Higher education is being molded by technology

According to studies, both students and educators are enthusiastic about maintaining the usage of modern learning technologies that were implemented during the pandemic, but institutions need to provide more assistance in facilitating the transition.

June 18, 2020
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Sidhartha Meka

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Higher education is being molded by technology.

According to studies, both students and educators are enthusiastic about maintaining the usage of modern learning technologies that were implemented during the pandemic, but institutions need to provide more assistance in facilitating the transition.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the majority of higher education students were compelled to abruptly switch to remote learning in the spring of 2020. To enhance student participation and provide a more interactive virtual classroom experience, instructors incorporated technologies that allowed for a blend of online and in-person activities. These innovations have transformed the methods of learning, teaching, and evaluation, potentially influencing the future post-pandemic. This development has not gone unnoticed by investors, as EdTech start-ups obtained unprecedented amounts of venture capital in 2020 and 2021, and the market valuations of established players skyrocketed.

Cloudseed conducted a survey in November 2021, in which 600 faculty members and 800 students from public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States, including minority-serving institutions, were asked about the use and impact of eight different classroom learning technologies 

The research also included interviews with industry experts and higher-education professionals who make decisions about classroom technology use. The study aimed to identify the most widely used learning tools and approaches, how students and educators perceive them, the obstacles to adoption, how institutions have successfully adopted innovative technologies, and the significant impacts on learning. 

Adoption and positive perceptions are both experiencing growth in the double digits.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average increase in overall use of learning technologies reported by survey respondents was 19 percent. Among these technologies, those that facilitate connectivity and community building, such as discussion platforms inspired by social media and virtual study groups, experienced the highest surge in use at 49 percent, followed by group work tools, which grew by 29 percent. These technologies are likely more effective at filling the gap created by the absence of in-person experiences, compared to individual-focused learning tools like augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR). Classroom interaction technologies, such as real-time chatting, polling, and breakout room discussions, were the most widely used tools prior to the pandemic and remain so, 67 percent of survey respondents indicated that they are currently using these tools in the classroom.

There is a probable ongoing trend towards utilizing more interactive and varied methods of learning. According to an industry specialist, "The pandemic has created a demand for a new digital learning experience. This has led educational institutions to reconsider their approach to teaching and prioritize synchronous and hybrid learning." As a result, numerous American colleges and universities are presently making significant investments in expanding their online and hybrid programs.

Less than half of survey respondents have adopted certain technologies, such as tools for monitoring student progress, AR/VR, machine learning-powered teaching assistants, AI adaptive course delivery, and classroom exercises. Some technologies, like AR/VR, may require a significant investment in equipment and may not be feasible for large classes. The survey also found that smaller public institutions are more likely to use machine learning-powered TAs, AR/VR, and progress monitoring technologies at higher rates than medium and large institutions, possibly due to the ability to make more targeted and cost-effective investments.

Additionally, our research revealed that medium and large public institutions are more likely to utilize connectivity and community-building tools than their smaller counterparts, with 57 to 59 percent adoption rates compared to 45 percent. Though the integration of AI-powered tools has been slower, industry experts predict an increase in usage due to their ability to customize courses based on individual student progress, reduce faculty workload, and enhance student engagement on a larger scale. Further, our findings suggest that despite the desire to implement more technology in higher education, the primary obstacles hindering progress are lack of knowledge, insufficient deployment infrastructure, and expenses.

Effective and engaging tools are desired by students. Exhibit 4 shows that over 60 percent of students have reported improvements in their grades and learning since the start of COVID-19, using classroom learning technologies. Among the various technologies, classroom exercises and machine learning-powered teaching assistants were rated the highest, with 80 percent and 71 percent of students, respectively, reporting better academic performance.

Despite its limited usage, AR/VR holds great promise in the classroom, with 37 percent of students expressing the most excitement for its potential. While a vast majority (88 percent) believe it will make learning more enjoyable, only 5 percent think it will enhance their learning and content mastery. Experts in the field acknowledge the enthusiasm for AR/VR, but remain uncertain about its impact on improving learning outcomes. However, some initial data is encouraging, such as a recent pilot study where students who utilized a VR tool to complete coursework in an introductory biology class experienced an average of two letter grade improvements in their subject mastery.

Although the faculty surveyed expressed enthusiasm for new technologies, the experts we spoke with emphasized certain obstacles that must be addressed. One major issue is the growing digital-literacy gap, which has become more apparent during the pandemic due to the widespread implementation of technology solutions. This has deepened a pre-existing divide that had gone unnoticed when technology adoption was infrequent. Instructors with greater technological expertise tend to favor interactive and engagement-focused solutions, whereas those who are less familiar with these tools prefer content-focused technologies for display and delivery.

Learning new tools and features can cause general fatigue, as confirmed by experts we consulted. The associate vice president of e-learning at a university noted that faculty members had difficulties designing and implementing a pilot study of VR for a computer science class, as it was a completely new mode of instruction. She predicted that faculty who had used it would not use it again in the spring. Technical support and training can mitigate these issues. The chief academic officer of e-learning shared that when virtual simulations were introduced for nursing and radiography students, faculty who were reluctant to participate were allowed to opt out but not to delay the program. The introduction was structured as a collaborative effort, and those who chose not to participate left. The use of vendor support and training made it straightforward to implement the simulations.

Faculty and students are optimistic about the benefits of digitizing the classroom, but it is important for administration leaders, IT, and faculty to agree on objectives before implementing new technologies. Institutions should also consider student access to technology, provide high-quality support for adoption, and agree on impact metrics and measure them in advance of deployment. The success of learning technologies depends on collaboration and alignment between stakeholders.

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