With COVID-19 vaccines successfully rolling out to larger percentages of the population, a majority of colleges and universities will be bringing their students, faculty, and staff back to campus this fall. This naturally begs the question: what will they be returning to?
Though education has obviously looked very different in the past year, it is important to understand that the pandemic did not initiate the transition to this next phase of education. That means even when the pandemic recedes, universities have already made permanent changes.
Hybrid learning offers helpful flexibility
Though exclusive on-site schooling would represent a return to a long-lost sense of normalcy, hybrid, or blended, styles of learning have transformed higher ed. In a post-pandemic world, administrators will not be as concerned about class sizes for public health purposes, but that does not automatically mean a crowded classroom is the ideal learning environment. In certain cases, splitting up an overfull class into on-site students and remote learners could deliver a better experience for both groups, which could then alternate sites next class.
Students will also still catch colds, or have a broken bone, or be on vacation, so providing options that allow for an equal learning experience for remote students is an important step in ensuring no student is left behind. Streaming lessons to remote students will also allow for recording and logging of these classes, which will be useful for studying. It also will provide additional value to those with learning disabilities, or to ESL students who will be able to review lessons on-demand to provide extra time that may be needed.
Edtech tools streamline post-college success
We have turned a corner in terms of technology’s ability to facilitate education, so the schools that commit to digitizing their learning environments will be well positioned to attract, retain, and produce graduates that transition most successfully into the world, while schools slow on the uptake may struggle to recruit and develop equivalent talent.
The flexibility and functionality that collaboration tools have facilitated is something students simply expect at this point, and it is clear students value environments where remote learners are empowered to contribute on the same plane as their in-person peers.
The London-based Adult College of Barking and Dagenham offers an interesting perspective on this front, as IT Manager for the College Aujla Jagdeep attests, “COVID-19 has in many ways resulted in a number of positives for our college; we have been able to introduce our digital transformation agenda a lot earlier than originally anticipated. Our Microsoft Teams platform has proved so popular with our students and teachers that we have been able to switch off our VLE platform permanently, resulting in significant cost savings.”
Much of their efforts are built around ensuring no student was left out, which means not only providing equipment to students who might not have home access to a PC and the internet, but also helping students build familiarity with technology tools such as cameras that they now operate confidently. As this technology is omnipresent in the working world, establishing familiarity with it beforehand is a prudent teaching objective that will accelerate students’ success. Even for those yet to acquire everything they need, the CARES Act may provide federal funding to allow schools to continue building out their technology infrastructure moving forward.
Interactive displays are pivotal for learning parity
Facilitating a blended learning approach requires not only individual assets like the aforementioned PC webcams, but also in-classroom technology tools, such as interactive displays that enable teachers to deliver lesson content, allow remote and in-class students to interact with that content, and accommodate real-time input. Simply sharing your screen with remote learners is an outdated concept that denies these learners the ability to interact with content, thereby creating two tiers of students. That is unacceptable in the modern classroom.
Another small college in the UK, Richmond College, also known as The American International University of London, finds tremendous success with its interactive displays. The Head of Learning Technologies, James McRae, sees great improvement in lesson delivery and student interaction as a result of the new displays. “We love the fact that the [interactive collaboration] displays work as an extension of our Office 365 environment and enable our teachers to move seamlessly from content creation to delivery,” McRae said.
The case here is not that technology can or should be used to create cookie cutter “one size fits none” experiences, but rather that technology helps facilitate a more personalized and productive experience for all, as long as you have the right tools.
As these schools and countless others like them show through their commitment to digitally transforming their classrooms and campuses to better enable blended learning and engagement, education is not about packed classrooms, rigidly defined rules and traditions, or exclusive access to those who live near a campus. It is about meeting students where they are and enabling them all to learn and contribute regardless of their physical location. As schools re-open to full capacity, they should consider how technology can enable them to bring everyone back to a better, more engaging experience that readies them for whatever comes next.
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