The long-lasting benefit of COVID-19 will be classrooms without walls
COVID-19 introduced many technology challenges for higher learning—an industry whose primary in-person service delivery model had evolved over time but remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.
Suddenly, with the onset of COVID, everything was put into question almost overnight. Colleges and universities had to deal with new tools, solve for unforeseen security problems and keep students engaged in a virtual world where the social component of attending college looked very different.
Now, as vaccines provide a return to traditional campus-based teaching, institutions must avoid the temptation to revert to the status quo and think of creative ways to use the lessons of the pandemic and the technology they built to survive COVID-19.
Where video is now the norm
Almost every institution of higher education has been forced to invest in new digital infrastructure to survive the past year. That has required creative problem-solving and has upended budgets, but it has also allowed schools to exercise muscles they will need as we move further into the post-pandemic world.
To succeed, universities must find ways to apply their new learnings and infrastructure creatively to prepare students for career paths that are evolving rapidly, while deepening and diversifying the educational experience to act as a draw for their increasingly global institutions.
Most schools already had tracking and co-working tools in place before COVID, but for many, remote instruction was not a major focus. Rather, the technology that allowed them to pivot to full-time distance learning online with video applications needed to be purpose-built and deployed rapidly.
It’s been a painful process for many colleges and universities, but it has also brought into being some potentially far-reaching benefits, including the long-discussed notion of a “classroom without walls.”
Because schools were forced to adapt, they now have greater flexibility to serve students and keep them engaged during future disruptions, whether it’s another health crisis, a closing at the request of local authorities, or family care responsibilities.
One outcome could be classes that offer parallel virtual-only teaching tracks. Another might be the diversifying of third-party expertise. It’s far easier to pull in a visiting lecturer from hundreds or thousands of miles away for a master class over Zoom than it is to have them on-site.
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Furthermore, it’s become far easier to convince students, parents, and other key constituencies that remote teaching is not only acceptable—but even sometimes preferable—because COVID has so widely normalized video-based communication. Beyond the practicalities of learning, the ability to communicate via video is now the norm for many jobs the students are preparing for.
So, using distance-based learning and collaboration tools is both a means to a lesson, as well as the lesson itself.
Keeping the cameras on
COVID-19 brought about new flexibility for where, when, and how students receive instruction. With a return to more traditional classroom instruction, there may be a temptation for colleges and universities to revert to how things were and leave the camera off.
Each institution will need to think hard about how important continued digital instruction is in this “back to normal” environment, but they shouldn’t overlook the benefits of maintaining a consistent digital experience. Universities will need to decide how they are going to integrate digital learning going forward at the highest level, ensure consistency across channels and think about how they can use their new capabilities as a differentiating selling point.
Another challenge universities have faced during COVID has been maintaining a sense of community when some or all of the student body has been offsite. This has been incredibly difficult to simulate in all-digital education.
Students, instructors, and administrators have used virtual club meetings, online team gatherings and even group text chats to try to fill the void, but for communities separated by hundreds or thousands of miles the social benefits of a return to campus may be even more welcome than classroom instruction.
Counter-intuitively, however, there are aspects of university social life that may also benefit from greater digital access. Students engaged in internships, co-op programs or overseas learning opportunities can more easily continue to work on projects they feel passionate about almost anywhere in the world, while staying in closer contact with peers, professors, and teaching assistants.
Not a case of ‘can’ but ‘must’
There are numerous uncertainties about higher education in the post-COVID-19 world. The pandemic has thrown old assumptions about how learning can and should happen into question.
Thanks to universities’ ability to adjust on the fly, students and parents have learned that it’s possible to get a solid education from the comfort of home, without necessarily understanding what it has taken to make it possible.
In order to prove their value going forward, institutions must find ways to take the best of what they have learned during the pandemic and integrate it with the on-site experience.
As the recovery from the pandemic accelerates, universities should think not just about getting back to normal, but also about how the resiliency they showed over the past year and the digital skills they developed can benefit them going forward, in an era when the classroom without walls is an expectation.
Jeff DeVerter is chief technical evangelist at Rackspace Technology, a cloud provider.