Education: Staying online?

Technology investment in tertiary education experienced a pandemic-led boom. But will universities continue to stay online as the world embraces new norms or is there a desire to get back to the campus? Shalini Shukla investigates.

The global education technology (Edtech) market size was estimated at about USD 250 billion in 2021, according to Education Technology Market Report by P&S Intelligence. It is expected to quadruple to nearly USD 1 trillion by 2030, at a CAGR of 17.3%.

The growth comes despite the Covid-19 outbreak. Technology emerged as a core component helping education continue through the course of the disruption caused by the pandemic. With the development and approaching maturity of technologies such as AI, IoT and more, Edtech solutions are set to remain extremely crucial to the tertiary education sector.

As the world moved online, 2020 and 2021 saw a flurry of investments into education to enable remote learning. In APAC the challenges of remote learning were magnified. With Asian governments taking a cautious approach, lockdowns and restrictions persisted for longer durations. On the brighter side, rising internet penetration and increasing sale of smart devices in the region meant that a significantly large student population was able to engage in remote learning.

At first, many campuses implemented remote learning modalities as an emergency response to the disruption caused by Covid-19. However, as we emerge from the pandemic years tertiary education institutes are using their experiences over the past two years as a basis for re-imagining ‘school-based’ learning as a pedagogical model in the first place.

The question for AV now is to determine whether investment will shift towards technology for campus and classroom spaces or will remote learning continue to be the way forward? Or maybe 2022 will be a transitionary year for most universities so they may be waiting to see how things pan out? Can universities afford to wait to act when tertiary education is such a competitive market? Do universities have a roadmap for the post-pandemic years?

Back to school

Campuses across Asia are reopening. The unprecedented and sudden disruption of young adults’ education was mitigated over the past two years by remote learning platforms. But as most governments are relaxing restrictions, this means that face-to-face classes are resuming for many across the region.

The return however is ‘hyrbid’. In Hong Kong students are now cautiously being welcomed back to campus with daily Covid-19 testing. Assistant IT director for the University of Hong Kong [HKU], Dr. Wilson Kwok, says the university is continuing to take precautionary regulations and measures to minimise the risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19 in the university.

On top of the standard Covid-19 protocols such as temperature-taking, mask wearing, hand hygiene and social distancing measures, all classes are recorded and uploaded to eLearning Management Platform (Moodle) so overseas students and local ones under isolation orders can review classes at their own convenience.

Remote learning it seems has a part to play still. Dr. Kwok explains: “Most HKU events have also been changed to blended-mode or online-mode to avoid large groups of students from various grades and classes from mixing together. While examinations are also conducted online, examiners are recommended to change their assessment method from examination to coursework.”

In Australia, there is a stronger effort to get students back in universities. Jamie Pereira, technology project director, Pereira Projects, says: “The big push now is that everyone wants to get students back on campus. While the initial reaction to Covid-19 was lockdowns and band-aid solutions such as giving laptops so lecturers could teach from home, Australian universities are looking at innovative ways in which existing classrooms can be enabled to provide hybrid learning and are tapping on investments from the government to do so.”

New Norm Needs

Where technology was used to enable remote learning during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, the classroom and campus-space in general are now rising in importance. The question on every university IT department’s mind now is whether new tech is needed?

Just as work-from-home is continuing in the corporate world, hybrid and remote teaching and learning will be sticking around according to Pereira. For example, the practical side of courses such as carpentry can be taught physically on campus, while the theoretical concepts can be delivered to students in the comfort of their own homes. Since the hybrid mode of pedagogy is retaining use as the pandemic is brought under control, HKU is focusing on providing more collaboration tools, BYOD and an increasingly wireless experience for students and lecturers.

Karho Wan, IT manager, HKU, says: “Apart from standard AV equipment such as projection or display systems, our learning spaces now need to be enabled with remote connectivity to support hybrid learning activities alongside our e-learning platform.”

Pereira says: “Universities we work with have changed their standards. Take for instance rooms with cameras. Where in the past, just 10% of rooms may have had them, almost all rooms now require such equipment. It is now a standard requirement for universities to request for ceiling microphones for students or hand-held or lapel microphones for lecturers.”

Wan also sees an increasing and flexible use of spaces to support both flipped learning and remote learning. He explains: “Spaces need to be well-planned to accommodate flip and flexible furniture, as well as take into consideration acoustic, lighting, and ergonomics to adapt to collaborative activities that may happen remotely.”

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for managing education and the way it is delivered. But universities are increasingly better prepared to facilitate student experience and social interactions in the event of a future Covid-19-like global disruption.

Pereira says: “If this does happen again, they will have these hybrid-learning enabled rooms online and ready to go.”

Tech trouble ahead Once tech needs are identified, it is time to have them met. But this is easier said than done. Technology deployment, new or otherwise, has its challenges. For instance, various shortages and limited shipment availability could result in increased lead times for implementation.

Budget is also a large determinant of whether a university can embark on the deployment of new technology such as high-definition PTZ camera, audio DSP, USB capture devices as well as retrofitting existing AV infrastructure to support hybrid learning according to Wan. He adds: “The cost of maintaining such technologies also requires additional funds.”

Yet the biggest challenge is not technological (e.g. AV software, Zoom, Teams, etc.) but rather psychological. Pereria says: “It’s more about enacting change from the lecturer’s or student’s or even university’s perspective.”

While one-on-one conversation online is acceptable to some lecturers and students, one to 20 or 30 students constitutes a very different experience.

Wan agrees, saying it can be difficult for some lecturers to engage students through technology: “Some lecturers may think learning a new Graphical User Interface (GUI)-driven teaching tool is risky, and something they are not adequately trained for. Others may still prefer to interact with students face-to-face.”

Pereira believes that while tertiary organisations may spend on deploying technology, it is the implementation part that may cause such endeavours to fail. He explains: “Change management or success management on any new technological initiatives is crucial for it to come through and actual ROI to be achieved.”

Universities should build a culture around encouraging talents’ passion for sourcing and implementing edtech solutions. Pereira says: “This must be followed through across multiple touch points including management and training. For example, time and resources must be spent on training super users who can go on to train others and if problems arise, clear communication to resolve them should ensue.”

Next up

Edtech’s pandemic boom is far from over. New technology solutions and platforms are creating the hybrid education spaces needed to facilitate experience and social interactions in universities today.

Wan says: “Virtual learning and emerging technologies, such as virtual lab assessment, and virtual touring of art galleries by arts and history lecturers, is taking root.” Aside from virtual solutions, tertiary institutions are now also leveraging IoT platforms. For example, the One Unify Control platform works off IoT and smart building environment automation to support custom pre-set user profiles and is easily automated for hybrid models and video conferencing, Wan explains. It also supports the remote monitoring and maintenance of AV systems. Some AV control platforms today can view and interact with data, sharing it with IT platforms such as Power BI, Splunk, and Solarwinds.

Wan says: “This enables many possibilities of insights gleaned from AV data and goes beyond helping decision making for maintenance and operations. It also gives educators the opportunity to use this data to improve learning outcomes, something the traditional set-up of a classroom cannot achieve.”

There is a massive business opportunity for universities to continue to leverage technology post-pandemic, finding innovative ways to enhance student and faculty experience.

The Australian government is seeing the benefits too and investing in ‘innovation hubs’ at some universities. These act as sandbox experiment models that allow institutions to develop new standards in every campus (e.g. camera in every room, green screens for teachers to record content including live in-class and on-demand type content). Pereria says these are flexible spaces for faculty and students, narrowed down to multiple and specific requirements: “We are excited to be working with an Australian university to get an innovation hub implemented by mid-2022.”

Pereira believes this cycle of constantly improving education is one that has been set in motion and will not stop: “Tertiary institutions must innovate continuously. Any technological implementation must be adequately used, without people getting too busy with their day jobs.Only then can relevant data be fed into further business cases.”

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