Adapt, Survive and Thrive – What’s Next for the University of the Future?

There’s no coating the fact that this has been a hugely challenging period for the higher education sector. But, with news of a vaccine for Covid-19, there may be light at the end of the tunnel and with it an opportunity to reflect on the positives that the sector can take from its experiences in 2020.

For many institutions, pre-pandemic, their three-to-five year strategic vision focused on an environment where students could receive the highest quality of education, regardless of where they were located or how they chose to study – be that part-time, full-time, on-campus, distanced learning, or via a more flexible, hybrid model.

It was a vision where students would graduate with the skills they needed to thrive in the workplace, and one where employers worked collaboratively with institutions to define and develop those skills.

The emphasis was on delivering a more personalised learner journey, at the same time as giving each student the best possible educational and cultural experience. To do this, higher education providers were on a path towards making big changes from an organisational, technological and pedagogical perspective.

This vision would be powered by technology, which could be used to future-proof higher education – making it relevant, inclusive and accessible to future generations of students.

Then Covid-19 struck. Described as a digital ‘shot in the arm’ by one of the contributors to our recent University of the Future whitepaper, the pandemic has irrevocably changed the face of higher education. And, for a sector that has been accused of being slow to adapt, it has had to do so at record speed.

Undoubtedly, it’s been painful and there have been barriers to overcome. While most institutions were using technology to support learning, it was not being relied upon to deliver it entirely. This sudden shift has been a steep learning curve, for both students and staff.

But there will be positives that emerge from the experience, and many universities are quick to acknowledge that. While it wasn’t the roadmap they originally envisaged, they are embracing the opportunity to re-examine existing ways of working. It is unlikely things will ever look the same again for institutions across the globe. But now’s the time to take stock of what has been achieved, apply what has been learnt and build a more future-proof higher education sector.

1 – The evolving role of the educator

The move to online-only, or blended learning has forced universities to examine the role of the educator. With technology at their fingertips, and information so easily accessible to students – the relationship between teachers and learners is not necessarily a place where content is created and shared, but one where value is added.

While academic staff have unrivalled qualifications in their disciplines there is a gap in terms of how they should communicate that knowledge in a modern learning environment. Teaching staff will continue to need support, in order to inhabit this new role, and we are likely to see much more emphasis on digital skills in the university of the future.

Improving student engagement

University students across the globe went back to a very different experience this academic year. In many countries, learning is being done remotely with only very limited face to face contact. This is expected to continue, and a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning is almost certain to be the new normal post Covid-19.

Studies have shown that remote learning can be just as beneficial to students as being taught in person. But that is only the case where levels of engagement are high. With so many people working remotely in 2020 we have seen evidence in all sectors of how important collaboration is from a motivational, productivity and results perspective. So, while the positives of being able to deliver a more blended approach to learning are being broadly welcomed, institutions must ensure that they maintain close relationships with their students – and that the relationship is broader than just a transactional exchange of knowledge.

2 – Maintaining the institution’s culture

One of the biggest challenges for universities in 2020 has been the isolation that students have felt at being cut off from the campus experience. While not all students choose university for this reason, it is still a huge element for many. For them, university is a personal as well as an academic journey.

Due to the speed of change enforced by the Coronavirus pandemic, many institutions have felt exposed in some areas for their off-campus teaching capabilities, but also for their ability to maintain the cultural aspects of university life – and their ability to give students a more rounded, richer experience.  

Universities also have a responsibility to protect their students beyond the lecture theatre so safe-guarding and well-being policies also need to work equally well off-campus as they do on-campus. Maintaining the culture of the institution is likely to be a key focus as we emerge from Covid-19 and the student population continues to become more diverse and dispersed.

A supportive environment for all

It’s vital that the higher education sector provides support to all, in order to capitalise on what it has achieved in 2020. In terms of teaching, learning and the overall university experience, the emphasis is on quality and there is a real opportunity to rethink what can deliver the best outcomes on all three levels.

Technology will not completely replace face-to-face teaching time. It can’t guarantee that all students will graduate with the skills they need to enter the workplace, nor will it define and protect the culture of individual universities. But it is the key enabler, and, in this sense, it is facilitating the vision for the university of the future.

By embracing technology universities can expedite the journey towards delivering a more personalised learning experience, through unprecedented levels of engagement and collaboration. But everyone – students and staff – need to be supported on this journey in order to get the most out of the technology that’s available.

Taking stock of the phenomenal achievements of 2020, and providing the training and support that’s required to take full advantage moving forward, will most likely be the first steps universities take as we return to a new normal.

D2L will be exploring this topic further during Virtual OEB 2020 and will be joined by Avans University and the University of Teesside for their panel discussion: What’s Driving the Vision for the University of the Future on November 30th, 14.30 – 15.30 (CET).

During the session they will look at:

  • How the pandemic has impacted the sector’s long-term strategic plans
  • The lessons learnt as we move to a new normal
  • The notion of the personalised learner journey when catering to a diverse range of students
  • The obligation universities have to make their students ‘work ready’
  • How technology is enabling the sector to realise its vision

In the meantime, read D2L’s latest blogs and eBook on this topic to learn more about what’s on the horizon for higher education and explore how universities can embrace the opportunity to reimagine the university of the future.

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