Learning Virtually: The Start of a New Semester

KAUST and Johnson & Johnson Sign Dengue Fever Research Collaboration Agreement

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a paradigm shift on a scale that few would have thought possible. Almost every aspect of our lives — both personal and professional — has been altered beyond recognition. In the education sector, the impact has been keenly felt.

Face-to-face classroom-based learning has been at the very heart of teaching practices for centuries. Yet, in early March 2020, in the space of a few short weeks, academic institutions had to develop an entirely new way of operating to keep students learning — and, more importantly, safe — throughout the pandemic.

We experienced this challenge right here at KAUST. We took a proactive approach in tackling the problem, shifting our focus to virtual teaching to maintain continuity of learning. As we start another year and a new semester virtually, the KAUST Entrepreneurship Center continues to embrace virtual learning to train the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Here’s how we got to where we are today and what we’ve learned along the way:

KAUST: Paving the way in virtual learning

The pandemic hit the KAUST Entrepreneurship Centre in three phases:

Phase 1: Shock

The news about the spread of COVID-19 in the Kingdom and new restrictions came suddenly. The University was set to host startups on-campus for the MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF PanArab) 2020 Arab Startup Competition bootcamp and host the New Ventures and Product Innovation course. These, and all classes, instantly moved online.

Phase 2: Pivot

With the emergence of the pandemic, all our plans were thrown out the window. We didn’t have time to be caught off balance; our team instantly pivoted and redesigned our instruction and enrichment to not just survive but thrive with virtual learning.

Phase 3: Innovate

If there is one word that captures the spirit of KAUST, it’s innovation. We did not lose sight of this as we leaned into virtual learning; without a blueprint to follow, we worked to produce value equal to or surpassing that offered by our in-person opportunities. As a result, we created the Impact Series at Misk Global Forum, The Resilience Series (Shifts Happen and Creativity in Crisis) and more.

This isn’t to say that we didn’t encounter challenges. KAUST’s methodologies have always centered on hands-on learning opportunities, taking knowledge and instantly applying it to relevant problems. We had to adapt and figure out ways to contextualize information and apply it in a virtual environment. Additionally, our team had to facilitate productive networking and maintain interest and engagement in a digitized environment.

KAUST and the ‘new normal’

The KAUST Entrepreneurship Center successfully shifted the following programs to virtual learning in 2020 that continue to run online in 2021:

New Ventures and Product Innovation

The KAUST Entrepreneurship Center ran ‘New Ventures and Product Innovation’ to help students develop valuable skills in leadership, team building, conflict resolution, stakeholder management, project management and learn how to develop a business model. Instructors employed the use of games, exercises and online simulation to ensure interactive and engaging classes.

Students learned the steps required to take a product and turn it into a successful startup during the course. All the product ideas used were based on genuine KAUST intellectual property, culminating with students pitching their ideas live to course instructors. Some graduates have even gone on to build startups based on the teams and ideas formed during the course.

Entrepreneurship for All

The KAUST Entrepreneurship Center ran the Entrepreneurship for All program virtually, collaborating with UC Berkeley and Cornell University.

Students worked in teams to create a compelling video advertising a new and innovative product of their choosing during the experiential program, pitching a second product — designed to solve a real-world problem — live to course instructors, who then provided detailed feedback on the process.

Students learned about the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and developed their leadership and teamwork skills.

Remote doesn’t have to mean isolated

Necessity is the mother of invention — and amid the pandemic, we have many new needs. Perhaps none is more pressing than that for connection.

At KAUST, this has bred innovation. Breakout rooms and collaboration-first content creation tools have formed the basis of genuinely experiential and interactive digital learning spaces that promote creativity and facilitate teamwork. Our remote summer courses were highly collaborative events that allowed students to interact with one another almost as much as they would have in a real classroom environment.

We were also driven to create more online content, such as the Impact Series and the Resilience Series: Shift Happens and Creativity in Crisis, and to recruit high-profile speakers to inspire and advise our students and collaborators. Since the start of quarantine, we have hosted speakers, including world-class scientist and entrepreneur Rob Langer and Richard J. Christiansen — an international author and speaker and founder of 49 startups; both joined us for the Entrepreneurship for All program. Many of these are experts we wouldn’t have had the chance to partner with us before the pandemic due to availability — so, in some ways, remote learning has allowed us to connect more than ever before.

The virtual revolution

Summer 2020 gave us a glimpse into the future of education. We’ve seen firsthand that virtual learning has a lot to offer the education sector, and the role it plays in the coming years will only grow as new tools and technologies are developed to support it. What exactly that might look like — whether it’s VR classrooms and laboratories or innovative tools to support remote collaboration — remains to be seen. Still, we can say that this is only the beginning of the virtual revolution.

Digital is here to stay

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced educational institutions to rethink what it means to teach. Thanks to our teaching team’s hard work and the innovation and dedication of our technical support teams, we’re proud to say that the pandemic delayed not a single one of our planned courses.

While digital teaching comes with its share of challenges and workarounds, we’ve also found it to be much more than just a pale imitation of traditional education — it’s a new and exciting way of interacting with students and imparting skills and knowledge. As lockdown restrictions continue to be lifted, traditional classroom-based learning will very likely become the new normal (or should that be old normal?) once again.

But if 2020 has taught the education sector anything, it’s that virtual learning has a big part to play in the future.

About the author

Dr. Lama Hakem is currently delivering several entrepreneurship programs and courses at KAUST Entrepreneurship Center. With a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Dr. Lama is an expert in training and mentoring innovators within Saudi’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to acquire design thinking skills, learning how to collaborate to come up with innovative solutions when facing conflicts and create different types of conflict resolution strategies.