The learning experience for university students this past year has been anything but normal. Almost overnight, institutions up and down the country had to take every course they’d only ever taught in person and make them suitable for students to digest online. Many people thought it couldn’t be done, and even if it could, the standard of learning would fall some way below what students were used to.
Now over 12 months on, universities are still online for the majority of courses and proving a remote model can more than stack up as a face-to-face substitute. Although in-person is the preferred mode of learning for most, universities will want to reflect on the opportunities the pandemic has given them and see which ones are worth developing for the future.
Tech saved the day, but still needs to solve the social conundrum
The academic year couldn’t have been made possible without technology. Up until the pandemic, it was only really used as an online resource to supplement learning. It’s now proven to be an engaging way to teach, and be taught, and can also make learning accessible to many more people.
However, if universities maintain an online element to some of their courses, they have to find a way to make them more socially rewarding.
Having that natural interaction between lecture and students and among each other keeps everyone focused and accountable to the learning process. In isolation, it’s only really up to the student whether they engage or not. It’s also just generally a much more enjoyable experience for students when they feel connected to their teacher and their peers.
In a podcast series with The Economist – The World Ahead: Lockdown Lessons – Daphne Koller, co-founder of online learning platform Coursera, believes ‘hybrid flex courses’ could hold an answer. A format where some students would be online and others physically in the space, helping to make the lessons much more socially fun and interactive.
Students who partner more participate more
Even though in some ways online learning has made students disengage more, it’s also done the opposite.
For online learning to be a success, lecturers soon worked out they needed students to help them. They started to pair students together and get them to design and teach their own assignments, encouraging them to take a more active role in their degrees.
The more opportunity like this where students get to shape their education the better – it makes for a much more fulfilling experience. Hopefully this shift will cause universities to look at new ways to make this a regular practice.
The examination hall could go under review
The pandemic could also force universities to rethink outdated examination methods. In many cases, final assessments weren’t possible because they needed to be invigilated. But silent exam halls can be daunting environments for many students to produce their best work. Maybe it’s time to explore alternatives.
One idea could be to make assessments more open ended and set students tasks to create case studies or record podcasts. It would mean rewarding students for curiosity and academic enquiry, as opposed to simply how much knowledge they can retain.
Universities might move into the short-form market
The length of courses could change, too, as well as the number of students universities can enrol. Not everyone is able to commit to a three-year degree and the subsequent fees that come with it, but that’s not to say they wouldn’t be open to a shorter, less financially taxing alternative.
It could open up a new market for universities. Organisations like Google and Amazon are already offering short-form online courses, with the added bonus of providing job opportunities to students once they pass. Now universities are more digitally capable, will they look to add their institution to the market?
The pandemic has gone a long way to dismantling the stigma around online learning and the acceleration of technology has given universities multiple opportunities to think about.
Eventually the majority of students will return to campus – universities depend on the economy they bring to their towns and cities to survive. But the learning experience for students and universities has been given an almighty shakeup and hopefully it will bring better opportunity to more people in the future.
Published date: 6th May 2021
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