That the coronavirus will upend lives, businesses and the way we do things is now apparent. Our post-covid world, whenever that comes, will look substantially different from February 2020. The good thing is, as with all crises, much-needed change gets fast-tracked, innovations get tried out, and evolution is accelerated.
One sector we’re seeing this in is, undoubtedly, education. A billion students around the world are unable to go to school or college, many of whom have to switch to remote learning. As the coronavirus spreads, it’s clear that what was thought to be a stop-gap does not have a definitive end date. But while remote learning has become the norm for now, it is far from perfect. Over the next few months, there will be many innovations looking to iron out these problems - which will have a lasting benefit on education well after the pandemic dies down. "It’ll be a great opportunity for the universities to look at how we use these tools in new and creative ways,” said Aaron Powell, the CIO of University of Washington, to the WSJ.
We explore a few of these challenges and what could potentially be done to solve them.
1. The campus experience & sense of community is missing
A university is more than just a place where lectures are delivered. It also consists of clubs, events, out-of-syllabus discussions, sports, volunteer work, peer interactions, networking and more.The campus experience in its myriad forms is an essential part of a student’s adolescence and development, perhaps shaping it more than the formal education itself. “The pandemic has been emotionally devastating for us adults, but its impact on teenagers is arguably far greater”, says Christopher Null, a contributor to WIRED magazine, noting the importance of campus life to teens and young adults.
A college is also a place where ideas are dished out, leading to the formation of everything from bands to startups. What are the chances that Google would have become what it is today if Sergei Brin and Larry Page had not met, discussed and collaborated out of the normal academic calendar at Stanford University in the mid-1990s?
And of course, there is the sense of community - that intangible connection that we all feel towards our alma maters, which can be a powerful driving force before, during and after the years spent on campus. It’s hard to define, but all of us will agree that it is one of the most important aspects of university life - a paper by Susannah Brown and Charles Burdsal even linking it to academic performance. So when students are scattered and isolated, trying to maintain this sense of community and togetherness is important.
While technology can never replicate real life - it can help bridge some aspects such as improved networking, facilitating discussions, and streamlining collaborations.
2. Resources are scattered or difficult to access
Students depend on several resources on campus: computers, libraries and equipment. The lack of access to these - especially those housed physically - can stymie research and learning. Here too - while true physical access cannot be replicated, a lot of the problems can be overcome using technology.
For example, many of the library resources can be taken online and made easily accessible by anyone. While many universities have taken this approach, we will now see many others adopt e-books, streaming and other online services so students have shared access to valuable knowledge. In addition, universities are making access to librarians and subject matter experts more available through online resources to fill gaps as much as possible. It is also likely we will see initiatives such as controlled digital lending take off, as will free open-source libraries and collaborative platforms such as LabXchange, a free online platform for science education developed by Harvard University.
It’s also likely that different types of courses will have different ‘resource sets’ - a more-knowledge based course like an MBA will have a very different set of resources than, say, a mechanical engineering course. The important thing from a university’s point of view is to centralize all such available resources in one place so that students’ education is not stalled and they find it convenient to access them. For example, Involvio’s Remote Campus helps maintain the campus community using tips for staying healthy, FAQs for online classes, important off-campus info, health center & food bank information and even wellbeing surveys to monitor how students are doing.
3. Students need real-time access to their support system
Apart from the above resources, a university also provides a student with personnel resources: student affairs professionals, academic advisors, thesis guides, career counsellors and yes, even professors. This is all the more important now that students are learning from an unfamiliar environment - easily prone to distraction or anxiety. They are learning across time zones and it’s quite likely that international students (which number 1.1 million in the US) are taking day classes in their night time, especially as over 60% of the students are from Asia.
Now, more than ever, students need access to support functions in colleges. The good news is that unlike physical resources, these can be disbursed online relatively easily. When a university accounts for remote learning, it needs to give students access to their instructors & advisors, so they know who to reach out to for support, and make it easy for them to book meetings and connect with their support network. The ability to see availability, book slots and seamlessly chat, call or video-conference will go a great way in giving currently scattered students some real-time support.
For instance, Involvio’s Remote Campus solution lets institutions build a Success Network for their students right on the mobile app, so students have one-tap access to their advisors right from their smartphones.
4. Improving the online learning experience itself
From meetings to concerts to classes, the offline-to-online transition has not been as seamless as users would like. Apart from the technological challenges (which are being worked on and will be resolved), the missing human element is a big factor. In the case of education, this is particularly important: Currently, we are experiencing mass remote learning, not online learning (which is internet-aided education in the classroom). This needs to be addressed, or the perceived value of university education will change. Research by Educause reveals that only 42% of American institutions have a continuity plan to facilitate remote operations.
The optimistic way of looking at this is - it will catalyse much-needed innovation which could help remote education overall, beyond our universities. Using drawing tablets to replicate a blackboard (an approach made famous on YouTube by Khan Academy) is one. As more pain points faced by students, instructors and the universities come to light, we can expect the competitive technology market to solve for them and provide features that come close to replicating (and in some cases, even rival) those of a face-to-face education.
Then, as HBR puts it, we might even relook at the need for four-year residential courses. “By freeing resources from courses that can be commoditized, colleges would have more resources to commit to research-based teaching, personalized problem solving, and mentorship.”, it says, in a recent blog - pointing the way for a new future for our decades-old education system itself.
5. Crossing the digital divide
An uncomfortable topic is the question of access: Remote learning is contingent on access to computers, the internet and a reasonably private space. Several experts have spoken about this topic, saying it can exacerbate the existing digital divide. Many students from community colleges don’t own laptops or have a shared family device. In fact, laptop sales are spiking around the world, and one of the primary reasons is remote learning. Add to this, around half of all Americans do not have access to high-speed data. With the sudden switch to remote learning, institutions need to be sensitive to this, and adopt mobile-first remote campus solutions to connect with students wherever they are - leveraging on the fact that over 90% of higher ed students today do have access to a smartphone.
While this is definitely a challenging time for everyone, it’s also an opportunity. It is inevitable that a return to the classroom will happen in some shape or form, but would be enhanced by the innovations and learnings that come out of this mass experiment. Till then, keeping students connected with all aspects of their campus - instructors, advisors, resources, and of course, fellow students - will be paramount. Involvio is proud to be associated with several leading institutions in this endeavour and is working hard to bridge gaps with a student-first approach with its Remote Campus solution.