Four online learning trends affecting higher education

It’s high time higher education institutions prioritised digital learning strategies and held online learning to the same standards as on-campus courses, says Cypher Learning CEO Graham Glass

After more than one year of lockdowns and social distancing measures, it’s clear that some of the changes brought by the pandemic are here to stay. As we’re collectively figuring out the new normal, I can’t help but think that not all change is bad. In fact, change is long overdue.

Higher education (HE) has significantly lagged behind other industries on the road to digitisation. Despite the growing demand for edtech and online learning, face-to-face lectures and on-campus activities remained the core part of the way that students accessed their education.

However, the events of 2020 have put HE on a fast track to digital adoption.

Firstly, we saw prestigious universities move online entirely this academic year. Some even offered tuition discounts for students taking online classes. More will inevitably follow suit, but perhaps not to the same extent, instead opting to embrace hybrid learning environments as investors turn their attention to edtech and express a particular interest in the link between HE and the workforce.

Here we explore a few online learning trends that are currently shaping how HE will prepare students for the future.

1. Competency-based learning

One aspect of the education system that is not particularly efficient is the use of time as a measure of learning — the more hours spent on a subject doesn’t always equate to higher chances of students mastering it. Students have unique learning needs, and they also have different background knowledge. Consequently, they can race through some learning materials whereas for others, they will need extra time.

A competency-based learning model intends to fix these discrepancies. Each course or lesson is tied to one or more competencies (or skills) a student needs to develop. As students progress through these competencies at their own pace, they cannot move to the more advanced ones without proving mastery of the basic ones.

Instructors can use personalised learning platforms to create online courses and assign competencies to each learning activity. Students then receive personalised recommendations based on their progress and can choose how to be assessed. This will not only improve academic outcomes, but also enhance retention rates and the ability to apply what they’ve learned during work experience, internships, or in future jobs.

2. Digital credentials

Speaking of jobs, today’s digital economy demands continuous upskilling from workers if they want to remain competitive. The pandemic forced many industries to digitise as many operations as possible to ensure business survival, but some may argue that digital adoption was going strong even before. Ask any digital professional if their university degree helped them land a job (or keep one), and I doubt you’ll get many “Yes, quite a lot!” answers.

Employers need workers who can think on their feet and adapt to new processes quickly, but HE institutions have trouble aligning curricula with the ever-changing employer demands. Therefore, degrees don’t weigh as much as they used to.

The alternative to four-year degrees comes in the form of digital credentials. Students who have mastered a competency can earn a digital badge to showcase that. Those who have finished a course or a series of courses in a learning path get a digital certificate. With enough badges and certificates under their belt, they can impress potential employers. Digital credentials are game-changers, especially for people with some college but no degree who are often overlooked for high-profile jobs despite having the skills to succeed in those roles.

3. Artificial Intelligence

Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are bound to impact HE going forward. This trend was gaining momentum even before 2020, and things will only advance from now on. Educators can’t possibly meet the learning needs of the increasing numbers of students (who aren’t even necessarily on campus), but with AI’s help, they just might.

The integration of AI in edtech takes some of the workload off teachers’ shoulders while contributing to a more personalised learning experience for students. Tedious or repetitive tasks, such as course planning at the beginning of each semester, or assessing papers, can be delegated to AI, at least partially. What’s more, an AI-powered learning management system (LMS) can make it possible for students to receive targeted support during their learning journeys thanks to an AI recommendations engine that instructors set beforehand.

Artificial intelligence can also enhance the student experience through text-based chatbots or voice-activated smart speakers. Universities worldwide have tested these technologies with great success, and I know for sure many edtech vendors are working on integrating them with online learning platforms. Considering the rise of remote learning, I think it’s safe to assume that their usage will only grow.

4. Immersive technologies

Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) are not that widespread in education due to high costs of acquisition, highly specialised design, and other restraints. However, students would jump at the opportunity to use these technologies any time, as they provide truly immersive and interactive learning experiences.

AR adds a virtual overlay to the physical world, while VR creates a constructed reality, detached from the real one. MR is a mixture of both. These technologies bring immense potential to study complex and high-risk fields, such as medicine, construction, and high-voltage engineering. This means students could practice their skills in a safe virtual or enhanced environment without serious consequences should they make mistakes.

As these immersive technologies continue to develop, I’m sure their adoption in HE will increase. Perhaps the future is closer than we think.

Final thoughts

Before Covid-19, HE institutions were dipping their toes into the waters of online learning, but only as a way to support the main classroom experience. Then, the pandemic took over the world and forced everyone to quickly shift to the digital learning environment. It’s now clear that universities should prioritise their digital strategies and provide complete learning experiences to all students, regardless of whether they are learning remotely or not.

Join us for the live webinar on 21 April. Presented by University Business, Education Technology and CYPHER LEARNING, where we’ll discuss what comes next for teaching after a pandemic:

Graham Glass is the CEO of Cypher Learning, a company specialising in providing e-learning platforms for organisations around the world. 

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