What will Virtual Learning bring to the table for the Future of Higher Education?

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The rapid spread of the coronavirus outbreak has significantly impacted the global education systems. The educational institutes around the world have been forced to shut down due to the social distancing measures. The pandemic has impacted schools as well as higher educational institutes. These impacts are especially visible in the domestic higher education institutes in which a significant percentage of international students are admitted every year.

In the US alone, Chinese students make up 33.7 percent of the student population, while Indian students comprise of 18.4 percent. This means a high percentage of students are missing out on quality higher education. Moreover, due to the lockdowns, the academic schedule of institutes across the world has also been disturbed, creating uncertainties among students as well as institutes.

A Move towards Virtual Learning

To cope with this scenario, the most effective tool in keeping student retention and maintaining access to learning has been virtual learning. It is a concept which leverages technology to improve the learning process, rather than depending solely on the face-to-face, teacher-pupil approach. Universities across the US in particular, have adjusted their programs in response to the spread of the coronavirus. For instance, Stanford University has called off the remaining two weeks of in-class lectures, urging its professors to move any remaining lessons online. The University of Washington has also announced a ban on on-campus classes until after spring break. Furthermore, other universities including New York’s Hofstra University, New Jersey’s Princeton University and Seattle University are starting to make the move to virtual learning.

Important aspects of Higher Education’s Business Model

Presently, the pandemic is forcing global experimentation with remote teaching. This crisis is expected to transform many facets of life and if remote teaching proves to be a success, education can be one of them. As this crisis-driven experiment launches, the following three aspects about higher education’s business model and accessibility of quality college education become very important.

  1. Need of a four-year Residential Experience

    To understand the need of a four-year residential model, a thorough understanding of all parts of the current four-year model is important. Lectures that require a little personalization or interaction can be recorded as multimedia presentations and can be watched by the students at their own pace and place. These basic parts of the curriculum can be easily delivered by a non-university instructor on any online learning platform. For instance, teaching the Newton’s laws is fairly the same all over the world. Thus for such a course, technology platforms can deliver the content to large audiences at comparatively low cost. This can be done without sacrificing one of the important benefits of the face-to-face classroom–the social experience, as there is hardly any in these basic courses.

    Moreover, colleges would have more resources to commit to research-based teaching, personalized problem solving, and mentorship by freeing resources from courses that can be commoditized. The students also would have more resources at their disposal as they wouldn’t have to reside and devote four full years at campuses. They would take affordable and commoditized courses online at their convenience. Students can also use the time spent on campus for electives, group assignments, faculty office hours, interactions, and career guidance as this is something that cannot be done remotely. Additionally, campuses can facilitate social networking, field-based products, and global learning expeditions–that require face to face interaction. This is the hybrid model of education that has the potential to make a college education affordable for everyone.

    However, shifting to a hybrid model is not only about students who are taking classes remotely but also the instructors who are forced to teach those classes from their homes. The students and instructors are trying alternative methods to compare their face-to-face and remote experience. Furthermore, with the current experiment, professors, students, and university administrators must keep a record of which classes are benefiting from being taught remotely and which ones are not going so well. They must maintain chat rooms that facilitate anonymized discussions about technology issues, course design, course delivery, and evaluation methods. These data points can inform future decisions such as when and why some classes should be taught remotely and which ones should remain on the campus.

  1. Improvements Required in the IT Infrastructure

    There are numerous hardware and software issues that need to be addressed before remote learning can really take off. Digital technologies like mobile, cloud, AI can be deployed at scale, however, there is significant scope for improvement in these technologies. On the hardware side, bandwidth capacity and digital inequalities need to be addressed. In traditional face-to-face education, students in the same class get the same delivery. Whereas in online education, the digital divide is magnified as the rich students have the latest laptops, better bandwidths, more stable Wi-Fi connection, and sophisticated audio-visual gadgets.

    In some cases, software for conference calls might be a good start, but it can’t handle some key functionalities such as accommodating large-sized classes while also providing a personalized experience. Thus, the instructors and students must note and should discuss their pain points, besides facilitate and demand technological development in those areas. Apart from this, online courses require educational support on the ground, viz. the instructional designers, trainers, and coaches to ensure student learning and course completion. Furthermore, there is also a digital divide among universities, which will be more visible in the current experiment. As compared to budget-starved public universities, top private universities have better infrastructure and higher IT support staff ratio for each faculty.

  1. Training Efforts Required for Faculty and Students

    Presently, all faculty members are not comfortable with virtual classrooms and there is a digital divide between the older faculties that relied on blackboards and flipcharts and the younger faculty that is familiar with the new technologies. As students enter online classrooms in the near future, they are going to learn that many instructors are not trained to design multimedia presentations, with elaborate notions and graphics. Colleges and universities need to figure out what training is needed for providing a smooth experience.

    Apart from teachers, students also face numerous issues with online courses. Commitment to follow the university calendar forces students to finish a course, instead of procrastinating it forever. Moreover, in virtual learning, they can feel as they don’t belong to a peer group or a college cohort, which in real life brings in a sense of competition, motivating all to excel. Furthermore, anything done online can result in a divided attention span, as students multi-task, check emails, chat with friends, and surf the web while attending online lectures.

To conclude, this experiment of virtual learning might show that the four-year face-to-face college education can no longer rest on its prestige. Presently, the post-secondary education market is mature for disruption, and the COVID-19 crisis might just be that disruption. How the world experiments, tests, records, and understands its responses to this disruption will determine whether online education proliferates as an opportunity for the future.

Also read: VR in Education: Next Big Step Forward in the Learning Sector

Read full magazine: The 10 Innovative E-learning Solution Providers in 2020

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