In the UK, the vast majority of university students are now learning from home following restrictions put in place amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. This is also likely to continue even after initial lockdowns lift. The University of Cambridge, for example, recently announced it would be moving its entire 2020/21 year online.
A move towards the greater use of digital technology to delivery education has been in progress for a long time, however it has been greatly accelerated as a result of the pandemic, the impact of which has not always been entirely positive.
While collaboration tools such as Zoom, MS Teams and Cisco’s Webex have served to keep people connected in the short term, much of the adoption of these technologies has happened at breakneck speed, leaving university leaders and their IT teams little chance to consider the learning environments of the future, and the strategies they need to make them a success.
Why the campus still matters
Though the likelihood of continued social distancing will mean campus life as it was prior to the outbreak isn’t going to resume anytime soon, it’s equally important to remember the overall value of the campus set-up itself when exploring future learning environments.
The campus allows students from a variety of backgrounds to gather and benefit from an equal learning experience. Problems associated with varied broadband availability, access and reliability of technology in the home – from weak broadband to aged computers – as well as matters such as lack of home life stability, are overcome across campuses that are able to offer safe and secure spaces as well as the best technology to all students.
Getting rid of the campus altogether risks creating a new, digitally driven divide. Remote learning for those without reliable broadband for example, or those working on substandard devices, will be an entirely different experience to the one that students in a more privileged position enjoy.
Over recent years, many universities have worked hard to open their doors to a greater range of students but this hard-earned progress risk being thrown away by taking an over simplified approach to the introduction of digital learning.
Despite the immediate challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic and the wider trend to digitally driven learning, the campus still has an incredibly important role to play. With this in mind, many higher education institutions are now looking towards creating hybrid, or blended, learning environments that capture the flexibility and easy access of digital learning, while also maintaining the crucial role of campus spaces and the technology they provide.
This type of hybrid learning environment, however, also needs to be carefully planned from an IT infrastructure point of view and requires the right strategy to succeed in practice.
Scaling university IT infrastructure
For universities across the UK to be able to facilitate hybrid learning environments in the first place, the core network itself needs to become far more scalable, both in terms of accommodating the vast increase in off-campus connections, but also in terms of how they then accommodate devices that are brought from home onto the campus as part of the hybrid learning process.
This also poses security challenges too, making it more important than ever that universities deploy advanced cybersecurity measures to protect their network as well as those accessing remotely.
If students and lecturers are set to interact remotely, the experience needs to go beyond that of basic video calling and include interactive features, such as live chat and whiteboards, that can make the experience as engaging as possible. This makes the choice of collaboration tools more important than ever. More advanced applications, such as Cisco’s Webex, contain greater team functionality, which could be used by lecturers to set up groups for students working on particular projects for example.
While the role of digital technology in revolutionising higher education and making it more accessible than ever before needs to be celebrated, it’s also important to take the opportunity now to ensure IT strategies are able to maintain the right balance between accessibility and the positive influence of the campus.