Implementing digital tools can enable and enrich connections while making learning more accessible and equitable.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, solutions for active, social, and collaborative aspects of online learning were woefully inadequate. Existing technology attempted to add capabilities for interactivity, but these efforts often felt artificial. They also added a significant cognitive load on instructors by thrusting them into the role of the systems integrator to achieve desired engagement.
In 2020, the involuntary digital transformation was rushed and overwhelming, painfully showing that making deep connections and providing meaningful collaboration at a distance requires more than a video feed and faculty perseverance. But with these challenges came hard-fought learnings. Thanks to a positive assessment of the value and efficacy of the digital learning born from this experience, survey respondents at the majority of institutions contributing to the sixth annual report on the Changing Landscape of Higher Education (CHLOE 6) say they are reevaluating their strategic priorities relative to the role of online learning.Footnote1
As institutions prepare for the new academic year, there is a want to return to "normal," even though "normal" has never been optimal for a majority of students.Footnote2 This is a once-in-a-generation chance for colleges and universities to reimagine the learning experience by implementing digital tools to enhance, enable, and enrich connections across distance and time and to make learning more accessible and equitable.
Forward-thinking institutional leaders are already embracing this vision, with three critical considerations in mind: enabling intentional digital transformation, decreasing overhead on faculty, and creating more equitable classrooms. They are doing so by enabling social, flexible, and active learning, data-driven engagement, and inclusive digital classrooms.
Social, Flexible, and Active Learning
Students learn best when actively participating in discussions with other students, directly applying their new knowledge, or teaching someone else. Unfortunately, facilitating these learning modalities is difficult in large classes and online settings.
By creating small, virtual collaborative groups, educators can support and encourage small-group dynamic interactions within larger class settings, much like study groups in a well-designed and dynamic in-person classroom. Providing various options for students to interact with course content and participate in activities will expand opportunities for engagement.
A rich and interactive post-class experience for students who miss a live session, or who want to review, is becoming the standard. Boundaries between synchronous and asynchronous learning are blurring and students are expecting added flexibility and choice to navigate their learning pathways.
The wide adoption of digital tools presents an unprecedented opportunity to use analytics to improve learning, both individually and at the class level, through meaningful, noninvasive, real-time student engagement data. When a student appears to be disengaged, instructors can be automatically prompted to provide personalized support. Invisibly disengaging from a class is no longer possible with engagement analytics, enabling instructors and support staff to connect with all students to support their mastery learning.
Inclusive Digital Classrooms
Lastly, offering diverse channels of engagement allows every student's voice to be heard. Not all students have the confidence to raise their hand and speak to the entire class. Methods like establishing a safe space, welcoming questions (both direct and anonymousFootnote3), and offering multiple feedback channels empower students from different backgrounds to be present and learn from each other.
Technology should enable the participation of all students, regardless of their in-person or remote location, bandwidth, or hardware setup, creating an equitable, participatory experience for everyone. Browser-based online learning environments simplify access by removing the need for downloads, while well-designed cloud-based video processing and mixing systems can significantly reduce the internet bandwidth and computational power needed to participate in synchronous classes.
Ultimately, a high-quality learning experience is found at the intersection of authentic content, active engagement, and meaningful human interaction and feedback. Connecting these components is a nontrivial task, especially given the uncertain educational environment ahead. As Juan Romo, Rector of Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, commented: "To navigate this new world, we need solutions that bring students together, foster collaborative learning, and enable our faculty to deliver flexible, impactful experiences."Footnote4
We have the opportunity to transform higher education. Intentional selection and use of technology can remove the barriers between in-person and online, providing flexible learning environments that support every student's success.
- Richard Garrett, Bethany Simunich, Ron Legon, and Eric Fredericksen, CHLOE 6: Online Learning Leaders Adapt for a Post-Pandemic World (Quality Matters, 2021). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Daphne Koller, "This Is Our Chance to Create the Classroom of the Future," THE Campus, June 28, 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Perry Samson, "Anonymity in Survey Courses as a Tool for More Diverse Engagement," American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, 2017. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- Personal communication. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
Andreina Bloom Parisi-Amon is Vice President of Learning & Teaching at Engageli.
Serge Plotkin is Co-Founder and CTO of Engageli.
© 2021 Engageli