment, and while course materials need to be updated continually, the running cost of online learning is modest, besides payments to the faculty and the support staff. And consider the huge savings in not having to bring in both the participants and the faculty and staff to a single location.
To sum up, the pandemic has given a major boost to distance learning. It is now the method of choice for diplomatic systems, thanks to technology, convenience, and practicality.
Note: The text was first published in the Diplomatic Voice, Volume 2 2021
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