Addressing the Changing Landscape of Higher Education

Going into the Fall 2022 semester, it is well known how the past two years has made more visible some things that higher education institutions were doing before, and what they can do better. 

During the recent Fierce Education virtual event, Higher Education: The Connected Campus, James McCrary M. Ed., Director of Innovative Teaching and Learning at River Parishes Community College in South Louisiana, took the addressed an international audience of educators, administrators, and leaders in the industry. Focusing on accessibility in hybrid education, the keynote focused on the notion that no college or university is now the same. The post-pandemic changes are not only visible but they are here to stay. The virtual event was sponsored by AT&T and Nokia.

McCrary began by explaining that for him it all centers around three things which speak about the modality of the learning, the way that learning is accessed, and the development of those learning and educational experiences. “And those are the three things that I try to focus on and use as a lens when I’m making decisions about what I do for my institution, how I help other institutions, and when I’m working with colleagues on things that may be even further down the road,” he said. 

“Before March 2020, there were some online classes and even some whole institutions were online,” McCrary said. However, it was not until post-2020 that institutions acknowledged that “certainly something has changed with the modality and how we create these learning experiences,” he said. 

“Some of the terminologies that I used prior to that spring in 2020 such as asynchronous and synchronous, and people would always ask what that is, now it’s become a part of our everyday language just like virtual meeting spaces become really synonymous with video conferencing tools,” McCrary said.

The big question: What are students choosing? 

McCrary said that first, we have to start with what the students are actually choosing to do. “We’re seeing a higher increase in platforms such as Udemy, Coursera, and even Google has their own online stuff that they do and really kind of fits into what is asynchronous modality. 

Even though research shows that in-person is best academically for a student, that is probably looking at it in a vacuum, because when we look at it, what is best academically for a student may not necessarily be the best for their situation. So, what they are doing is making choices on how to learn based on their circumstances and, in the case of south Louisiana, a lot of that has to deal with mobility and the ability to actually do online classes, or do classes in-person vs. online, McCrary said. 

So, even though there may be a class that is just awesome and completely immersive and helps students acquire knowledge and skills, maybe the student doesn’t have that choice and their choice is either to take it online or not to take it at all. “When we are trying to think about how we reach the most amount of people we have to consider these modalities, not just about what’s best academically in that kind of silo but what’s best for the stakeholders in our communities in order to elevate their opportunities; and specifically for us in south Louisiana, we are really concerned with that because of the lack of fluency that we have,” he said. 

McCrary looked into how colleges are responding to the high-flex, multi-modality, and the heavy abundance of video conferencing tools. “A lot of meetings we do as faculty and administrators also take place online and the lesser number are taking place in-person,” McCrary continued. So, the online modality is not just for the students but also for the teachers. “You see more home-office occurring than you did in the past.”

Online learning: What is working and what is not

In addition to all the benefits, McCrary also spoke about the frustration that comes with the new modality, which of course affects both students and teachers. He referenced a few things which are working and some which are not, from the point of view of his experience.  

What is working: 

  • The acquisition of skills and knowledge: Focus on the priorities
  • Flexibility 

What is not working: 

  • Synthesis of the traditional lecture class (+60 minutes in an online format). “Having students, or anyone sit for +60 minutes
  •  on a two dimensional screen is very tiring. This is not necessarily due to the lack of engagement. It’s due to the technology limitations that we have. Video conferencing tools lack presence.” The actual situation leads to burn out from students and teachers.
  •  This has prompted early retirement of teachers and students have questioned if this is the right way for them to be learning. 

There is a lot to discuss about online learning and this also brings us to talk about access. “Access is not just connecting to the Internet but rather is access to the educational experience itself,” said McCrary. 

“In rural areas, transportation is as critical as anything else,” he points out. In order to remove some of those obstacles, McCrary says what they can do is to connect people through technology, and this starts with the Internet. “We need to start looking at the Internet as a utility,” he said. “It’s not nice to have, it’s a must have.” 

When offering online courses, institutions have the responsibility, at the very least, to provide the information on how they can access minimum technology requirements, getting their stuff done for the programs. Assuring connectivity is also part of that responsibility institutions have. McCrary goes on sharing how hard it is for them in south Louisiana, a very rural area, to get access to connectivity due to the challenges that not having the right infrastructure pose. “Louisiana ranks 40 in the United States in broadband access,” said McCrary. 

That said, McCrary acknowledges there are a lot of considerations to be made for development. “You really need to be thinking about how you’re building these educational experiences,” he said. Despite the difficulties, they are building heavy simulation courses, multimedia, synchronous meetings like on Zoom, all of which eats up data. And again, what they need is better access to unlimited data and fast speed connectivity. Availability of course materials and resources is paramount, as McCrary notes.

McCrary ended with some questions for the audience to ponder about their own needs in their institution, which are pretty much shared by many if not most. What type of access do our students have? Do we need to design for mobility first? We need to support our faculty. And how IT could partner with technologists?

Finally, McCrary spoke about the need to start thinking about the future of education and the Metaverse, Web 3.0 and even Web 4.0, actually, also known as the Symbiotic Web or the Web of intelligence connections and involves the Internet of Things (IoT). 

James McCrary keynote address is now available on-demand. Register here to gain access to this and the other presentations part of The Connected Campus.

For more articles related to the Connected Campus, see:

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