Making the move to virtual learning

How educational institutions can strike the right balance in a post-pandemic world, by Jeremy Payne, international VP of marketing, Enghouse Interactive

The current COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the worlds of higher and further education. One of the most immediate impacts has been the shift from classroom teaching to remote learning. All educational institutions have been impacted by this, of course, to a lesser or greater degree.

The nature of that impact depends on a number of factors. From a practical perspective, some organisations were already embracing virtual and distance learning before the crisis to support education programmes, but now they have had to scale up their efforts and speed up adoption. Other institutions have had to recalibrate completely and adapt to the new normal at lightning speed. However, all this has to be put in a broader context of issues and concerns that educational organisations are wrestling.

Firstly, there are financial constraints. Currently many colleges and universities are predicting a 20% drop in student applications and attendance in the autumn, in particular those who rely on overseas students to fill places. This will have a significant impact on the bottom line. Secondly, there are considerations around quality. Many organisations have built up a reputation over many years. There is a possibility that as the educational paradigm shifts more to virtual learning, that reputation could be lost if not managed properly.

Ensuring the best possible learning experience for students can be another important challenge. Institutions need to maintain the same levels of quality, engagement and student participation as they transition to online learning. How can they keep quality high as they move over to delivering courses in a virtual classroom or through recordings or online?

As you transition to the virtual world, you need to know whether you have the right skill sets

There are other important considerations which also need to be navigated; organisations may need to layer in their existing learning management systems, for example. Also, as we approach exam season, there has to be confidence that the comparison of someone taking an exam can be compared with equal parity to someone who took an exam last year or is likely to do so next year.

When we look at how organisations are responding to the crisis, we can see a range of approaches in place. Many are setting extended homework, with some backing that up with a regular one-to-one call with a tutor. Some have set up social media groups or are offering webinars for download delivery only, while others have taken the leap and moved completely to the virtual classroom and really trying to build that sense of engagement and participation.

A chance to excel

We have seen higher and further educational establishments make a highly positive initial response to the virus. But what will the world of learning look like in the longer term, post-pandemic? It will certainly bring opportunities for many educational institutions as they can open up their courses to a far wider geographical audience who are unable to physically attend a course. But what is important is finding the right balance.

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and it isn’t a case of just spinning up a video-conferencing platform. There are many different considerations that every organisation needs to think about. As you transition to the virtual world, you need to know whether you have the right skill sets, whether you need to undertake an internal educational or recruitment process. Organisations need to consider what their value proposition is, how they protect their IP, which is key to their sense of identity, and how are they going to excel in this new world order.

In an Enghouse poll, we asked the question: what are the virtual learning areas that you think can make the biggest improvement to education today? Seventy-five percent referenced real-time video lessons with teachers and the same percentage cited combined digital and onsite education. This points to the importance of balanced interaction.

Just virtualising content and making it downloadable or asking people to replay a pre-canned video is one thing, but having things happen in a real-time way, with a real teacher present to adapt, react, adjust and answer questions in real-time, is a completely different experience.

There is no doubt when we look at the quality of what’s being provided right now, having real teachers and combining the physical and digital world is really going to be the gold standard and the way to move forward.

All of this has to be integrated within the context of practical real-world considerations of course. Organisations need to be cognisant of what they have in terms of IT capability and in terms of a P&L account and budget. They need to know how to square the circle if there is a drop in potential income and revenue.

They must manage expectations of what experience they will be offering to students and position and price accordingly. They also need to factor in moderator controls to ensure quality engagement.

Critically too, they must think about security. It’s not an option, it’s a must-have. According to a recent audit into cybersecurity maturity in schools, 83% of schools had experienced at least one cybersecurity incident over the last year.

This highlights the scale of the threat. If you think about the amount of effort and energy, protocols, processes and policies that have been put in place to protect a physical classroom, some of these measures have had to be flexed and stretched to meet the virtual learning world.

Security is paramount. As teaching increasingly moves online, it needs to be as safe and secure as it would be in a physical classroom.

So there’s much to think about. It is, however, clear that the COVID-19 crisis has moved us further down the road to virtual learning. Times are changing fast. We are likely to see increased demand in the coming months and years for video conferencing and video collaboration tools like our own Vidyo technology that promotes interactive and engaging learning experiences delivered in a highly secure environment.

Schools, colleges and universities have all adapted well to the pandemic and the new normal in learning – and it seems certain that the world of education will look very different in the future.

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