Global uncertainties linger about education in the wake of a global pandemic. Could the virtual classroom be the future of education by 2030? If so, will it ever get easier and more effective?
As classrooms closed across the world, nearly every country implemented some form of remote learning. Suddenly, school was in session—at home.
For years, colleges and universities offered remote learning options, particularly for non-traditional students, like working adults. Students learn off-campus using online tools (or even broadcasts on a TV or radio station). Courses can be live and/or self-paced.
As countries loosened restrictions, many schools reopened with an expanded approach: hybrid learning. This typically means each student can choose to participate either in person or remotely—or a combination of both.
By August 2020, 69% of U.S. K-12 leaders told EdWeek Research Center they adopted a hybrid learning approach. And 87% of U.S. colleges and universities planned to offer a hybrid fall semester, according to the Institute of International Education’s COVID‐19 survey. In fact, half of the adults surveyed across 29 countries believe hybrid learning will be the standard for higher education by 2025.
Many students will continue logging into virtual classes for the foreseeable future. That’s a relief to many students, who enjoy the benefits of remote learning, like the flexibility to learn at their own pace. However, new distractions, technological barriers, and poor digital experiences make remote learning difficult for others.
As education experts quickly pointed out, remote and hybrid learning aren’t the same as true online learning. The former tends to be business continuity plans—a “quick, ad hoc, low-fidelity mitigation strategy,” said Susan Grajek of Educause. The latter is a more deliberate, planned, digital-first approach to student-centric education.
What education institutions accomplished, in response to the pandemic, swiftly evolved the industry by leaps and bounds. Now, there’s more work to do.
Education Falls Behind in Digital Experience
Roughly 1-in-5 adults said educational institutions deliver a better digital experience now than before the pandemic, according to a 2020 global survey led by VMware. Less than one-third of respondents said they would happily continue interacting digitally with educational institutions. Yet, education generally ranked behind all other industries’ digital experiences.
The Digital Campus
The global shift to remote learning abruptly moved students to a digital campus. Educators across the world scrambled to teach students in their homes. Students and teachers accessed video conferencing, online learning platforms and other online tools and content.
That was step one, though. Next, educators need to make these digital experiences:
- Simpler to access.
- Faster to connect.
- More reliable and consistent.
- Less confusing and complicated to troubleshoot.
It starts with the institution’s digital infrastructure. Virtual data centers that run on software are less rigid (and less expensive) than hardware. IT organizations with these modern data centers have much more flexibility and agility to accommodate online learning.
IT can quickly gain computing capacity in the cloud, so they can distribute and manage new devices, apps, and virtual desktops from anywhere. IT teams also have more constant visibility into a software-based infrastructure. They can use software automation to fix problems and adjust as needed. This way, digital infrastructure is always available and running at peak performance. And this is especially important for running more advanced applications and interactive, virtual lab environments.
Case Study: WSB University in Wrocław
“With optimized data algorithms, VMware vSAN [storage virtualization software] increases the performance of the university’s disk array resources by an order of magnitude, which is important in the case of such solutions as virtual desktop infrastructure. Based on them, we conduct specialized labs which often use advanced applications like CAD 3D,” says Paweł Kołodko, IT director at WSB University in Wrocław.
“In the case of classes for students, problems with configuring and maintaining traditional computers in labs took about 20% of our time. Now, with VMware technologies, everything runs like clockwork. At the start of classes, each student receives a new virtual PC with exactly the same configuration as the rest of the class.”
Keeping Students Safe in a Digital Learning Environment
In the global Digital Frontiers survey, people revealed how assured they felt about their data security by different industries.
Compared to before the coronavirus pandemic began, which if any of the following organizations, would you say have given you the assurance you need that your date and information is secure?
- Financial Services – 45%
- Healthcare – 31%
- Government – 28%
- Retail – 23%
- Education – 17%
They felt least assured by educational institutions.
Educators are also responsible not only for students’ safety. In hybrid learning environments, these responsibilities expand:
- Protecting students’ data privacy.
- Safeguarding them from online threats and harmful content.
- Complying with digital guidelines and regulations.
Outdated security models and ineffective tools impede the progress of digital-first learning. It also puts students and institutions at risk. So, education IT leaders are implementing more modern technologies with built-in security and modern security frameworks, like unified endpoint management and zero-trust security.
For example, Brisbane Catholic Education (BCE) manages tens of thousands of different mobile devices and applications across hundreds of schools all from a single, cloud-based platform. From this control center, IT proactively spots malicious activities and can remotely act on security incidents.
“We’ve had a cloud-first strategy for quite some time, so we’re consuming a lot of software-as-a-service (SaaS), which gives us great visibility into our traffic, so we can notice any anomalies,” said Paul Saltmarsh, senior IT officer at BCE. “We have a highly distributed environment—147 sites over a fairly large geographical area—so the ability to remotely wipe or disable the device at any moment in time has been a cornerstone of us being comfortable with distributed learning.”
With confidence in its security posture, BCE gives students the freedom to take their devices home, so they can develop their digital skills and “always-on” learning mindsets.
Case Study: Brisbane Catholic Education
“By providing greater visibility over all devices and applications, VMware Workspace ONE has also given BCE a more confident security stance in its operations. “If any device is stolen or compromised, we can remotely wipe the device on Workspace ONE, ensuring compliance with data protection laws,” said Saltmarsh.
“This level of visibility and security also allows us to engage in meaningful conversations about usage and security of data with our students. We can get them to think about how they use their devices and how they can safeguard themselves—teaching them valuable best practices that they can employ as they progress into the workforce.”
Closing the Digital Learning Gap
Another enduring challenge to online learning is equity. As education digitized over the years, students don’t have equal access to devices, apps, and internet connectivity. Widespread remote learning revealed even greater disparities in the online learning gap.
“We’ve learned about some of the opportunities that online learning can offer, but we’ve also learned how online learning can magnify inequities among our students,” said Persis S. Drell, provost at Stanford University. “I worry a lot about the roughly 20% of our students who have more resource-constrained backgrounds.”
Perhaps paradoxically, technology can close the digital learning gap, leaders believe. “I have personally witnessed in Africa what a force for good technology can be,” said Rosa Whitaker, an African trade and investment expert. “While much remains to be done across Africa, technology is helping to close the education, economic and healthcare gaps.”
Case Study: Three Critical Strategies for a Digital Learning Environment
To achieve the benefits of remote learning, schools and colleges must ensure equitable access to devices, applications, and internet connectivity. Many students need devices, headsets, and access to low-cost or free broadband support, LTE hotspots, or devices with integrated LTE connectivity.
To support these deployments, in addition to UEM and access management platforms, institutional IT departments might consider tools like SD-WAN and telecom expense management.
Other components of a digital learning environment strategy can include providing access to high-powered applications and workstations via VDI and remote support.
Even in a hybrid learning model, every student deserves a high-quality digital education. It’s not just about convenience or access. It’s also critical to developing in-demand digital skills among students for the future of work and leadership. This extends to non-traditional students and the general public, as well. In fact, almost one-third of adults believe educational institutions are responsible for developing digital literacy, which is the ability to access and consume a variety of online services.
Case Study: Pimpri Chinchwad College of Engineering
Considered one of India’s leading engineering and management colleges, it was imperative for Pimpri Chinchwad College of Engineering to have the resources needed to prepare students for the future of work. The college saw a need to modernize its IT environment and leverage the benefits of virtualization.
Empowering Teachers & Staff
During social distancing and shelter-in-place mandates, many teachers and staff members struggle to keep up with the change of format and pace.
Teachers had to:
- Rebuild content for digital formats.
- Engage students in new ways.
- Offer technical troubleshooting support.
Many teachers weren’t trained and felt uncomfortable with the new tools and processes. And this uncertainty caused significant emotional strain. According to EdWeek Research Center’s October 2020 survey, “84% of [U.S. K-12] teachers and administrators say teacher morale is lower now than it was prior to the pandemic.”
Technology isn’t a challenge for only K-12 teachers. Right after accessibility, “faculty readiness for online learning” is the top technology concern for colleges and universities, too, according to a recent report.
“Getting the faculty to feel comfortable teaching when the student is not in front of them has been a huge challenge,” said Mike Atkins, infrastructure architect at the University of Notre Dame.
Education IT organizations can tremendously lower the technology burden on teachers and staff. To support ‘uninterrupted learning, National Taipei University in Taiwan built an online learning platform and successfully deployed 100 new virtual desktops. Now, the educator can teach as they did in physical classrooms, including roll call, group discussions, and more.
Virtual desktops also enable teachers to manage course progress and students’ learning status. With the help of software tools, teaching is now enriched and efficient, helping maintain consistent quality and positive experiences.
Innovating Faster to the Future of Education
It is an exciting time to be in the education IT industry—or to be a student, teacher, faculty member or parent. Education has never been closer to truly personalizing learning, breaking ground on entirely new learning models. Ultimate, digital experiences help prepare students for the careers of the future.
The modern technologies mentioned above provide the digital foundation for education IT leaders to:
- Continuously innovate and break down barriers.
- Freely incorporate emerging technologies into the digital infrastructure, like artificial intelligence. These innovations accelerate the path to more individualized, student-centered learning and assessments.
- Redirect resources and technologies to support teachers and faculty.
- Differentiate with groundbreaking learning and business models, such as more collaborative learning ecosystems.
“There is little doubt that the traditional, in-person-only educational model worldwide is changing,” said Herb Thompson, a VMware expert on the digital education industry. “And institutions must become future-ready to accommodate change today and what’s coming tomorrow.”