2020 was a year that will not soon be forgotten. Everyone had to make changes and adjustments – for work, school, and even social engagement. While we’re starting to see things slowly return to some sort of normalcy, there are – and will be – lasting effects from those adjustments made during the pandemic. In higher education, institutions are still dealing with the difficult and complex task of providing a secure and successful learning environment.
In this blog we look at some actions universities and colleges can take to help improve student learning & engagement, as well as the overall post-secondary experience. Whether students are on campus, remote, or a combination of the two, higher ed institutions still must provide a favorable learning environment.
Focus on Access and Equity
While technology is more accessible now than ever before, underserved populations like low-income students or those with disabilities are often left without access to the resources and materials they need. Accessibility specialists from Universal Design for Learning (UDL) state that the problem often lies with how we see the issue and the resolution we try to make. We should be focusing on the outcomes instead of the tools, and on the systemic issues rather than the individual students. (EdTech Magazine)
Institutions often address accessibility issues after problems occur. Instead, these institutions should be proactive in creating content and options that are accessible for every student population well before any issues arise.
Universities and colleges need to ask the hard question of “Can all students, regardless of their personal situation, access the learning materials and resources they’ll need to complete their education journey?” If they cannot, then accessibility is denied. There is no one-size-fits-all resolution and no way to see all the scenarios of accessibility. But there are steps that can be taken to try and provide access to as many students as possible.
In that same EdTech Magazine article, Eric Moore, Accessibility Specialist from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, suggests universities form multidisciplinary teams that can procure and evaluate various accessible technologies. These same teams would be charged with providing training for faculty and staff at their institutions and would be the flag bearers for accessibility. The more prepared these institutions are, the better they can serve their students and provide them with the tools they need to be successful in their post-secondary journey.
Another way to provide greater accessibility and equity is to offer the course materials in various formats:
For example, textbooks are expensive, and prices continue to rise. For those with limited income, audio or digital formats could be a cheaper option. For those who must travel a long distance to school, audio can provide them a way to listen and learn during their commute. The idea is to not limit the opportunities to learn. Provide students with the tools and allow them to succeed.
Support Your Faculty
While the ultimate goal is to ensure the highest standard of education for students, we must empower faculty members when it comes to access and resources. We need to remember that they also have/had to deal with the effects of the pandemic and make drastic changes to their personal and professional lives.
Universities and colleges can offer proactive support for their faculty members. Don’t wait until they ask for help, but rather reach out to them offering engagement, training, and observations. Provide them with the tools they need, backed up by proper training on new technology and a support team for additional assistance. Set up a platform for teachers to share best practices, ideas, and to collaborate. Not all teachers start at the same level where remote teaching is concerned. This platform will help faculty members cultivate a positive and successful environment where they can grow, learn, and improve their skills for remote teaching. A confident teacher will provide a successful learning environment.
Campus Life is Essential
Campus life is one of the best parts about going to college. While the goal of going to college is to get educated and grow, the social aspects of campus life make it that much more attractive: students gathering in the quad for group studies or just to socialize; dining with friends; late night conversations and laughter; and so much more. So how do we provide this for students who want the ‘total’ college experience but may not be on campus full time, if at all?
Even though there is no substitution for in-person interaction, institutions can provide students with a forum to meet online. For example, the University of Florida created a ‘student plaza’ where student organizations and study groups can meet virtually. Universities can create spaces for students to gather virtually to exchange ideas, discuss current issues, and access academic tutors.
Colleges can invite guest speakers and include live discussions for virtual lectures. One great advantage of having virtual lecturers is that universities can invite speakers from all over the world. This not only opens the door to a greater number and variety of guest speakers, but institutions could see some cost savings as well. (Think not having to cover travel expenses for these speakers!)
Students crave the excitement and opportunities of campus life, even if virtual is the only option. Colleges should provide an avenue for students to immerse themselves in the ‘total’ college experience. Offer free live streams of campus sports and events. Set up safe virtual meeting spaces for college organizations. Provide outreach programs to help ensure students remain healthy physically and mentally. Overall, institutions need to show their students that they have the resources and are making the effort to support them.
Invest in Cybersecurity
With an increase in both online learning and administration, there is also an increased risk of cyberattack. To help reduce the risk, institutions should assess their set-up and ensure their security team is up to the task. (Additional investments in data privacy and security may need to be made.)
Recommendations include (but are not limited to):
- Security teams should monitor networks for malware in learning platforms, collaboration tools, and emails
- Implementing security protocols for remote learning and teaching (e.g., multifactor authentication process for learning applications such as video sharing and data exchange)
- Educate teachers, students, and parents on the importance of having the technology in place to protect against phishing and malware attacks, and how to recognize and prevent them from infiltrating the learning environment
Cybersecurity is like a dam: one small breach can result in a flood of problems. Every stakeholder needs to feel secure that their university or college is going above and beyond to make the remote learning environment more productive, safe, and successful.
The pandemic hit everyone hard and fast. It turned our lives upside down. It caused us to rethink how we work and forced us to reevaluate how we learn and teach. For higher ed (and to a slightly lesser extent, K-12), remote teaching and learning has become part of the new norm.
It is vital that higher education institutions recognize the limited experience and resources their students and faculty may have when it comes to remote learning. Ensuring that they get the proper support, tools, training, and security will make for a smoother – and less stressful – transition from brick & mortar to virtual classrooms. Success can be achieved—together.
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is SUCCESS!”