How COVID is Helping Higher Ed Find Technology’s Goldilocks Scenario

Over the past twenty months, higher education faculty and students have gotten used to the ubiquitous nature of technology in learning. Now, colleges and universities begin the slow return to a new normal as they face a more complicated question of when they should return to pre-pandemic norms and when is using technology still the best decision for students and faculty.

At the EDUCAUSE conference this past fall, the two of us explored the role of technology in building more human learning experiences, and discussed the ways in which emerging tools can both help and hinder learning. Our respective experiences at two very different institutions—a large, predominantly online institution in California and a Historically Black College & University (HBCU) in Louisiana—have taught us that an effective recovery from the pandemic may require drawing bright lines around what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to technology in the learning experience. For us, understanding that distinction took the form of a specific question: was it possible to use technology to create an enriching and connected class environment, without causing burnout or stretching instructors and students too thin? 

Here’s how we worked to answer that question over the past two years. At Xavier University of Louisiana it quickly became clear that one of technology’s greatest assets was also a weakness. In the age of Zoom, video lectures and discussions seemed like a godsend at first, but constantly being in synchronous meetings became overwhelming for students. It seemed like every moment was taken up by a video meeting, an online classroom, or even a video-proctored exam. That level of connectivity can of course be critical, but it can also be exhausting! And as a public health professional teaching students at an HBCU, Dr. Gross was particularly driven by the need to support student well-being and mental health through our use of technology — which sometimes meant knowing when it was time to unplug.

For its part is navigating similar questions about the appropriate level of technology usage in the wake of the pandemic. A growing body of research suggests that technology can in fact improve learning experiences when implemented appropriately and designed to reflect what we know about how students learn. The trouble is that too often, we embrace the latest gadgets without working to develop a full understanding of how they actually support the learning experience. The past eighteen months gave us more technology than we know what to do with. How can we best reflect on that time and separate the necessary stopgaps from the tools that were actually helpful? 

Simply put, we both faced the challenge of finding EdTech’s “Goldilocks” scenario: what kind of technology usage, and how much, was “just right” to make a rewarding classroom experience? And while we certainly haven’t found the final answer yet, we’ve both experienced specific examples of the way that technology facilitated better learning during the pandemic — in ways we should be keeping in mind moving forward.

During the pandemic, National University experimented with an AI-enabled discussion platform designed to help faculty apply rigorous, assessment-led instruction at greater scale. What we found is that the tool didn’t just improve the quality of students’ writing — it also helped build a sense of community even in a remote setting, as students engaged with each other on substantive and challenging topics. That level of connection gave National’s faculty more confidence that they could use technology to serve more students more effectively, without sacrificing the deep engagement that is a hallmark of effective learning experiences.

At Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA), technology helped maintain the small group discussions that were a hallmark of our course experience before the pandemic. Tapping into a similar discussion platform at XULA helped to inspire more critical thinking and writing—and also fostered a more connected classroom climate even during the months of remote learning, without students feeling forced to stay online.

Critically, at both of our institutions, using technology meant knowing when it was actually helping instructors teach and students learn. At its best, tech can automate some of the simpler or more rote tasks and enable faculty to do what they’re good at: building the sort of deeper, one-on-one connections that translate to academic outcomes and overall student success. That’s the sort of bright line we’re learning to draw: identify the tools that actually facilitate better teaching and learning, and that limit stress and exhaustion among faculty and students alike. For us, online discussion was a great example of that work in practice: the right platform can create the context for the deep and engaging experience of sharing ideas with peers, but without the always-on nature of video meetings that can so often drain students’ (and instructors’) energy and motivation.

As we navigate the complex road back from the pandemic, we shouldn’t lose sight of the unexpected lessons the past eighteen months have taught us. Rather than being a stopgap between identical eras of in-person instruction, the Covid era is ushering in a more fundamental shift by teaching us how technology can, and should, play a role in keeping institutions and students connected. These discussions are even more important at a time when disruptions to the “normal” way of doing things are likely to continue (whether due to future global health issues or climate change-related challenges), and we will need to continue serving students in times of crisis. In the months to come, we have an opportunity to build a different kind of university: one that still keeps the interaction between instructor and student front and center, but with the support of tools that can make that interaction even more effective and meaningful.

Ultimately, a more hybrid world is here to stay, and technology that enables human connection will be critical to driving student success in this new world. The real opportunity as we emerge from the pandemic isn’t to use technology to replicate or replace what we’ve done in the past; it’s about using technology to expand the definition of what’s possible.

For more articles in this series on how colleges and universities are handling COVID mandates, see:

Colleges and Universities Boost their COVID Booster Requirements

Colleges and Universities Vary on Spring Semester Opening Plans

Universities Respond to Increasing New COVID Threats

Dr. Tyra Gross is Assistant Professor at Xavier University of Louisiana. Dr. Gangaram Singh is Executive Vice President and Provost of National University.