The pandemic forced education and technology into an unfulfilling relationship. There was dissatisfaction across the board when in-person teaching moved over to video conferencing software.
Relationships, however, can always get better when one discovers exactly where the problems lie. That’s why I spent the last year talking to more than 500 university professors about what worked well for them and what didn’t during higher education’s Zoom era.
As an educator and technology innovator, I know that new edtech platforms can do far more than serve in a pinch, when learning unexpectedly goes remote. Technology can amplify everything that’s working in higher education and help us leave behind the things that are not.
As I interviewed professors, I noticed something interesting; rather than merely complaining about the teaching experience in 2020, many were actually looking forward to using new technologies going forward, whether classes will be held in person, remotely or some combination of the two. Many professors and administrators are thinking in terms of meeting the students where they are—in virtual environments and on mobile devices—instead of requiring them to drop everything and unplug in order to come to us.
With universities under pressure to innovate or fall behind, it’s worth sharing several ways that forward-looking professors and administrators plan to use technology when the new semester begins.
Creating virtual communities around courses
Some professors will go into the next semester offering students choices between the brick-and-mortar and the digital. They will do this by giving their students something they already know and love: digital communities. This concept goes far beyond what Microsoft Teams and Zoom offered in 2020 and involves the creation of different ‘rooms’ where students can come and go at their leisure. One room might resemble the classroom, where a professor delivers a lecture or facilitates a discussion; where another room might be more like a café, a place where students can meet up casually with their classmates. One room might be for conversation—which can happen synchronously or asynchronously—and another might be devoted to study.
Virtual environments should mirror the real world instead of making students leave it. They should feature flexibility and serendipity. A student can enter a virtual room and bump into classmates the way they would at the campus pizza parlour, or they can schedule study sessions and invite their classmates. Thanks to asynchronous communication — popularised by social networks — students can take conversations with them wherever they go.
Virtual environments should mirror the real world instead of making students leave it
At the most innovative universities, virtual environments will be a part of learning next year and beyond.
Creating virtual offices
Students often have business all over campus, including in the registrar’s office, the admissions office, the tutoring centre and professors’ office hours. And they often drag their feet when it comes to keeping appointments with these offices.
Professors have told me that students fear they have little privacy when they talk to their professors during office hours, and that they don’t want to wait in line, so few show up. It’s not surprising that a number of schools have been rethinking their approach to faculty office hours.
But during the pandemic, professors who were able to offer virtual offices — with a virtual waiting room and a private one-on-one meeting room — saw an influx of students. These students had no distractions, no privacy concerns and full agency in how they wanted to take advantage of office hours.
Other campus offices can have this same experience by offering students a digital alternative. This is something forward-looking schools will be doing more of.
Using tech platforms that put teaching first
Every professor in America learned a valuable lesson about technology in 2020: software that works for a business meeting won’t necessarily work in the classroom. But many professors are continuing the learning process by discovering and using what works.
The problem for teachers with the widely used video conferencing programmes of 2020 was that they were not customisable and did not favour collaboration. In many ways, they did not allow teachers to do what they do best: engaging the students.
But there are digital platforms in use today that were designed specifically for the student-teacher interaction. These are integrated with popular learning-management systems like Canvas and Blackboard and allow for customisation of the lesson to the individual student. They can accommodate the many learning styles that a professor finds in any classroom, which enhances the teacher’s ability to engage.
Rather than making students and professors adapt to some new functionality, the best edtech platforms are flexible enough that whatever works best in the brick-and-mortar world — whether its one-on-one learning, small groups or large classrooms — can easily be accommodated.
The 500 professors I talked to will all be confronting different situations when the fall semester begins. Some will return to the classroom, some will teach virtually and some will employ a combination of the two.
There’s one thing they all have in common: none want a return to the one-size-fits-all video conferencing education system that most of us were stuck with in 2020.
But many professors are tech-savvy, and they understand there are ways to bring education to the student wherever the student might be and do it in the format that the student prefers. Virtual communities, virtual offices and flexible learning platforms are the key to making this happen.
For the universities that offer these things, the next year could be great.
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