After COVID-19 learning and as university technology teams look to the new year, here are some pieces of advice to help create successful teaching and learning environments

COVID-19 learning lessons that will stick with us

As university technology teams look to the new year, here are some pieces of advice to help create successful teaching and learning environments

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the way higher education institutions delivered instruction. They had to figure out how to add new technology, repurpose existing technology, and train instructors how to use those technologies to teach in a distance learning environment–all in a matter of days. The pandemic forced administrators and instructors to innovate, think in new ways and get out of their comfort zones, all in order to adapt to help students succeed in this new learning environment.

Now, as colleges and universities plan for 2021-22, some of the innovations borne out of the pandemic will stick.  For example, Illinois State University, where I served as director of learning spaces and AV technology for the past 20 years, made the rapid switch to hybrid learning in 2020-21 and in the process realized this was an opportunity to re-imagine its offerings after the pandemic eased. We began the process of equipping all of our classrooms with technology to support distance learning in 2021-22–a bold move that can expand the university’s ability to serve students by providing options for those who can’t come to campus.

In 2021-22, the ability to adapt will continue to be of the utmost importance. Here are some lessons other can learn from on how ISU adapted to provide instruction in new ways.

Installing technology and training instructors

During the start of the pandemic, ISU’s instructors were encouraged to move as many classes online as possible. A small number did hybrid classes. From a technology standpoint, the biggest challenge was the amount of equipment that had to be installed. ISU has more than 21,000 students with six different colleges and 35 departments. The campus includes 188 buildings and facilities and 360 classrooms. We literally had a few days warning to switch modalities. The technology team had to get all the gear and train everyone how to use it. ISU installed Epson document cameras in 300 classrooms and also installed tracking cameras in 45 rooms. The tracking cameras follow the instructor’s movements as they walk around the room, so if they want to go over and write on the white board the camera pivots to track them.

The shift kept the IT team extremely busy as it evaluated needs, switched out equipment as needed, and helped to train instructors and troubleshoot any issues they had. It was a challenge to get the 1,000 or so faculty members comfortable using the document cameras, webcams and teaching with Zoom. But ultimately with good tech support, ISU was able to deliver great content to students, even those who were learning remotely.

Lesson learned: Training and communication are the keys to success. Getting the tools in place is one thing, but having the resources to actually meet with instructors and show them how to make the switch from in-person to online to hybrid quickly is another. I can’t overemphasize the importance of having people in place to handle installations, train instructors and troubleshoot issues. Getting buy-in from instructors can also be a challenge, but it is necessary for success.  At ISU, instructors were offered the choice of where they wanted to teach. Some opted to teach from home, some taught from their university offices, and some taught in the classrooms. Ultimately about 50 courses ended up being taught with at least some students in person, and the rest switched to be fully online. Giving instructors a voice in how they wanted to teach was incredibly important to getting buy-in from our professors.

Repurposing technology to meet new needs

During the pandemic, universities had to re-examine their technology and infrastructure and figure out how to use it to support a new learning environment–whether that was distance learning or a hybrid environment. ISU was no different. For example, some of its large lecture halls are equipped with dual projection systems using Epson projectors, giving instructors the ability to show two pieces of content at once–for example, they can display a PowerPoint on one screen and a video on the other. Or they can show content from a document camera on one screen and mirror their laptop onto the other screen simultaneously.

The dual content initiative wasn’t initially envisioned for remote or hybrid learning. However, having it already in place was helpful last year because instructors doing hybrid learning were able to use the dual screens to show the content on one screen and the virtual students on the other. Those larger rooms were also helpful because some students were able to go in person for classes because students were able to spread out.

Lesson learned: Be flexible. Just because technology was purchased with one purpose in mind doesn’t mean it’s suddenly obsolete if the situation changes. There are many ways to adapt existing technology to meet the needs of students and instructors when situations change such as what happened last year. It’s important to keep an open mind and re-think how to use that technology in the new environment, rather than let it gather dust.

Looking ahead

The overarching lesson that we learned during 2020-2021 is that distance learning and hybrid learning CAN work. The experience this past year made everyone realize that these methods are more doable than most would have previously believed.

Here are some pieces of advice for technology teams as they look to the 2021-22 school year, whether you are planning to offer in-person as well as hybrid or distance learning.

  • Listen to the instructors. It’s important to understand the goals of your instructors and their comfort level in using technology. Give them a say in how they want to deliver instruction and work together, with them in the driver’s seat, to find the technologies that best fit their needs. Let them know what technology is available to help them reach their goals, and offer training as needed.
  • Make technology plans early. Last year there was a mad rush to get equipment and many universities ended up not getting everything they needed right away. Plan ahead and build relationships with vendors to make sure your university will be a top priority when it’s needed.
  • Beef up the technology and training teams. If there’s anything we learned last year, it’s that things can change on a dime. Make sure you have teams in place, and enough people on those teams to get any new technology installed quickly, train instructors how to use it, troubleshoot and deal with issues. Having these teams in place now will help the university make shifts as needed in the future to adjust for the unexpected.

Last year was challenging, but it created new opportunities and new ways to serve students.  With some good planning and the right mindset, universities can take some of the innovations and lessons learned last year to create a successful environment next year for both instructors and students.

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