Virtual learning brings growth opportunities along with its IT challenges.
GUEST COLUMN | by Michael Bodekaer Jensen
The dark days of the pandemic have passed, but universities, community colleges, and other higher education institutions don’t really have a choice as to whether to continue to offer online courses. Students have become accustomed to the flexibility and freedom that remote learning offers. As a McKinsey study noted, bold moves are required to survive and thrive.
‘Students have become accustomed to the flexibility and freedom that remote learning offers.’
Below I describe six trends that will impact higher education in 2023.
1. Hybrid models open up competition.
If students prefer a blended learning program of remote and in-classroom activities, institutions must acknowledge that demand and adapt their curriculum and infrastructure as well to support a hybrid model. This shift opens new competitive opportunities to acquire student enrollments from practically anywhere. This is a boon to community colleges that previously catered only to students in their immediate geographic region, but can now serve students across the country or even the world.
2. Micro courses and micro degrees blossom.
As the appetite for online or blended learning models grows, established universities and colleges need to understand what it means to have a digital offering. Institutions struggling with budgets and inflation can see cost savings by virtualizing and hybridizing their courses. At the same time, there are smaller private educational centers opening up with a fully online model. Their flexibility and lower cost appeals to students wanting entry-level courses, micro courses, and micro degrees to fit around work schedules, or before committing to more expensive full-time study programs. In the long term, students may struggle to stay engaged in fully remote learning situations and miss the lack of social community benefits gained through in-person environments. However, a hybrid setup where these online students can meet in person, immersively, for a couple of weeks in a “study camp” while the rest of their work is done online, may prove the best of both worlds.
3. Virtual simulations become more attractive.
Institutions around the world are generally feeling budgetary and credit pressures, looking to lower their overall spend while simultaneously increasing student enrollment and retention. This makes alternative forms of coursework in the way of virtual simulations more interesting, especially for expensive science education courses requiring lab experiments. Institutions can avoid making large investments in physical infrastructure by instead subscribing to internet-based solutions that also allow them to lock in pricing on a per-student, per-year basis to better forecast costs several years into the future. During pandemic shutdowns, virtual simulations were adopted out of necessity as a full replacement for in-person classes, but in a post-COVID world, simulations offer value for pre- and post-class assignments in addition to replacing the most expensive, dangerous, time-consuming, or boring real-world experiments.
4. The educator experience is critical.
This new digital-first or digital-plus learning model requires an investment not only in new tools, but in training and support for instructors. Empowering educators and IT administrators is at least as critical today as building great student learning experiences. Too often, edtech companies push tools that can become a source of frustration for the people on point for delivering results, who may not have the right skills. Many educators had negative experiences and “Zoom fatigue” when their world suddenly went fully online in 2020, forced to adopt new tools that contributed to frustration without addressing key pain points. As a result, they may have a residual reluctance to adopting new edtech solutions. Any university or college expanding their online offerings needs to ensure edtech vendors collaborate closely with IT administrators and teacher-advisors on interoperability, systems integrations, and ease-of-use for both teachers and students.
‘Any university or college expanding their online offerings needs to ensure edtech vendors collaborate closely with IT administrators and teacher-advisors on interoperability, systems integrations, and ease-of-use for both teachers and students.’
The talented instructional designers and learning technologists working in campus Teaching & Learning Centers can be tapped for ongoing faculty development and support in determining the learning situations where edtech offers the greatest value.
5. A.I. stimulates new emphasis on soft skills.
College essay-writing may eventually go the way of the dodo now that a chatbot enabled with artificial intelligence can produce passable auto-generated text. Instead, educators should look to synthesize classroom learning with Project-Based Learning or credit-bearing internships to get students to apply their classroom knowledge to a real-world situation. This can encourage critical thinking, decision-making, and collaboration — the kind of “soft skills” that higher ed has long been proud to foster in its graduates.
6. Accessibility looms larger.
If educational institutions can now grow enrollment by enlarging the geographic pool from which they fish for students to practically anywhere, they also need to increase their efforts on accessibility. Institutions must ensure their edtech systems support the most widely used tech devices, such as low-end, less-expensive desktops, laptops, tablets, and other mobile devices to ensure all students have access, regardless of socioeconomic status. They should also comply with guidelines to ensure web content is more accessible and usable by people with physical or neuro disabilities or other challenges.
It’s an exciting time to work in education. New technologies and approaches to teaching with them can amplify the impact of every faculty member and program. Higher ed institutions looking to distinguish themselves from their competitors should look to embracing new edtech and supporting instructors to use it in a way that aligns with research-backed pedagogical approaches and advances in cognitive science.
Michael Bodekaer Jensen is the CEO and co-founder of Labster, whose interactive virtual training simulations are used by five million students in high schools and universities across 70 countries to reinforce the exciting connection between science and the real world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.