Before COVID-19 disrupted the education journeys of more than 1.5 billion students around the world, higher education institutions were already exploring ways to grow enrollment, reach more students, and better engage the “digital natives” of Generation Z. Though the need to move online created challenges, it also inspired solutions that will have long-lasting effects on higher education. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), educators believe the pandemic has accelerated the evolution of virtual education by ten years. “We’ve been entering a new paradigm for the last decade and COVID-19 has just expedited this progress. It provided gasoline to trends that were already underway,” said Michael Horn, co-founder of Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
83 percent of higher-ed faculty members believe courses will be conducted mostly online this term, and 62 percent say they will be online for the coming academic year. @TheEIU aka.ms/EIU - Click To Tweet
In an effort to better understand the impacts of the current dynamics on higher education institutions, staff, faculty, and students, Microsoft Education partnered with the EIU on a new paper: “Bridging the Digital Divide to Engage Students in Higher Education.” The EIU conducted surveys and interviews with faculty and students in the US, UK, Australia, and Germany, as well as with global higher education experts.
Insights indicate that rather than being a short-term solution, remote and hybrid learning are likely to be a future operating model for many higher education institutions alongside on-campus programs. Though more than 80 percent of faculty members surveyed said that less than half of their institution’s courses were online prior to the pandemic, one-third of them report that their institution will permanently add online options for all or most courses moving forward. The expanded availability of virtual learning will require increased investments in technology and additional training for faculty, but these investments, along with more flexible learning programs, could make higher education more accessible and equitable, with learning supported by technology that addresses the needs of diverse learners and flexible programs with schedules that work for students with other obligations. The increased opportunity for remote attendance will serve to broaden institutions’ geographic reach as well, drawing students to the most innovative programs rather than simply the one closest to home.
There is a difference in perspective between faculty and students on preparedness for remote learning. While 85 percent of faculty members surveyed reported that they felt prepared to meet student needs effectively with the resources they had available, more than 60 percent of students shared that they did not feel mentally or academically prepared for the academic year of fall 2020. And almost half of students claim the pandemic has worsened their ability to remain focused and engaged.
Education experts say that the pandemic has caused students to be stressed, anxious, financially challenged, and socially isolated. According to a study carried out by Hope College in July 2020, 60 percent of the 38,000 students surveyed reported experiencing basic needs insecurity.
Douglas Harris, non-resident Senior Fellow, Brown Center on Education Policy said, “The current situation is pushing faculty to realize that at the very least, students are not going to be able to learn in their class if they’re suffering in other ways.”
John Hattie, Professor and Director of Melbourne Education Research Institute, pointed to the sense of isolation and lack of social connection that students are feeling: “One of the biggest factors that influences student engagement and performance is their sense of belonging in their higher education experience. This is what has suffered the most as a result of COVID-19. They no longer have the same sense of belonging that they used to have.”
To foster a greater sense of connection, experts recommend that instructors go beyond simply delivering lectures online, and instead create more opportunities for active learning and engagement. Innovative schools like St. Edward’s University already use virtual anatomy, virtual internships, virtual counselling, and virtual student teaching, says Dr. Rebecca Frost Davis, Associate Vice President of St. Edward’s University. One teacher even set up a virtual crime scene using 3D cameras, allowing students to go places they couldn’t normally go. “The students who had done the simulation first did better because they weren’t distracted by things when they were learning,” says Dr. Davis.
“The key to making active learning work online is to leverage groups and technology to make students accountable and give them ‘skin in the game’ to do the work.” —Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation… Click To Tweet
Collaboration tools like Education Insights in Microsoft Teams can help instructors identify students’ needs and adapt their material for maximum impact. Dr. David Kellerman of the University of New South Wales says, “Insights for classroom Teams… has helped me connect with struggling students on a personal level, and to understand the broader trends in my classroom. Every teacher, professor or instructor on Teams has something to learn from Insights.”
Additionally, social activities such as orientations, graduations, and other traditions can be presented virtually to create more opportunities for socialization and connection. Resources such as this e-book and virtual graduation toolkit have ideas and tips for bringing events online. Beyond webcams and chat rooms, there are other creative ways to reimagine in-person gatherings, including building virtual versions of campuses in Minecraft to host in-game meetups and ceremonies.
Today’s higher education students are primarily Generation Z, a generation that is comfortable with technology and who expect it to be a part of their learning experiences—93 percent believe that remote learning will benefit their education. But they are also very clear about what they are looking for: they want their institutions to put their needs first by providing physical and virtual security, and they want to learn skills that will help them succeed in work and in life. “There is a push for higher education in the United States particularly to show greater value and a return on investment. As a result, students are looking for the best value in terms of what they are getting from their higher education and what they will be able to do in the workforce,” says Dr. Stella L. Smith, Associate Director, MACH III Center, Prairie View A&M University.
As higher education leaders work with instructional designers and professors to reimagine courses and fine-tune pedagogy, students and faculty agree that the pandemic is transforming higher education. With cooperation and creativity, this accelerated evolution can enhance student experiences through integration of emerging technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, and create new revenue opportunities for colleges and universities as they develop innovative options for students to pursue lifelong learning with flexible course schedules or micro-masters from different higher education institutions.
For a summary of key takeaways from the report, see the “Strengthening student engagement through hybrid education” infographic, and for full details, read the paper.