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Story | Education
6 August 2020

Cross-border learning thrives at QF universities despite COVID-19


HEC Paris, whose Qatar campus is a QF partner university, is finding new ways of maintaining cross-border academic connections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic is changing the face of education now and for the future. But what do universities do when cross-border exchange is part of the coursework? For QF partner university HEC Paris at Qatar, it’s an opportunity for transformation.

Over the course of her 20-year international career spanning four continents, Mallika Mathur Lhéritier has consistently taken on challenges – in different countries, amid various cultural contexts, and with a range of responsibilities.

“Often, my role was not to maintain the status quo, but to disrupt, innovate, transform, embed and optimize businesses, in a way that encompassed strategy, transformation and operations,” says Mathur Lhéritier, who works in strategy consultancy for Ernst & Young in Kuwait.

Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she is facing new and unforeseen challenges surrounding learning. As a participant in the International Executive MBA program at HEC Paris in Qatar – a Qatar Foundation (QF) partner university – Mathur Lhéritier has had to modify and innovate her learning experience along with her fellow participants.

Dr. Pablo Martin de Holan, Dean of HEC Paris in Qatar.

She’s not alone. Students and professors in higher education around the globe are working together in new ways in order to navigate learning in the age of a pandemic. This has taken the form of virtual classrooms, homework sessions via Zoom or Webex video apps, and new ways of professors and faculty keeping consistent contact with students.

But for programs like the HEC Paris’ International Executive MBA, where participants can split their time between the Paris and Qatar campuses, challenges are compounded now that participants must remain homebound. The cultural component – which the program sees as one of its most appealing aspects – is hard to replicate without physical travel.

However, HEC Paris is looking at the current movement restrictions – from lockdowns to air travel – as an opportunity for transformation, and to innovate modes of teaching as well as fostering cultural exchange.

Teaching online is not about just putting a camera in a classroom, but engaging people in a different way

Dr. Pablo Martin de Holan

“Teaching online is not about just putting a camera in a classroom, but engaging people in a different way,” says Dr. Pablo Martin de Holan, Dean of HEC Paris in Qatar. “We’re deploying our alumni network so people can be in contact with and learn from each other – they’re connected by digital platforms.”

“When the environment changes, you need to change the actions and decisions you make, otherwise they’re incompatible with reality.”

Dr. Martin de Holan recognizes the advantages participants in this program have for digital learning, compared to those in other fields. Accounting is one area where participants are benefiting from a self-directed learning pace. And modules such as management and strategy analysis – both foundations of the International Executive MBA program – can be taught relatively easily through virtual means.

But those in medicine, engineering and science, who often rely on lab work and practical experience in addition to theoretical knowledge, may struggle. Those things can’t be replicated using virtual technology – yet.
As a result, the role of telemedicine is becoming increasingly clear, and universities such as Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q), also a QF partner university, are using online conferencing apps in order for students to deliver oral presentations as well as assess clinical and diagnostic image cases. A variety of simulation-based educational models have helped professors continue clinical skills teaching.

It’s these types of challenges, says Dr Martin de Holan, that schools are looking to tackle as the pandemic pushes educators to revolutionize teaching. He says the current trend towards big data and digitalization will only become stronger in the time to come.

We’re going to be learning and teaching the same things, but through different means

Dr. Pablo Martin de Holan

“Every program has a series of learning objectives, and we’re working to ensure the new forms of delivery fulfill those objectives,” says Dr. Martin de Holan. “We’re going to be learning and teaching the same things, but through different means.”

Part of the attraction of studying at QF’s Education City is the link it affords to top institutions around the globe and the cultural exchange that comes with it. At HEC Paris in Qatar, participants joining the 18-month International Executive MBA program have the choice to study within either the France or Qatar track, with the option to travel between the countries for coursework.

Mathur Lhéritier says the school has been proactive in making sure participants around the world remain engaged in coursework and connected to one another – despite the distances. HEC Paris has encouraged participants to continue their exchanges within their working groups.

We’re all in different sectors but we’re sharing knowledge, and giving feedback. It’s been like one big family

Mallika Mathur Lhéritier

And participants themselves have organized to engage in peer learning, sharing and striving for what she calls “those ’a-ha’ moments” which can be difficult to achieve virtually. They’ve relied heavily on group chats and Zoom calls to stay in touch.

“There’s been a really supportive spirit within the class throughout this period,” says Mathur Lhéritier. “We’re all in different sectors but we’re sharing knowledge, and giving feedback. It’s been like one big family.”

In addition to peer-to-peer learning, institutions themselves are working to maintain the connection between their global campuses. With many students being repatriated home during the pandemic, time differences can make virtual learning and support complicated.

To overcome this, WCM-Q has pre-recorded classes that students can attend at their convenience, and created online discussion boards between students and faculty as well as question and answer sessions with faculty at both WCM-Q and Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

Even as the coronavirus pandemic leads educational institutions on a path of uncertainty, they’re working to not only maintain a level of normalcy, but also look toward transforming the future of education as new realities loom.

WCM-Q has continued its application process to recruit future doctors using interviews via videoconferencing, while fellow QF partner university Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar recently held a series of virtual events to celebrate its 2020 graduates.

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Participants in HEC Paris’ International Executive MBA program split their time between its Paris and Qatar campuses.

Mallika Mathur Lhéritier.

And HEC Paris in Qatar is continuing its plans to launch a new campus, to become more self-sufficient and feature the latest technology. This could include creating 3D professors in the form of a hologram in order to teach virtual classes. As travel restrictions continue due to the pandemic, the digital transformation will become more necessary than ever.

“Technology is going to change things. The pandemic accelerates trends that already existed,” says Dr. Martin de Holan. “It’s not science fiction. We have the technologies, but before they were novelties. Now they’re not novelties, they’re part of what we need to get society working.”

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