Dr. Phan Vu Xuan Hung, founding faculty of Fulbright University Vietnam, once said that running the courses at Fulbright is similar to building an airplane while flying it, in which our signature co-design year was the very first phase of construction. At Fulbright, we understand that if there is one golden rule for flying an airplane while building it, it is to do whatever it takes to get through the flight peacefully.

Similar to much of the global higher education community, Fulbright was thrust into an unplanned, unwanted, and fraught experiment in online learning with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, it was the lesson Fulbright, as an institution, learned throughout this first phase that helped us adapt quickly to any problems, keeping the right altitude while navigating through the COVID-19 storm.

To Co-Design a New Education Experience

“It is part of our mission to prepare our students for a dynamic future in an uncertain world. Fulbright was founded as an innovative institution within higher education and so we are able to respond to disruption and change in context with agility. In many ways, the present crisis, which cannot be understated, is simply a matter of theory coming to practice,” says Ian Bickford, Provost of Fulbright University Vietnam.

As quarter 4 begins, the closure of campus facilities has proven a true test to the resilience and adaptability of our students and faculty in the pursuit of continued higher education. Courses were moved entirely online, requiring every member to tackle challenges at every level from the purely logistical to the institutional, but also to answer the more intangible questions, i.e., what does it mean to be a learning community in a time of social distancing, to be together, yet without sharing a common physicality?

Educators at Fulbright were pushed to find innovative solutions for their online course, expanding a valuable toolkit of pedagogical resources and methodologies, such as Facebook debates, gamified quizzes, delocalized citizen science projects and protein visualization tools, to entirely new or contemporary relevant subjects, from virtual anthropology to a biology course addressing the covid-19 pandemic.

“I actually thought that online classes would not be engaging enough. Yet, it turned out to be extremely interactive and exciting. Our teachers really went out of the way with creative teaching methods and class organization to facilitate knowledge exchange and discussion among students.

Most of my online class is spent on group discussion or activity, and one-on-one consultation with the teacher. The lectures are prerecorded and sent to us along with reading materials, so that we can understand key concepts before the class. In class, we only focus on sharing information and exchanging ideas with our teacher and classmates, hence the online learning experience is really fun and exhilarating,” shared Pham Nguyen Dan Tam, a co-design student.

This new learning environment tries to blend the online elements, where students can go at their own pace, on their own time, have some choice over their learning and are set to engage deeply and critically with course content combined with the quality of the in-person approach, where students are interacting with other students, their teacher and content at the same time. There is positive interdependence in cooperative learning and continuous formative feedback.

“In his Introduction to Literature class, our lecturer, Kevin comes up with really creative assignments to make literature come to life, in online learning. It is hard to fall asleep in Kevin’s class because we constantly engage in different activities, from roleplaying and recreating the famous play ‘Antigone’, to fiercely debating on Prospero’s behaviors in ‘The Tempest’,” Vu Duc Huy recalled.

Online learning can be an effective, rich and fulfilling experience but it requires every faculty member to pay careful attention to student experiences. This is also what Fulbright continues striving to achieve.

To Connect with the World

“Our strength comes both from the liveliness and continued engagement of our student body, and from the strong partner relationships we have established with international universities,” explains Ian. As Fulbright moves the courses online, the university’s approach is to find as many answers as possible to the question: “what solutions can we find in the current crisis, that will further benefit the quality of education at Fulbright permanently?”

Fulbright has always benefited from strong partner relations with international universities. In particular, Dartmouth College and Fulbright have designed together a connected course, allowing students to learn together and from each other across the globe. Connected courses represent a new approach to international exchange in education: while the courses offered at each university will not be identical, their learning objectives and content will be jointly designed and coordinated by their respective instructors and taught simultaneously at both institutions.

The future rise in popularity of transnational collaboration, taking advantage of established and emerging technological platforms cannot be overemphasized. This experience has led educational institutions such as Fulbright to reconsider what the future of pedagogy will look like. While the model is still young, it paves the way for more future collaborations, enabling a more flexible way for students to connect with their peers and experts around the world. The future of learning is giving our students choices which today’s technologies make possible.

Besides the collaborated courses with other international universities, Fulbright also recently launched a new talk series entitled “Covid-19: What does the future hold?” We understand that we can only combat this pandemic together if we have a thorough understanding of what we may expect in the future. Utilizing our unique relationship with top international experts, Fulbright is uniquely positioned to invite them to join this talk series, which will be broadcasted live on our Facebook page, free and accessible to all. These experts will examine the impact of Covid-19 on areas ranging from our public health systems to our economy, public policy, leadership, and business.

The first talk “What happens after we beat back the first wave? COVID-19 & our future world” by Dr. Yonatan Grad, Melvin J. and Geraldine L. Glimcher, Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard Chan School of Public Health, was very well received. Hence, during the month of April and May, Fulbright will continue holding more talks, which include “The future of the Economy” by Karen Dynan, the former Chief Economist of the U.S. Treasury and a Harvard Professor, “What leaders should do during the crisis” by Chris Matthews, a political commentator and former host of MSNBC Hardball, and “What we can learn from Wuhan” by Xihong Lin, a Harvard Professor of Biostatistics and an elected member of the Academy of Medicine.

In times like these, our resolve and agility are pushed to the boundaries in recognizing the new ecosystem presented to us and how the related challenges are supported. Innovation, creativity and nimbleness quickly become key to keeping business running as usual. We are social distancing in a physical sphere; it does not mean we cannot connect in a virtual sphere. The attitude to be cooperative, to collaborate and to trust is what supported the transition of Fulbright’s operations from the physical campus to an online one, which encompasses space and time.

To Adapt and Grow Together

With most students out of their residences, maintaining students’ sense of belonging and their learning community was essential. “The assumption would be that physical closure means you can’t have activities such as clubs or student government. But our assumption was the opposite. The Student Life Team was quick to respond, kicking to high gear to stay in touch with students and developing new programming that fits our new normal,” explains Ian.

From online jam sessions organized by the music club to photography challenges portraying life under confinement, initiatives have indeed continued with surprising enthusiasm and provide a much-needed sense of shared experience within the student body. But for Steve Paris, the Director of Student Life, the challenge lies in reaching out to those who might be more introverted, less confident to engage in those opportunities, or who feel out of touch.

“Feelings of distance or isolation can be quite destructive both for your own wellbeing and in terms of your motivation for your studies. Many in our community have demonstrated they value that connection, and it’s certainly come through strongly in a lot of the activities that we’ve done in the past. Maintaining or building on that in this new environment is the number one priority for us,” confirms Steve Paris, Director of Student Life at Fulbright.

To address this, Student Life, together with our Wellness Center distribute frequent messages to encourage students to practice self-care and advise or answer questions on coping strategies, and has rolled out a concerted outreach effort to check in and identify students in need of support, encouraging them to reach out. Both departments organize regular wellness sessions, for up to 10 to 15 students at a time. Sessions are hosted by a counsellor with other guests to help students discuss openly about a specific topic, from relationships in quarantine to dealing with disconnection. It is an effort that was very well received by the community. “The uptake has been interesting in that students often hadn’t volunteered to attend, but then would encourage their peer group to join the conference call, which ended up being over-subscribed. This goes to show the true power of peer engagement, not just having the university reaching out to students, but students reaching out to each other,” says Steve.

In a recent letter that she wrote to the Fulbright community, Fulbright’s President, Dam Bich Thuy, said: “Even if we cannot yet predict how daunting tomorrow’s tasks can be, I believe that “social distancing” protects us, and solidarity will save us. This epidemic, or rather pandemic has proven we are all equally affected, no matter where we are in this world. Once again, it shows us the vital importance of the community we are all building.”

It is a daunting time and our effort in recreating the “normal daily life” may or may not be the right path forward; it is not something we know for sure. However, there is one thing we know for sure: We are all in this together and we will get through this, together.