Twenty-twenty was a turning point for education technology.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a technology acceleration that has significantly shifted the possibilities for both primary education and higher education—not only in content delivery but also in methodology itself. The pedagogy has changed. Now, we’re entering a world in which technology is built in and around an ideal education. That’s the inverse of the old way—trying to fit education methods within the limits of existing technological resources.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has thrown a wrench into things, altering the trajectory. COVID-19 has temporarily introduced a level of uncertainty, interrupting blue-sky innovation with more immediate digital needs. Educators have been forced to adapt their education methods—often not for the better—to the digital aids that are available. That’s a direct reversal of the shift we were seeing at the beginning of the year.
When we look back at things in detail, essential advancements achieved in onsite and remote technology before the pandemic laid a foundation for the future. Then, of course, the sudden need to
utilize videoconferencing platforms and media sharing forced many institutions that formerly had been slow to adopt to invest in a digitization strategy. Although the uses of education technology might be different during the pandemic, the importance of education technology remains undeniable.
Let’s review a number of trends that we saw in the run up to the pandemic.
- One trend was an increase in “intelligent” campuses, where spaces are designed for the use of advanced technologies and user interfaces (UI). This includes the introduction of enterprise-level collaboration features in onsite hardware—for example, interactive videowalls with technology for students to work on multidimensional elements, such as 3D design and music, simultaneously.
- We saw significant advancement in the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in education, particularly within medicine and engineering. For example, Leiden University (Leiden, the Netherlands) is using AR headsets to simulate the human body for medical examination and dissection; this provides education opportunities that were previously unavailable and removes the need for cadavers. Because they aren’t yet widely available, AR and VR have often been limited to onsite use. However, some elementary schools have used AR via iPads, and we’ll likely see more mobile opportunities that might translate to home use.
- We saw impressive audio enhancements, including improved noise canceling and layering that can tune out everything but the human voice—something that the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HOP) teaching hospital implemented. It allows doctors to communicate with patients in the intensive-care unit (ICU) remotely, while maintaining an extremely human vocal quality.
- We saw enhanced videoconferencing capabilities, which were also evidenced at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). UPenn’s Henry A. Jordan Medical Education Center implemented Mediasite to capture multiple simultaneous presentations (including lectures), and it used services like BlueJeans to monitor and manage technical controls for national research symposiums, conferences and grant meetings.
- We saw institutions making investments in videoconferencing in order to connect with global experts, host lectures or remote discussions across campuses, and serve remote students. Daniel Newman, Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at technical-research firm Futurum Research, predicted that videoconferencing would provide an opportunity for special-needs students who live in rural areas to benefit from specialized teachers to whom they, otherwise, wouldn’t have had access.
- In addition to making investments in multimedia webinars and advanced broadcasting, a number of institutions were in the process of adding more spaces designed for videoconferencing. Stanford University has particularly robust videoconferencing offerings with customizable rooms.
But, as we know, the pandemic created an entirely new context for conferencing spaces and technologies. Videoconferencing capabilities and huddle spaces, which, for some, used to be “nice to haves”—or were primarily used in higher-education settings— have become essential in all hybrid-learning environments.
Videoconferencing can address some unique problems. These days, teachers have to be able to reach students who are conferencing into the class remotely, while also interacting meaningfully with students who are in the classroom. This brings up several questions, including the following: How is the room configured? Can remote students engage with the onsite students and with the teacher? Who is mic’d and what is the audio setup? Do all classrooms transform into videoconference rooms? How easy is it to maintain social distancing with this arrangement? Some institutions are utilizing existing videoconferencing rooms in unconventional ways. For example, a teacher might be in one room, with students conferencing in from multiple separate rooms. Alternatively,
a teacher might be in a room with one group of students, while another group of students is in another room.
Teachers also face a conundrum as regards how to capture and distribute their lesson-plan material and how to digitize physical resources. Western Kentucky University has provided its educators with document cameras with built-in microphones to help equip them for remote learning. Some educators choose to record lessons that their students can watch on their own time as part of a blended-learning approach. Some institutions are outfitting teachers with videocamera setups in the classroom—even in entirely remote arrangements—and some of these systems can automatically track the teacher as he or she moves around the room. This enables educators to get out from behind the webcam.
Let’s turn to audio. In the face of the pandemic, audio needs are less about engineering advancements and more about mission-critical considerations. In some schools, physical barriers, in combination with social distancing, protect teachers and students from the spread of COVID-19. Spaces with poor acoustics, such as lunchrooms or courtyards, are being repurposed as classrooms; unsurprisingly, this can cause problems.
Other concerns are the need for audio propagation that can reach students throughout large spaces, as well as the need for audio capture that can provide clear and filtered sound to remote students who are participating via videoconferencing. The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) has distributed personal microphones to faculty who are teaching in large spaces, and it has upgraded audio equipment to ensure fidelity is suitable for both in-person students and remote learners.
During the pandemic, when we look at intelligent campuses—spaces designed with technology in mind—we see that pure innovation has been supplemented by priorities like flexibility, adaptability and mobility. The University of Southern California (USC) is implementing devices like the Microsoft Surface Hub 2S and Steelcase Roam Mobile Cart, which are usable in traditional classrooms, in conference rooms or even outside. Penn State has installed projection screens in large, repurposed classroom spaces, such as the gymnasium, and it has expanded its Wi-Fi to support new video technology and stream capabilities.
In virtually any space, videoconferencing and video screens are essential to facilitating remote contact with students and staff. I expect an increased focus on multi-purpose spaces. That means, although we’ll still be seeing things like interactive videowalls, we can also expect audio capabilities, outlets and other built-in features that promote interoperability.
As we entered the pandemic, the institutions that were leading the charge in education technology—even if their focus was not specifically remote learning—fared the best. They had digital capabilities that provided a foundation for remote work, and they had a softer place to land when people returned to campus. These institutions already had a digitization strategy, which allowed them to respond more nimbly. Although many pre-pandemic technologies didn’t explicitly address these current needs, they provided a grounding framework. And, as these technologies advance, they’ll become more elastic to accommodate mobility and flexibility.
“Hybrid” is the operative word in education today. Although we might be seeing some temporary band-aid solutions in response to the pandemic, and they might yield some imperfect results—an overreliance on one video platform or another, awkward converted classrooms, etc.—2020 has opened a welcome Pandora’s box of new education resources and methodologies. These will not merely support education as we know it but, indeed, push us beyond it.
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