How the pivot to virtual learning will redefine higher ed’s future

A panel at the Presence Summit focused on how communications can be enhanced with video presence within the campus environment.

Four thought leaders joined for a panel discussion as part of the virtual Presence Summit, a July 15 event focused on enhancing communications in a video presence era. The session, “Re-imagined Campus & Workplace Learning,” covered where higher ed is, where it was and where it will be in terms of unified communications and technology for learning.

Sean Brown, chief strategist at Campus Reimagined at Florida State University, an initiative that reimagines the campus experience so that students can discover, develop and fulfill their personal passion, led the panel. He opened with the question “What is going on today?”—which the others chuckled at because the situation these days is truly changing by the day.

“We need to congratulate ourselves because in a very short period of time we managed to pivot,” said AV expert Julian Phillips, senior vice president for global workplace solutions at AVI-SPL.

“We’ve been talking about a fourth industrial revolution. In many ways the pandemic has almost been that point that signified that we now need to move into the new age,” he said, referring to nascent technologies like AI, automation and robotics. “Rather than looking back, I hope what’s going to happen is that we start looking forward. My hope is that what will happen is that we move much more to creativity and experimentation and discovery.”

The technologist’s job, as he sees it, is to learn how such technologies can be applied to supporting discovery and creativity. “We’ve really got to start reinvesting our education dollars into a different concept,” he said. Supporting creativity will open up education to more people around the world.

John C. Ittelson, professor emeritus of information technology and communication design at California State University Monterey Bay, noted that he participated in his first video conference in 1977. “There’s always been an interest in how technology can help education,” he said.

Now it’s clear that “the campus isn’t only the classrooms where the students show up,” he said, even though “as faculty members that is our illusion. … Campuses are small cities.” From his standpoint, a large group of faculty was already using distributed technology, some on the leading edge with flipped classrooms. “We were going to head this way whether the pandemic hit or not,” he said. “The pandemic made it so that we had no other option.”

Brown noted that not long ago everyone was talking about the convergence of IT and AV. Now it’s about the convergence of IT with unified communications.

“We have a captive audience now; they’re been forced to move and teach online,” said Joe Way, director of learning environments at University of Southern California. “I think we’re never going to lose the unified communications convergence. The idea of AV and IT is done. We’re all in the same sandbox now. Now you have this UC. Where do I go? Under the IT people? The AV people? Am I my own thing? Well, yes,” he said. “We’re now invited to the room, we have earned our place. We earned it by doing that IT convergence well.”

He envisions a huge movement on the way, where the online environment can capture a true classroom experience. “The meeting place is a virtual collaboration area. That’s going to be the next step forward,” he said.

Way shared how his institution had to buy hundreds of laptops to meet student needs with the campus shut down. He had never realized how much people realized on the four-hour laptop checkout service because they didn’t have their own computers.

“As we move to a permanent online society, we now need to look forward and consider: What are we going to be able to provide?” he said. Maybe as part of coming to college institutions will promise to provide a laptop and internet access—supporting learning whether it takes place within campus buildings or not.

“For every shortfall there’s an opportunity. It’s up to us to say what are we going to do with it now? When we look back, this is going to be what we identify as transformational, especially for those of us in the AV/UC space. It’s a defining moment,” Way added.

Also read: Faculty actually liked teaching online (mostly), survey finds


Way and Ittelson noted that the closure of campuses has shut down service-learning opportunities—“a major loss to our communities,” Ittelson said. He anticipates higher ed institutions working toward helping not just their classrooms in this virtual environment but their communities as well. That means creating virtual service learning opportunities, said Way.

Phillips expressed how our loss of freedom of movement is short-term. “Hopefully, and hopefully soon, we are going to return to gathering together in spaces,” he said. “Going back to people getting together is what human society is all about. And everything [technology-wise] we are talking about now is not going to change that.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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