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Digital education: more than just a necessity
© KU Leuven - RS

Digital education: more than just a necessity

Making the switch to online learning in times of corona. It’s possible because KU Leuven has been committed to digital learning for years.

9 minutes
29 April 2021

Piet Desmet is a pioneer in the field and has seen the range of tools only grow in recent months. “But all-digital will never become our new normal. Contact education is, and will remain, essential.”

The start of this academic year broke all the records. KU Leuven combined face-to-face education with a solid dose of online learning and immediately saw the numbers of users on services such as Blackboard Collaborate increase by a factor of sixty. Kaltura Capture, used for knowledge clips and especially recorded classes, also rose rapidly as the videos were viewed en masse. The highest number of simultaneous users of the Toledo digital learning environment exceeded the previous record by no less than 70 percent.

It is the harvest of what had been sown for some time, knows Piet Desmet. The vice-rector of Kulak Kortrijk Campus has been responsible for educational technology since rector Luc Sels took office. “I get up with it and go to sleep with it,” he smiles. “As an applied linguist, I’ve been researching for more than twenty years on how technology can be a lever for activated and future-oriented education. It started with the development of a practice platform that makes it possible to go beyond the traditional multiple-choice exercises to which online learning was often limited at the time. I was very passionate about finding ways in which the computer could contribute to more efficient and, above all, more attractive language education.”

“Today I get to enjoy working with itec – the 45-member, multidisciplinary research group that I coordinate – on exploring the possibilities of technology in an essential domain such as education. The fact that Rector Sels brought me on board to put our research into practice, in our own institution no less, fills me with a great deal of drive.”

The university's ambition to play a pioneering role in this effort was translated into a strategic plan in 2017, with 'Going Digital' as one of the pillars. It clearly states that technology is not an end in itself, but a means to improve aspects such as learning, teaching, giving exams and internationalisation.

Helemaal digitaal Desmet IMG 5869s
© KU Leuven - RS

Rolls Royce

No one, of course, could have imagined how much a virus would accelerate matters. “The pandemic ensured that we were going have to work with a moving target, a target that would be constantly shifting,” says Desmet. “But thanks to Going Digital, KU Leuven has proven to be quite nimble. We didn’t have to use slapped-together technology in our education, but could fall back on years of accumulated experience.”

At the time of the first lockdown, for example, there was already a solid backbone in place. Good WiFi and reliable networks were already installed. When they were suddenly put under much more strain in March, KU Leuven shifted up a gear in no time. The legal preconditions were also met. “That may seem like a detail,” says Desmet, “but lacking that sort of clear framework left many universities confronting lawsuits concerning the implementation of tools such as proctoring and online exam monitoring."

If Toledo, the learning experience platform, was already a Rolls Royce at the time of the first outbreak, then Blackboard was the chassis. It contains numerous applications for portfolio evaluation, plagiarism detection, the creation of knowledge clips and more. Within the first week of the lockdown, Kaptura Capture, for lesson recordings, and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, for synchronous online teaching, were quickly added. Technical hiccups were very limited, says Desmet.

KU Leuven was also ready thanks to its Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs. With 223,000 students and a place in the final in the prestigious edX competition for the world's best MOOC of 2020, it can count itself amongst the larger European players.

Only in online exams and technology-assisted learning spaces was the university not yet at cruising speed when the pandemic erupted. “But we quickly switched gears there too,” says Desmet. “Since the summer, almost all our auditoriums have been fully equipped, we’ve had a powerful livestream service and teachers have also been able to work from home.”

KU Leuven was already administering around 1,000 digital exams per year pre-corona, albeit on campus. Organising exams outside of that environment is something completely different, and the university did not want to make any concessions in terms of being resistant to fraud. That’s why a very strict schedule was drawn up during the June exam period indicating which exams could be safely organised online and which could not. In the end, everything went off without significant problems.

“Be careful”, says Desmet, “I won’t hide the fact that the speed with which we were obliged to shift gears sometimes caused dissatisfaction and unjustified criticism. There’s no other way; no system is perfect, and choices have to be made even in a crisis, for example in terms of financial feasibility. But overall, we received heartwarming responses from all parts of the university.”

Hybrid classroom MG 1023s def
© KU Leuven - RS

10% technology, 90% people

That appreciation is much-needed fuel for KU Leuven Learning Lab, the team that keeps the digital train on track. It’s a network that reaches across departments, faculties, groups and campuses to bring together people who can help shape Going Digital and Future-Oriented Education, the other important pillar in the strategic plan.

“KU Leuven Learning Lab has turned out to be the most important tool for making our digital plans come true,” says Desmet, “and in that sense the resources we chose for it at the time proved to be particularly relevant. It requires a team of what I call civil servants, people who realise that they have an institutional responsibility to continue to make one of KU Leuven's core activities, namely education, possible for our tens of thousands of students.”

KU Leuven Learning Lab generates a wealth of online documentation on the use of tools and organises training sessions. This is often done on request, and always in collaboration with someone from the relevant faculty, so that they can continue to provide front-line support even after the initial training is over. Our website presents a litany of inspiring testimonials from these pioneers.

In addition, a system of student employees has recently been installed, usually senior students who assist their professors in digitising a course or subject components and help them to integrate these in a combination of contact and online education. “Until now, we hadn’t often enough spoken to students’ full potential; well, KU Leuven Learning Lab is also changing that,” says Desmet.

“The big conclusion now is that all actors – from students to staff members – are involved in a network that I very much hope we will keep in place after corona. For innovation, the following rule applies: 10 percent is technology, 90 percent is the people factor. Are people willing to change their habits, their teaching and guidance models? That only works if you opt for a supported approach and an integrated, coherent ecosystem. We want to stay on that course, which means that we’ll continue full-steam ahead with the intelligent integration of the digital into our didactics.”

For innovation, the following rule applies: 10 percent is technology, 90 percent is the people factor. Are people willing to change their habits, their teaching and guidance models?

Near-future music

There are already significant ambitions in place that will initially concern online examinations. “Fraud reduction is not reason enough to organise more online exams. We need to remain meticulous and restrained on that front, ”says Desmet. “But that doesn’t mean that we’re not making progress; on the contrary, we’re fully examining which building blocks we can add. For example, we’re investigating the possibility of proctoring in specific contexts, for example when a foreign student takes an exam. We’re also putting out a tender for software that can generate more exams with a comparable level of difficulty based on an existing pool of questions. And we’re also looking closely at taking exams on your own laptop. So we’re evolving, but in a very well-reasoned manner.”

As an extra ambition this year, Desmet is working on the development of more domain-specific tools. Toledo is now available for all students and teachers, without distinction, but within the Humanities group, for example, there’s more need than in other domains for a tool that can (semi)automatically generate feedback on open questions. “We want to add these sorts of specific applications to our palette so that we can offer domain-specific tools within our shared ecosystem.”

For Desmet, it’s “near-future music". “The digital realm is evolving so quickly that today's technological choices may already be passé the day after tomorrow. In any event, I never liked to postpone my dreams, and fortunately neither does KU Leuven.”

No system is perfect, and choices have to be made even in a crisis. But overall we received heartwarming responses.

A 21st century university

Corona played an unexpected role in the whole story. On the positive side, hardly anyone can be found these days at KU Leuven who has never worked with educational technology. “At the same time, the context wasn’t always right, and online learning wasn’t always portrayed in the best light. The fact that everything had to be done digitally in March, with purely distance learning, reaffirmed what we had known for some time: learning is a social reality, and face-to-face learning remains essential. Computers can’t take that over, and that’s for the best.”

“Sometimes you hear that technology corrodes academic education at its heart. That hits home with me, because for us, contact education remains essential. Another cliché ­– that ‘maximum digital’ has to become the new normal at universities or we’ll miss the boat – is also incorrect. Every teacher has to choose the instruments from our extensive toolbox that can best contribute to an optimal learning situation for their subject matter.”

“If you use the computer intelligently, more time is freed up for individual contact with, and supervision of, students. Or for intense discussions about current case studies. Technology enables a personalised approach that we can simultaneously roll out institution-wide, all thanks to KU Leuven Learning Lab.”

“Educational technology”, Desmet concludes, “makes it possible to realise the essence of the university in the field of future-oriented education, in a 21st-century format. Digital and social absolutely go hand in hand.”

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Spring 2021