Digital learning prospects on the move

By Rick Merrick, CIO, TCS Education System

Rick Merrick, CIO, TCS Education System

Many CIOs closely follow digital and mobile trends in the marketplace to create their technology strategies. For CIOs in education, much of that strategy involves technologies that elevate the student experience— whether physical or virtual— enhancing teaching and learning in the classroom and online. The truth is that we will never revert back to an analog world. Smartphones are truly ubiquitous, at least in the U.S., so creating a separate digital and mobile strategy is somewhat outdated. However, particular trends in education can help us plan for the future.

The promise of virtual reality that would revolutionize education has been around for decades. Up until a few years ago, the technology was too expensive and the software was too unrealistic, creating an overall poor experience. Once developers took advantage of the inherent technology in smartphones to simulate virtual and augmented reality, everything changed. Suddenly we had the necessary hardware in our pockets, and Apple and Google gave us the platforms needed for developers to create realistic virtual and augmented worlds. So now we are seeing classroom applications that are easyfor faculty and students to acquire.

For example, Apple has some compelling augmented reality apps for medical education. Using iPhones or iPads, faculty can place virtual skeletons in the middle of the room. Students can interact with the images using their devices, which create a virtual lab without the added costs of a real one. Other instructors take students on virtual field trips to museums, providing a more immersive experience than just looking at a picture in a book. This trend is exciting to watch and will continue to grow as more apps are developed.

Specialized active learning classrooms have been gaining traction as well, at least at the master’s and doctoral levels. These classrooms encourage active learning with small groups of students in rooms with no front or center from which the faculty can lecture. The point is to get students engaged with each other and their learning materials. For example, students can use their mobile devices to quickly display content on monitors. This is a clever way to get instant feedback from your peers or to quickly cover important topics.

Mobile devices enhance the learning experience outside of the classroom too. Instructors have designed micro-learning assignments delivered to apps that augment field trips. They have also leveraged apps such as SkyMap that students can use at night to study astronomy.

Most Learning Management Systems (LMS) have apps for online courses. These appsallow students to read course materials, post messages to the class, and upload video or photos. These apps have been around for many years and are frequently used on college campuses. Opportunities to better leverage them lay in AI capabilities to surface relevant information to personalize a student’s learning and to drive better outcomes. The apps have access to the student’s academic record while having the ability to track behaviors. Using this data, the apps could create early warning systems for faculty advisers or suggest additional materials for students struggling with certain concepts.

Many institutions use cloud-based platforms, such as Office 365 and Google Apps, in addition to cloud-based SIS, ERP, and LMS, among others. These cloud-based technologies allow students to access course materials, pay tuition, register for classes, and submit assignments anytime, anywhere, on any device.

While great for students, these devices strain Wi-Fi networks. Additionally, the use of devices such as sensors have become popular in order to enable smart campuses. We are also seeing a trend with the increase of wearables such as smartwatches. IT departments need to begin carefully planning for next generation Wi-Fi networks to handle the growth in network traffic, the complexities these devices create, and the security issues they present.

Smartphones are the dominant mobile device. Nearly every student in higher education today has one.That’s not to imply tablets or other mobile devices are not important, but mobile learning strategies using smartphones have a higher rate of success. Their traction is gaining in AR/VR, field work, physical and online classrooms, the LMS mobile apps, and their potential for personalized learning using AI. Smartphones are the last device students put down before they go to bed and the first device they pick up in the morning. IT leaders working to build strategies around digital and mobile devices need to anticipate these growing trends to provide opportunities for their campuses, particularly in the classrooms. They also need to partner with faculty and other academic leaders to incorporate them into curriculum to enhance teaching and learning.

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