Many students around the world have not seen their traditional university campus since March 2020. The Liquid Learning methodology and model that IE University adopted has allowed the IE student experience to continue with a high caliber, across the global IE Campus (Segovia, Madrid centro, and the 5th Tower) and an online international student body in a multitude of time zones.
The coronavirus pandemic forced universities and higher education institutions globally to shift into a new model of learning, with little time for adjustment. The entrepreneurial DNA of IE University proved extremely useful in creating a sustainable model for hybrid learning one year on into the pandemic.
Lockdown has shown us the caring face of technology, allowing us to connect with family and friends through a range of platforms, while at the same time extending the working day for many people working from home. At the same time, technology can help humanize education. Traditionally, education has sought standardization in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, but now it allows us to personalize learning, potentially without limit.
Some academics have argued that technology is an obstacle to proximity, social relations and even a threat to our species. I would counter that this is a fallacy based on the belief that technology, through automation, will destroy jobs and potentially render humans powerless. But the truth is that new technologies not only do away with jobs that are dirty, dangerous, dull or dear, they create new ones and improve overall efficiency and productivity.
In this new environment, education can be understood as liquid, combining the real with the virtual, individual with team study, face-to-face and online classes, as well as synchronous and asynchronous sessions. Flexible, adaptable, intensive, user-friendly, accessible and even fun: these are the characteristics of liquid learning, whose advantage for students is its flexibility and adaptability to their circumstances by facilitating greater interactivity with other participants, near and far.
This liquid approach to teaching, as well as the use of hybrid formats that combine traditional classes with a range of formulas facilitated by technology, is becoming the standard, and will continue to be so even when the pandemic is under control, not just because of its effectiveness, but also because it enables us to address contingencies such as the inevitable restrictions on international travel or the self-isolation and social distancing that will continue to be required by health protocols.
At the same time, the wider world, and particularly the work environment, is also a more liquid place, with increasingly blurred boundaries. Professionals live hybrid lives: they change careers, move to different companies and countries, they reinvent themselves from time to time, perhaps becoming entrepreneurs or working as freelancers. They switch professions, not without problems, while transforming themselves at the personal level. Professionals work in teams both physically together and on social platforms, from home or their company's offices, as part of a continuum that blurs distance and time and also increases productivity.
For teachers, who have one foot in education and another in the world of work, liquid learning means taking on a leading role in coordinating the learning process; much more so than their predecessors. Digital and multimedia teaching materials are increasingly popular; procedures developed online to create, disseminate, and validate ideas and theories will profoundly change the nature of research, along with authorization and academic verification. Technology alone may not provide the answer, but in tandem with liquid learning we have a unique opportunity to provide our students with the skills they will need in adapting to the challenges of a liquid reality.
The common plight of many university students in this past year is their inability to continue their higher education in an effective manner. While Zoom video conferences supported a replacement for presential learning from March 2020 through May 2020, it is clear that this is not a sustainable method of continuing education (especially for university level work). Curiously, not many universities in Europe have actually developed a programme to account for this steep decline in student engagement and retention of information.
“Distanced learning” is just one of the terms used to describe what some universities are doing to approach the situation. This results in a unique blend of two key terms: synchronous and asynchronous learning styles. For a deeper look into the online learning model, pre-pandemic, we offer a previous EETN article study: “Online Learning: Ugly Duckling or Black Swan?” by Jolanta Golanowska
IE University is one of the few universities in Europe (and most of the Western world) that can confidently say their student experience the past 12 months has been as close to normal as possible. Students have been able to attend classes through a new “liquid learning” model. Each course’s syllabus is dynamic and fluid: providing adaptability based on the student’s specific needs. Learning is conducted through three main formats:
Two of the key creators and developers of the Liquid Learning model, Jolanta Golanowska and Carlos Garriga Gamarra, offered some great insights into the intricate pieces that go into liquid learning. Both creators share that the liquid learning methodology is no longer just a contingency plan: this is a long-term commitment to provide a quality form of education and learning despite global circumstances. The Learning Innovation Team offered an analysis into the two biggest challenges that the development of liquid learning brings.
The first: delivery of a quality education. The urgent question for the team lied in how to continue giving a quality education to students while professors themselves were also dealing with the new stresses of the pandemic. This challenge was heightened for the Learning Innovation Team as IE University hosts students on two campuses in two different cities (Segovia & Madrid). The community and specific students’ needs on each of these campuses are distinct from one another which is yet another layer that the team constantly had to take into account. She stressed how grand of a feat this was to implement on a massive university-wide scale.
There’s no room to cut corners.
You have to be precise with everything you do
The second: timing. Jolanta describes the operation as “keeping a boat afloat to make sure [it] doesn’t drown”. When a crisis like a pandemic hits, there is not the luxury to test things and go through intricate processes of revision. There was barely enough time for both Carlos and Jolanta to deploy the technology that was already available, nonetheless, to create any new tech. Carlos, from an operational standpoint, had to be ready at all times to support all stakeholders of the IE community. With limited timing, all who are involved need to continually be ready for change.
This is not to say that the university has not also provided for methods of reflection and correction in the small time they have had. There is a whole host of operational analytics that the IT team has been collecting to keep the programmes running. The most common of these is survey data. Students are asked whether they will be attending classes in person or remotely, and this data is then used to best adapt the professors to what kind of classes they might have. Should any outbreak occur in either the Segovia or Madrid campus, there is ample data available to students’ current geographic locations and attendance modes (either face to face or remote).
University life is also impacted by a student’s ability to physically be surrounded by other students. While there are of course improvements to still be made, liquid learning also plays a key role in the ability to allow students to continue to engage with their IE community as a whole. IE ensures that students are safe through their “Health Passports” on a COVID Web Tracing App. The Health Passport collects information on daily symptoms and is just another part of the complex liquid learning model itself. All of these small pieces must mesh together in order for the whole model to be complete and work coherently. CampusLife is still more alive than ever, with over 100+ clubs hosting both in person and remote events.
Spaces such as the Segovia campuses Creativity Centre have allowed for the hosting of events with social distance and sanitary protocol. Networking is still an integral part to all IE student experiences. Various esteemed speakers have still been invited to work with classes and host Q & A events. In one of my first term seminars (Islamic Law & Finance) we had a guest speaker lawyer flown in just to speak to our class and share his experiences. This personal interaction I was able to have with him is something special that coronavirus still hasn’t been able to take away.
As someone who has now been not only studying in the Liquid Learning model but also participating in university life, I’d like to offer some of the innovative solutions we’ve been using to approach hybrid events. One of the most popular styles of club events at IE are speaker series. Groups such as the Global Transformations Club have continued hosting speakers in classrooms where the same sanitary protocols as in face to face classes are followed. For students studying remotely, they can tune into the event through a Zoom link that is projected to the speaker live, in person, on a TV in the classroom. In this sense, students in person can continue to attend events with influential and key speakers, but students remotely are not left out of the process either.
Best of all, school spirit and community events are still held with full enthusiasm. The annual “IE Day” (a large display of IE Spirit and networking), took off this year in mid-March and was a great morale boost for all of the community one year on into the pandemic. IE Campus Life did an excellent job of organising a safe, outdoors event for students to enjoy music performances, take pictures with their school mascot, and win different prizes. To continually include students who are remotely learning, Campus Life hosted a virtual scavenger hunt over the course of multiple days through a new app called “Scavify”. No matter where students were in the world, they definitely felt the spirit of IE Day.
Putting professors and innovation at the heart of the relationship, IE University has been able to cultivate and maintain their unique teaching methodology even amongst the pandemic. The new “Centre for Liquid Learning”, chaired by Professor Nick van Dam, aims to not only facilitate the sharing of knowledge but also build the community at large. In this sense, stakeholders are not just the current IE Community, but also prospective students, parents, media, and the education system as a whole. Furthermore, the cutting-edge resources and best practices adopted by professors are shared and highlighted.
For a further look and specific cases of how professors are going beyond a classic lecture, check out the professor stories on the Centre for Liquid Learning’s site.
IE University is successfully able to say that all programme degrees who wanted to return to campus were allowed to. This large scale return to in-person modalities has not yet been seen in another university in Europe. What makes IE’s special is that all students are guaranteed the same availability and access to campus regardless of their programme or year of study. This is truly something special that creates a tight knit community atmosphere, rather than only inviting cohorts of programmes back to campus at a time. The proverbial “IE family” thrives off of its simultaneous presence of all stakeholders together.
In terms of the academic structure of the classroom, liquid learning is more than just a solution for hybrid learning. Where hybrid learning looks at solely blending presential and virtual attendance, liquid learning aims to consider multiple spheres all at once. Professors are asked to take into account student engagement, in moving beyond simple Zoom lectures for hours and instead incorporating team projects or simulations and case studies. Even more important in the midst of a pandemic, we see a dedicated focus on the wellbeing of students and professors who cater their classes to avoid academic burnout in the young population they work with.
The Executive Vice President of IE, Diego del Alcázar Benjumea explains in this interview the pertinent role that universities will need to play in the redevelopment of education post-COVID 19. IE University’s model is clearly a foundational game changer for others to follow but what can other universities expect in the next years of EdTech post pandemic?
As a student at IE University, I’ve been able to witness the innovative spirit from both pre-pandemic and watched it transform as we continue to tackle the pandemic. I was already incredibly impressed with the opportunities the university provided me in my first year. There is no way to describe how grateful I am for how relatively normal my university experience during second year has been. It’s a blessing to be able to grab a coffee with my professors after class and have them actually know my face in person. As someone who values the community aspect, the ability to keep hosting in person club events is invaluable. The future of IE University post-pandemic undoubtedly will be a school that continues utilizing innovation to create positive change.