Applied learning during a global pandemic

It all happened so fast. That is how I remember the transition to online learning last year. First there was news of a mysterious new virus from Wuhan, with stories multiplying throughout January. By mid-March the lockdown was upon us in full force. My first thought then was to change as little as I could. I had no idea how much was about to change.  
My first lesson was that three-hour Zoom sessions make no sense. About an hour in an online teleconferencing environment is as much as anyone should have to bear. I had to adapt, shorten live sessions and put more emphasis on online discussions, targeted readings and videos. It’s not that I wasn’t familiar with the online learning environment; what was new was this sudden changeover from the classroom to distance learning.  
What I missed the most in those first weeks was seeing confused faces. In the classroom, after explaining something complicated, I would look around to gauge reactions; confused expressions meant I needed to go over the material one more time. The challenge of ensuring that students really understood concepts and processes now took up a huge amount of time: addressing queries, posting in online fora, and answering emails. Life was so much easier when you just said things.  
The greatest challenge was in the area of applied learning, which enables students to, well, apply skills acquired in the classroom, and come into contact with the real world1. In our program in Prague, applied learning has always been a key element of what we offer. At the end of their studies, students engage in a research project, and group presentations form a part of most advanced courses. These were easily continued online after the outbreak of COVID-19.  
But how was I to replicate the field trips which had become part of my classes? I was used to taking students to dealing rooms and trading floors where they could see how financial markets really work, to sustainable buildings, and to more entrepreneurial ventures, such as, for instance, Prague’s largest chain of barber shops. One favorite experience was being driven around town in electric cars, courtesy of energy giant ČEZ. Reflecting on these experiences had become an important aspect of the coursework. 
I had also started replacing group PowerPoint presentations with short videos. Getting out and about to make a video helped to release creative talent, but ‘getting out and about’ was a no-go in our new world. I had started to incorporate Model UN sessions into one of my courses, too; this was feasible online in principle, but frightfully complicated in reality. 
On the other hand, I could still bring guest speakers into the classroom. The new conditions brought a new sense of what was possible. Previously, hooking up with people online was a last resort – far better to have someone right there in the room, surely? Now there was no other way, and the world had instantly become a much bigger place, with guest lecturers calling in from as far away as California. My favorite strategy is to tap into alumni, with the feeling of connection they have with contemporary students: highlights include the chief investor relations officer of Tesla and a senior cryptocurrency analyst at Europol. Outsiders have included academics, businesspeople and representatives of civil society.  
Introducing remote guest speakers has been a positive learning experience for me, something I will continue. There have been others; I have tried to use fiction in my teaching in the past, but I intensified these experiments in the last twelve months. Well-chosen novels and films help to bring ethical dilemmas to life, to introduce historical perspectives and to illustrate the applications of otherwise esoteric-sounding financial concepts. One particular highlight was a novel on the 2008 fall of the Lehman Brothers, which I used as a teaching tool last spring. I was lucky to get one of the two co-authors of that book to talk to my students2. My dream of an interdisciplinary course combining literature and economics remains alive! Another new trick is getting students to discover their own teaching tools. Asking students to find material on YouTube or press articles relevant to a particular aspect of the course, accompanied by a short explanatory essay, has proved to be a remarkable learning experience.  
One thing, though, that the distance learning format does not replicate is the sense of a learning community that is created when people hang out after class, exchanging ideas or just getting to know one another. This is also a stressful time; people have found themselves cut off from friends and family. Others have lost jobs. Some of us have experienced the helplessness of a bereavement far away. None of this makes learning easier.  
I now have students who have taken several courses with me, plus their bachelor’s thesis, but whom I have never met in person. I shall look forward to a time when I can meet every single one of them at a live graduation ceremony. 

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