As cases of COVID-19 began to proliferate in the United States, schools, colleges, and universities had to act fast to ensure continuity of learning. Many chose quick fixes and temporary solutions to keep everyone connected and equip both students and faculty to teach and learn at a distance.
Renee Patton, a former high school teacher and Cisco’s Global Director of Education and Healthcare, watched the education system deal with such rapid change in a short period of time. To meet the needs of today and to thrive in an unclear future, Patton says educational institutions must learn to be flexible. That flexibility lies not only in where students will be physically located, but also in how courses will be taught, technology used, and degrees earned. It’s a digital transformation unlike anything we’ve seen, but one necessary to define the future of education.
In this time of dramatic change, we have an opportunity to ensure equity of access and effectively prepare our students to be active, successful participants in whatever jobs the future might hold. Patton gives us some advice on how schools, colleges, and universities can achieve a positive vision for the future.
Plan for multiple scenarios
The first step is realizing that we cannot see into the future—we do not know when students will return to classrooms and campuses. To plan, we must consider a range of possibilities to make sure that we are prepared, regardless of what happens.
“For higher education, envision your university in the future. What kind of a university do you want to be? How will you differentiate yourself?” says Patton, “For example, you might need to repurpose classrooms or reconfigure dorm rooms to allow for one vs. two people per room. You might have to re-envision student advising, extra-curricular activities, and faculty preparedness. What are all the different scenarios that might happen? Once you determine the scenarios, you can begin planning and consider the cost and potential return of each, and how you will develop and manifest your programs for the fall.”
There are several different COVID-related scenarios to think through when it comes to planning. Will you be ready to open in the fall, and if you do open, how do you ensure social distancing and the health and well-being of students? If schools open, what do you do if there’s a second wave of infections? How do you create environments where learning can occur, regardless of where students are physically located?
It is also important to think about what may be transformed permanently. As Patton said, perhaps it could mean schools will permanently deliver hybrid learning, where students join courses remotely or in-person, with appropriate physical distancing measures.
The act of scenario planning doesn’t hinge on whether or not the scenarios will actually come to fruition. It’s all about the ability to prepare today for the possibilities of tomorrow and to reduce risk of future outbreaks.
Patton addresses the fact that every university will be unique in their back-to-school approach. Schools must adhere to the guidance of local government officials and try to address “new norms” like physical distancing, contact tracing, and mask wearing. If a class requires a lab, for example, students once accommodated in one lab session may now have to break into two sessions—one that attends on Mondays and Wednesdays, and another on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Implement tech that can scale up or down
There is a lot of uncertainty about when students will head back into universities—it may be that only some students return, or perhaps they will go back to campus for a certain amount of time and head home again. The ability to scale technology up and down based on what you need at any given point in time is crucial.
In the same way that you need to be flexible in your preparation, you also need to be adaptable with your technology environment. Schools must have a solid foundational network that has security built-in everywhere, plus collaboration tools that allow open communication and learning to happen anywhere students might be.
“What’s really important is that they are flexible and agile and prepared for any possibility,” says Patton, “If only a part of their students comes back in the fall, then they may have to offer fully online or hybrid courses. So, they need a collaboration platform that enables secure, high-quality experiences, and that enables faculty members to connect with students before, during, and after an actual course. Or, there might be students who have to attend class from their dorm rooms, so these dorms need to have the right network bandwidth and capabilities. If students are in quarantine, they still need to be able to attend class.”
Enable continuity of learning
The ability to provide secure distance learning to reach students wherever they are, is ultimately to ensure the continuity of learning.
“These universities represent our global brain trusts, and social and economic equalizers, and we can't lose that,” says Patton, “We need to find ways to help them continue learning with leading-edge teaching and research to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. We, as a global society, need to preserve that. Universities must find ways to ensure that teaching and research continues, whether via hybrid learning, in reconfigured labs, over virtual environments, or through secure collaboration platforms.”
Key to this is the ability to provide high quality courses, in a secure way, whether the student is across the country or even across the globe. Education institutions can deliver immersive, synchronous and asynchronous experiences with collaboration tools like Cisco Webex.
Collaboration tools need to integrate with existing workflows, such as those enabled by the university’s Learning Management System (LMS). When Cisco Webex is integrated with the LMS, teachers can schedule and record Webex classes and add the recordings to the LMS so that students can access them whenever they’d like. Teachers can also create Webex Teams spaces to facilitate messaging with and between students, and support group work and persistent learning environments.
Continuity of learning is about ensuring that students continue to fully engage in their courses, gain a deep understanding of content, and develop strong critical and creative thinking skills. Having the right technology tools can help to support this continuity. Regardless of time or location, collaboration tools allow students to access content, communicate with faculty and other students, download resources, and upload projects. The goal is to enable seamless and continuous learning experiences.
Adjust to a hybrid future
Patton suggests that the future of education will not only be based on hybrid learning, but also potentially take a hybrid approach to degree completion. Students might mix-and-match different courses, certifications, and programs to earn a degree. They may take more community college classes, shorter blocks of courses, or online courses from a variety of universities.
“Instead of taking four years to get a degree, maybe it will only take three years or two years,” says Patton, “And it will be hybrid—certain classes you can take in person, and certain classes you take online. You can stack and get credit from other universities and bring it into the school where you’re enrolled. Mixing and matching will provide flexibility as you get your degree.”
Specialized trades may also see an uptick, as both students and universities think about the careers of the future. Colleges and universities may offer more opportunities for dedicated certifications and training – like Cisco’s Networking Academy, where students can acquire networking and security certifications.
The future of education emphasizes connection, promotes collaboration, and drives continuity. Today, we are making the choices and investments that will define that tomorrow. Is your institution ready?
Take a look at Cisco’s Portfolio for Education to see how Cisco is helping educators to transform education for today and into the future.