Amid all the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to American life, higher-ed administrators know this for certain: Fall will be here before we know it.
The question is, how do university decision makers prepare for campus reentry? How do you allocate resources, invest in hybrid learning, and update your infrastructure to maintain continuity of education in a time of such unpredictability?
Higher ed administrators and technology specialists also have to ask themselves another question: “What’s our appetite for risk?
After all, every decision is a gamble. The costs are high and uncertainties abound with a pandemic that has yet to be vanquished and students struggling to determine their comfort levels with on-campus vs. remote learning. And to make things just a little more complicated, there’s that ever-present x-factor: the reality that technology is constantly evolving, now faster than ever.
So educators are doing what they’ve been trained to do: ask questions and do their best to avail themselves of all available information to make informed decisions.
If uncertainty complicates back-to-school decision making, the fast-approaching fall term is intensifying the stakes. Nevertheless, say educators, it’s essential to achieve consensus about how to move forward.
Buy-in begets buy-in
“A little bit of listening really helps,” says Jorge Mata, Technology Project Manager for the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD). Faculty buy-in is essential, and that only comes from taking the time to understand instructors’ concerns about how hybrid technology investment will impact their ability to teach. “Our plan was, ‘We’re going to listen to you, and we’re going to come up with something that works for you, and we promise you’re not going to have to learn all these new things.’”
The benefits go beyond the obvious. By working closely with faculty, not only do you avoid “unnecessary headwinds,” says Mata, but you create a legion of technology trainers who will speed adoption of the new technology. “You’re always going to have educators who are less comfortable with change, or need more information to commit.” But this population will be encouraged by colleagues who embrace the technology. The undecideds will be more apt to make the leap. Simply put, explains Mata, “They don’t want to be left behind.”
Across the LACCD’s nine colleges, the system’s early embrace of online learning along with its decision to enlist faculty members to assist with training made Mata’s job a lot easier. “We didn’t have to hire huge numbers of [trainers]. We didn’t need to fill a stadium to conduct the training. We mobilized faculty who were already aware of and practiced in the technology.” This enabled LACCD to scale its efforts, while still keeping the training personal, with instruction taking place among people who already knew each other.
That’s one of the reasons Western University of Health Sciences (WesternU) created its Curriculum Technology Committee, says Miary Andria, executive director of the Upland, California-based institution’s Center for Innovation. “It’s a venue for representatives of all our colleges to discuss technology implementations, issues, and challenges. Whether at the faculty, student or administrative level, the technology committee is critical in making sure that we identify all the issues so that we can preemptively address them.”
LACCD has taken a similar approach and, as a result, says Mata: “We have the creativity of thousands of professors and administrators all thinking about how to solve our challenges. We don’t want to say no students. We want to say, ‘Yes, and here’s how.’”
Seeing the big picture, along with the myriad ways to bring a learning strategy to life, is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by educational technology specialists like Miary Andria and Jorge Mata as they steer their institutions’ response to the dramatic changes taking place in higher ed.
Asked to offer guidance for others in their position, they and other technologists have no shortage of advice:
1. Focus on safety
“As we prepare for reentry, the first priority is safety – for our students, faculty members and staffers,” says Andria.
“We have reengagement protocols, and though LACCD has different programs [across our nine campuses], we follow the same guidelines – like room capacity, for example, which we follow to the letter,” echoes Mata.
Another point of consensus: Safety issues are here to stay. From reimagining student-centric spaces to the adoption of hands-free technologies, says Michael Dannenberg of the Vantage Technology Consulting Group, “We’re asking ourselves: What does the next generation of learning spaces look like because of COVID?”
2. Invest where you can have the biggest impact
Students at WesternU learn in both didactic, or classroom, settings and in clinical environments. AR and VR technologies offer great promise down the road in adopting clinical instruction to remote learning models, but in the near term, the greatest progress can be made on the more traditional portion of the curriculum.
“We’ve actually managed to replace much of our didactic instruction with completely asynchronous methods of learning,” says Miary Andria. “More than ten years ago, we adopted an enterprise-wide video recording system on campus, so the majority of our lectures are recorded and available via a multi-media library.”
Among the challenges Andria faced was faculty readiness. “Teaching online requires a different pedagogical approach, so we had to adapt lecture-based materials for digital learning.” One measure Andria took to facilitate distance learning involved working with WesternU’s AV Integrator, ClearTech, to create special classroom environments equipped with green screen and recording technology that allow instructors to overlay interactive and video components. “During the pandemic lockdown, we had faculty members come to campus and use these capabilities to stream their lectures. This was hugely helpful in mitigating quality issues. When you do streaming and lecturing from home, people will be talking, dogs will bark, etc. Having pre-designed classrooms with the capabilities we needed made it easy for faculty to record high-quality content for asynchronous learning.”
3. Focus on campus readiness
While considering how to incorporate new learning technology into your educational model, don’t neglect the technology you already have, advises Andria.
“With the pandemic, a lot of our on-premises technology – from projectors to lecterns – had not been used. So one of our priorities has been to reestablish readiness.” As part of the planning process at WesternU, Andria and team adopted a phased approach to look at every classroom and test all existing equipment to ensure it was in working order.
4. Cater to ALL your students
On-campus learners want to feel safe in the learning environment. Distance learners want an experience that’s as close as possible to actually being there. Both groups want to accommodate the other – but not at the cost of compromising their own educational experience. All students want full value for their tuition dollar. One measure of that value is consistent, reliable, communication technology that’s AT LEAST on a par with what they experience at home.
The challenge educators face is how to use hybrid learning to unite rather than divide. Careful planning in consultation with experienced AV staff, particularly integrators who have experience in higher education, will go a long way toward enabling you to create a learning experience that leaves no one feeling short-changed.
5. Centralize and standardize
“One of the most valuable things we’ve done is focus on remote troubleshooting and assistance and the standardization of those processes,” says Jorge Mata. Help desk functions at LACCD used to be spread across 10 teams. The district made it a priority to create one central help desk. At the same time, the district moved to provide everyone with the same equipment, operating on the same protocols.
Consider identity solutions. The more you ask students and faculty to juggle passwords, the less they’ll use the technology behind them, which is why “we adopted an enterprise password that worked for everything from email to checking grades and records,” says Mata.
LACCD also invested in increasing awareness among IT and AV team members. “They used to be completely separate – like digital and celluloid – but those distinctions have blurred. Our projects flow across those capabilities.” Today tier 1 support calls at LACCD are divided between IT and AV teams, enabling both groups to become familiar with issues faced by the other. The solution not only provides faster service to callers. “It’s great for our support people to learn as much as possible about their counterparts,” says Mata, adding that the acquisition of dual-domain knowledge broadens staffers’ expertise and increases their value in the job market.
6. Focus on analytics – and act on them
One advantage of digital technology is the ability to measure its use. “We have a treasure trove of data now,” says Mata. And not just within LACCD but across institutions. “Everyone went online, so now we can measure performance across our institution and other ones, in our disciplines and across disciplines.” From time on task, time on subject, when something was done and how much, trends can be identified, and outcomes optimized.
The rationale is simple: Continuous measurement and monitoring enables continuous improvement – an essential practice for higher ed institutions that wish to remain competitive.
7. Learn from others
It’s easy for educators to fall into the trap of thinking that their experiences are unique – that the specifics of their circumstances render them a “special case.” But the fact is, “We’re all in the same boat,” says Mata. He advises taking the time to learn about other institutions’ experiences, and avail yourself of their knowledge.
Miary Andria is quick to agree. “There’s a lot of valuable information out there. EDUCAUSE is one a good source.”
8. Don’t neglect the logistics
When it comes to educational technology investment, every decision leads to new questions – and not all of them will be in your field of expertise. For example, if you’re going to create a repository of lectures, how precisely will they be stored and accessed? How much storage will be needed? What are the policies surrounding it? Suddenly an educational technologist is tasked with becoming an intellectual property expert.
It’s situations like this that can more than justify the investment in specialized consulting. Michael Dannenberg of Vantage Technology Consulting Group spends much of his day helping institutions consider their technology strategy from every angle. “It’s important to look at the technologies holistically. There’s a lot of planning beyond outfitting the room.” And critically, success doesn’t necessarily equate to how much you spend.”
Once you set a goal, says Dannenberg, “You don’t want to throw money at it. You want to throw intelligence at it.”
9. Ask yourself, “What’s our brand?”
Education is expensive. And competition for students is keen. Higher ed institutions have to fight for every tuition dollar, and they also go head-to-head to attract and retain the best faculty. In this environment, reputation becomes a critical component of success. And technology has a powerful influence on brand perception.
Today’s students, the vast majority of them digital natives, have high expectations of technology, and they’re acutely aware of how much they’re paying for it. Which means your hybrid learning investment better register positively with students – and ultimately pay off for them.
Reliability and ease of use alone won’t get you there. Today, more than ever before, your educational technology must work toward providing students with a true educational EXPERIENCE. It’s about what students learn, what they remember, what they will take with them.
“At the end of the day,” says Miary Andria, “education is a product, your students are customers, and if the education you provide for them does not work, you’re going to sink fast. You can’t just be a diploma machine. In the Los Angeles area, 18 percent of low-wage earners have a college degree. What’s the value of it?”
10. Remember who you’re doing this for
There are those who lament the advent of distance learning, who say there’s no substitute for the in-person educational experience. And, true enough, there will always be situations where hands-on education is a must (just ask a phlebotomy instructor). But remember, too, how powerfully distance learning has worked to democratize education, and how your investment in hybrid learning can help those you serve.
Jorge Mata of LACCD thinks of the single mother trying to earn her degree. “How do you go to the library if you have two young children with you who need to be occupied and kept quiet while you conduct your research? If that mother can access those resources from home, that’s equity.”
The clock is ticking. (But then again, when has it NOT been ticking?)
In the time you’ve spent reading this article, the fall term has come that much closer. In all likelihood, students will return en masse. Some will opt for the security of staying home or the convenience of not commuting. Others can’t wait to join their counterparts on campus.
In order to accommodate all who’ve entrusted their education to your institution, you’ll need to embrace hybrid learning in one form or another. And certainly the decisions you’ll make will have ramifications. But take a deep breath and ask yourself: Is this challenge truly any more difficult than others we’ve faced and successfully overcome?
“Life is always changing,” says Jorge Mata, Technology Project Manager for the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD). It’s essential to “manage and direct the energies of the organization to leverage change. This concept of a ‘new normal’ is an illusion. You have to embrace change as ‘the constant normal.’”
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