Higher Education: Learning to adapt to the “new normal”

The pandemic and the resultant lockdown have forced European universities and higher education institutions to fundamentally reconsider the way they deliver learning. Hartmut Kulessa, European Marketing Manager at Panasonic Visual System Solutions, looks at how organisations have adapted to date and the potential for using technology to offer a new future of blended learning.

For many universities and higher education institutions across Europe the implementation and refinement of digital learning, as an enhancement to traditional face-to-face teaching, was already high on the agenda for 2020. The opportunity to attract international students and their spending power, alongside the desire of Generation Z for more flexible learning was driving change.

According to the World Economic Forum, global edtech investments reached US$18.66 billion in 2019 and the overall market for online education was projected to reach $350 billion by 2025.

However, the lockdown of society and the closure of campuses to protect against the pandemic has rapidly accelerated this process. The roughly 2700 higher education institutions across Europe have had to adapt quickly to find a way to support the 20 million students that could no longer study and socialise on campus in the same way as before.

“The pandemic is speeding up changes in a tremendous way,” says Bert van der Zwaan, former rector of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and author of Higher Education in 2040: A Global Approach (2017), in an article for the Nature Research Journal. The journal states that coronavirus is forcing universities to face long-standing challenges in higher education, such as rapidly rising tuition fees and the perception of elitism. As they address these challenges, the financial sutuation is also dire with revenue from international students plummeting as they remain at home and endowment fund returns shrinking as investment markets drop in the face of recession.

As it has become clear that the challenges of social distancing look set to remain for the foreseeable future, the rush to provide temporary solutions has now turned to thoughts on how to make blended learning a permanent transition and the need to put in place a cultural and technological infrastructure to encourage and support it.

The power of online learning

The technology for online and blended learning already exists and is well proven. For those who do have access to the right technology, there is evidence that learning online can be more effective in a number of ways. Research shows that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they wish.

The human factor

But for higher education institutions, choosing the right system alongside recognising the other challenges, such as gaining staff and student buy-in and participation, is still a challenging journey.

Although digital learning was being discussed at Dusseldorf University of Applied Sciences before the pandemic, there was still cultural resistance and the process was moving slowly.

“I think there was a fear from some University teachers that they would somehow be replaced by technology,” said Professor Dr Kati Lang, who teaches International Technical Sales Management and Industrial Marketing at the university. “On the other hand, we believed that students would prefer online learning instead of classroom courses but in fact this was an over simplification. The vast majority of our students like the flexibility of being able to study when they wish, including those in full-time, and prefer a blend of digital and face-to-face learning.”

Professor Dr Kati Lang, University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf

This anecdotal evidence is supported by research from Unite Students in the UK where students suggested a variety of different methods were needed to meet their diverse needs. However, this doesn’t mean that digital learning was rejected. In fact the qualitative research showed that applicants wanted their university to offer a strong digital option, though they expect it to be well designed and intuitive and they may become frustrated if that’s not the case. Moreover, 44% of students use apps independently to help them to study.

Choosing the right learning technology

So, what does the ideal learning solution look like in the newly adjusted environment? According to Sanjay Sarma, the vice-president for open learning at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the use of widely adopted virtual meeting technology isn’t the answer. “Zoom university isn’t proper online learning,” he says. Sarma hopes that as universities resume in-person classes, the experience will be radically different — with instructors distributing video lectures early, and focusing in-person time on interacting with students to ensure that they understand the concepts being taught. “We don’t want to waste our proximity on one-way stuff,” he says. “It has to be two-way learning.”

Professor Lang expands on this point: “The delivery of theory works well in a video lecture or lesson format online but it’s important to enable the interaction with the students in a different way. When you are present in the classroom with the students, you can see by their reactions whether they understand a concept. You can bring it to life for them further with discussion and by sharing personal experiences and examples. When they are at a distance, we have to find new ways to make that happen.”

At the moment, that interaction and discussion is delivered via a number of methods by Professor Lang, including group and one-to-one video and conference calls, email and group chats for more spontaneous discussion. Moving forward, she hopes it will be possible to add socially distanced workshops and classes back to the education format.

Implementing blended learning

So, for those institutions now looking to implement permanent blended learning solutions, what are the essential elements that should be considered and the essential technologies available to assist? There are a number of areas to consider:

1. On and off campus students

The first challenge is enabling enough students to return to the live study environment. As well as social distancing and added hygiene requirements on campus, the fundamental set-up of lecture halls and classrooms has to be considered to enable some students to be present in the room and others to watch and participate online live, or view recordings in the future.

Fortunately, there are a number on online tools that can assist with the physical layout and spacing of the room and the ideal technological equipment for the post-covid, socially distanced environment.

For example, TUDelft offers a an online space configuration tool to aid institutions in designing their socially distanced teaching environment, ensuring clear sightlines and readability of screens.

Online calculators for Display Image Size of 2D Content in Audiovisual Systems (DISCAS) are also available to assist in understanding the size, resolution, contrast, brightness and viewing angles and distances required in any given environment.

Some audiovisual manufacturers, like Panasonic, take this concept one step further and provide online tools that allow room dimensions and installations to be inputted for a recommendation on the ideal projector or display.

2. Choosing the right visual technology

With socially distanced students in the room and others viewing remotely, many existing teaching environments will need to reconsider their existing visual solutions. With a wide range of professional displays and projectors able to deliver crystal clear images from 43 inches to 600 inches, leading manufacturers like Panasonic are able to advise on the best solution with the correct sized display, brightness and contrast.

Depending on the viewing and learning requirements, the latest laser technology projectors are able to deliver the highest quality images, data and video with superb levels of reliability and low maintenance. In addition, professional touch screen displays, with their wide viewing angles and interactive annotation capabilities can be valuable tools to enhance the learning experience.

3. Capturing educational content

For many higher education institutions having to close at very short notice at the beginning of the pandemic, the initial challenge was creating online learning content for students to access remotely.

Those institutions that already had a Lecture Capture Solution had an instant advantage. It meant lecture halls or classrooms already had the technology in place to be able to record, edit and publish online content. Those without a solution in place were scrambling to record content on laptops, with many spending additional hours employing people to edit and upload content.

Lecture capture solutions

Moving forward, lecture capture solutions will be an integral element of any blended learning solution. Ideally they should enable teaching staff to easily record their classes or lectures without distracting any students present in the room with meters of cable or obstructive hardware. The key elements to consider are:

1. High quality audio and video

The first requirement is for discreetly positioned, professional cameras with a wide range of capture and zoom options, as well as Auto Tracking software with facial recognition technology to automatically follow the presenter. This functionality ensures that high quality video and audio is produced.

2. Choice of lecture capture software

Secondly, the choice of lecture capture software is an important consideration. Market-leading products, such as Panopto, allow recordings to be scheduled ahead of time for worry-free lecture capture. The solution should enable additional information feeds to be integrated into the recording. For example, to capture 4k quality content projected onto screens in the room or content shown and annotated on multi-touch displays.

Lastly, it’s important to consider whether the content will only be required to view at a later date or if the system also needs to have the capability to live stream the lecture as a webcast at the time of recording.

3. How to manage and share content

Once created, the application should enable videos to be easily edited and uploaded to a user-friendly video library that stores content securely.

The video editing functionality should allow common editing tasks to be undertaken from any web browser, to ensure that content can be quickly prepared for use.

When uploading content, the system should automatically convert the existing video files for playback on any popular device and operating system and make them highly searchable to find any word spoken or shown on screen. This will ensure students have a user-friendly and interactive experience, encouraging them to use the content more.

To ensure smooth access, look for solutions with open APIs that allow them to be easily connected with other essential university systems, such as identity providers, learning and content management systems.

4. Monitoring results and support

Continuous review and improvement will be an important factor following the deployment of the system, so identify applications that also include built-in, real-time analytics. This will provide valuable insights into how students are using the content, enabling continuous improvements and refinements to be made.

The system will be the foundation for much of the learning value delivered by the institution moving forward, so a comprehensive support package as part of the license is a final important consideration to ensure the service remains available 24/7.

The future of blended learning

Professor Lang concludes that whilst hugely regrettable and disruptive, the pandemic has removed many of the barriers that were holding back the development of blended learning. “There has been a shift in thinking from my colleagues and me. A lot of the fear and unknowns have been removed. We have seen that although we may not create perfect online content at the first attempt, we can provide valuable content very quickly. Through trial and some error, we will develop the best blend of learning for the future.”

The delivery of learning across European education institutions is rapidly changing but through the use of the latest online tools for planning and the use of audiovisual technology alongside lecture capture solutions, the quality of education will continue post pandemic and perhaps through blended learning be more flexible and accessible than ever before.