Online Education

In Brig, the cradle of distance education, e-learning is becoming big

Not so long ago you could see a herd of black noses grazing at the end of Schinerstrasse. Today, these curly-wool, dark-muzzled Welsh sheep gave way to an army of drills tirelessly vibrating to complete a building still fitted with scaffolding: the new Brig campus, which has just risen from the ground a stone’s throw away. from the station. A six-storey house with glazed and refined lines that, after two and a half years of work, will welcome its owners in a few weeks: UniDistance and Haute Ecole specializing in distance learning (FFHS).

Everything is in the names: since their creation in this corner of Haut-Valais, in 1994 and 1998, these two institutions offer training to those who cannot attend the desks of classical faculties. First, university studies in law, economics, psychology or even history; secondly, full-time bachelor’s and master’s studies in IT, engineering, health and soon construction. Two different entities with the same mission: to offer flexible education allowing to combine studies and professional activity, family life or even high-level sports. “The concept was born in 19th century London with the distance training of British civil servants through the post office,” explains Marc Bors, director of UniDistance. Almost thirty years ago, a researcher got the idea to import the method here for the people living in the valleys and on the peaks.

Since then, centers have expanded, correspondence sheets have been replaced by e-learning – and the method is on the rise: in 2021, UniDistance had almost 2,500 students (speaking French, German and English), which is a record, and regularly opens new faculties such as like in math last year. As a result, there are now more first-year students in pure mathematics than at the University of Zurich, rejoices director Marc Bors. “But I’m not eating their piece of the cake, I’m making the cake bigger by giving the opportunity to study to those who didn’t! Society has changed: training continues, changes form. For example, there are many mothers in our psychology courses. Average age of recruits? 38 years.

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Researchers in the basement

It is true that the pandemic has also helped to increase enrollments, but above all it has highlighted the lag of traditional universities in the digital realm. “Filming a talking head is pedagogically uninteresting: you have to use distance learning differently,” emphasizes Marc Bors. Specifically, it involves encouraging student participation through interactive video exercises and, if hygienic conditions allow, face-to-face group meetings to complement virtual learning.

Hybrid education, or BlendedLearning, also adopted FFHS, which relies on a ratio of 80% online and 20% on-site. “People-to-people exchanges are very important, and student-faculty networking makes the studies even more exciting,” says Yvonne Ganz, Head of Real Estate at FFHS. Because of these meetings, two classrooms have been planned on the first floor of the campus, although most courses take place in the large branches in Bern or Zurich – where FFHS has also just opened a new center. , Gleisarena. “If originally our operation was created for those who could not get to the cities to study, today the logic has reversed: the cities and centers located in the immediate vicinity of the stations are hotspots where most of our students live,” says Yvonne Ganz.

Therefore, from next month, the Briguish headquarters will primarily house the administrative services of two institutions that are growing and require more and more space. But there are also laboratories in the basement, where their teams of researchers will investigate, among other things, cognitive psychology and the contribution of new technologies to the field of learning – since 2017, FFHS has a Unesco chair on this topic.

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A cornerstone in the 17th century

Even without hordes of students, the building had to cultivate a campus atmosphere, explains architect Steffen Sperle. The man to whom we also owe the ultra-design elephant park at Zurich Zoo guides us through the large, bright spaces arranged around a circular balustrade. The choice of materials (concrete on the floor, visible insulation on the ceiling) gives the place a “more relaxed spirit”. An open, competent and innovative image is “important for a publicly funded institution”, notes Yvonne Ganz.

Because the campus is also a showcase for UniDistance and FFHS. “We suffer a bit from this virtual identity… We needed a place where we could present ourselves to the public, which symbolizes the existence of our two institutions”, continues Marc Bors.

Nothing could be more logical for it to be located at the foot of the Simplon: historically, Brig has a long educational tradition. It was already in the 17th century, when the Wallachian baron and patron Kašpar Stockalper established a monastery of Ursuline sisters from the Catholic order here, which mainly supported the education of young girls, and then supported the opening of the Spiritus secondary school. the gymnasium, the church rectory, the sports school and the boarding school are grouped together even today – which was managed by Michael Zurwerra, head of FFHS, for eight years. “Stockalper laid the foundation stone of our connection with education,” emphasizes the mayor of the city, Mathias Bellwald. Brig is the training metropolis of the Upper Valais and this new headquarters represents an important development.” It doesn’t stop there: UniDistance grows by 10% a year, recalls Marc Bors, before slipping: “In fact, the building will soon be too small!”

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