The Great Digital Leap Forward

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From love and toil to bonding, from learning new technologies to the never-say-die attitude, from teamwork to grateful messages, COVID-19 is bringing out the best in people. At the newly established School of Integrated Innovation (ScII) at Chulalongkorn University, team members are experiencing a blend of all these emotions as they take a huge digital leap forward amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

Fast-changing circumstances mean that everyone is now compelled to adapt to new teaching and learning methods. But not ScII. The School was already working on a hybrid teaching platform before classrooms were shuttered as a precautionary measure. The School had also embarked on a digital spree that transcends traditional teaching and learning and ensures that the transition is seamless.

“The digital leap includes admissions, administration, backend operations, as well as teaching and learning,” says Dr. Natcha Thawesaengskulthai, Vice President for Innovation and New Development. While the process of admissions involves no physical contact with applicants, the entire academics and administration is working on Microsoft Teams. Similarly, teaching and learning include online quizzes, video lectures, recorded sessions, and instantaneous feedback and responses.

“You could call it baptism by fire,” says Prof. Worsak Kanok-Nukulchai, Executive Director of the Chulalongkorn School of Integrated Innovation. As the newest school at Chulalongkorn, ScII was still establishing its policies and procedures, recruiting fresh hires, reaching out to international audiences, and ensuring that the School acts like a speedboat rather than a cruise ship. Suddenly, it found itself confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It turned out we were most agile when it came to adopting new technologies and platforms since we were not constrained by traditional ways of working,” says Prof. Worsak. “We had no baggage, and the entire team was eager to embrace new ways of working, so we ended up becoming path-breakers in taking the digital leap,” he adds.

Almost a decade ago, Prof. Worsak spearheaded operations during the Great Thailand Flood of 2011. As Vice President at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), he witnessed the disaster first-hand as floodwaters rose to over two meters, and he was on the last boat sent out by the Royal Thai Army to rescue the stranded. “Later, it became clear that the flood provided AIT with a golden opportunity to revamp and renovate its 40-year-old campus,” he reminisces. COVID-19 is another crisis, but this too is an opportunity to turn digital.

“As of date, our entire operations are digital,” says Dr. Pakjira Leelertphan, Director of Administration Services at ScII. When the international round of admissions was announced in early March, the application process was already digital. It was to be followed by an in-person written test for those international applicants who are based in Thailand. This will now be replaced by an online combination of tests and interviews that will be held once the last date of application is over.

Similarly, back-end administration operations are now using a combination of formal and informal channels, with messaging applications continuing to be informal ways of sharing information and Microsoft Teams acting as the one-stop official platform for both academics and administration.

For faculty, this has been a two-fold process: moving their content to digital platforms and ensuring a stress-free transition for students. Both have been challenging. Splitting the overall content into chunks has been one technique successfully adopted by ScII faculty. Every online lecture is also being recorded to create a digital archive and also benefit from its recall value.

While the faculty is tech-savvy, ScII students are digital natives.

“This class is way better when it’s online,” says one student who sent a note of appreciation to his teacher. The fact that the class is also recorded makes it much easier for students to return to it if they lose focus. “Please keep doing this. Love it very much ♥ Thank you for your devotion,” says another student. Messages like these make it worthwhile for everyone at ScII!