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While 2020 put a damper on the rollout of new technology products thanks to shortages of semiconductors, it supercharged the role of tech in higher education. Both in and out of the classroom, technology now plays a larger role than ever before. As this trend continues into 2021, we take a look at what to expect in this intersection of higher education and technology.

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Increased Usage of Virtual Classrooms


Distance learning has been around for years in a variety of forms, but now it looks to be the new normal. Prior to the pandemic, it looked to be on the rise with an annual growth rate forecasted at 16% during the 2019 – 2024 period. Now thanks to the rapid adoption of teleconferencing software, that figure looks to increase even more.

Today, higher education institutions have the ability to connect students and faculty over greater distances. Institutions and students in rural areas can benefit from this in particular. And while the on-campus experience has always provided an excellent collaborative space, virtual learning can also help foster student interaction as well. Using virtual breakout rooms in popular video conference apps, students can engage in debates, work in groups, and edit each other’s work.


Democratizing Education through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)


A MOOC refers to an online course available for anyone to enroll, often offered by a higher education institution. MOOCs offer an on-demand learning experience that allows learners to go at their own pace, instead of adhering to a set schedule. Many MOOCs are offered for free, though some do feature elements hidden behind paywalls.

Compared to traditional courses, MOOCs democratize learning and open up knowledge to a wider public. They also have global benefits as they can be offered to learners not only in developed countries, but also developing ones. As an added bonus for students, some MOOCs provide academic course credit for traditional four-year institutions. For employers, MOOCs provide an alternative method for training employees, with certification or accreditation as a way to verify completion of a course.


Data Driven Instruction


As the majority of learning in 2021 has shifted online, educators can access more data points on their students than ever before. They can track how long it takes students to complete an assignment, their rate of completion, receive real-time test results, send surveys, and check learner feedback and ratings. Educators can also see what types of materials and content students engage with most, so that they can tailor courses to students.

Ultimately these data points enable educators and institutions to better track student progress and provide insight on how to create more engaging courses in the future. Data analytics can also provide educators the opportunity to reach out to students that need more attention, thereby increasing course completion rates.

National Association of College and University Business Officers

AI-assisted grading and tutoring


Increased utilization of AI in higher education brings many benefits for both educators and learners alike. For educators, artificial intelligence can help with administrative tasks such as grading multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions on exams. Advanced algorithms can even assist in spotting instances of plagiarism.

In the virtual classroom, AI can provide one-on-one tutoring for struggling students, lessening the load on the instructor. Creating tutoring systems is a laborious task, entailing roughly 200 hours of development for every hour of tutoring. However, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have successfully cut development time down to 40-50 hours on many topics using a machine learning program that simulates how students learn.

While still in its infancy, artificial intelligence provides obvious benefits for students. They avail students to 24/7 on-demand tutoring, and students may also be more open to asking an AI tutor questions in class compared to asking the instructor in during class in front of their peers.


Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)


Pre-pandemic, AR and VR looked to be a promising higher education technology that increased student immersion. Now, they look to be a way of bridging the physical gap between instructor and student. But what exactly are augmented reality and virtual reality? Simply put, VR allows users to experience a three-dimensional environment using wearable goggles. You may have seen them before in a gaming or entertainment application. AR meanwhile, is an interactive overlay that on top of the physical world, created by wearable glasses, goggles, or mobile phone. The mobile game Pokémon Go for example.

Instead of catching video game characters however, AR and VR can provide students more opportunities for immersive learning and hands-on training, especially in the sciences. It provides medical students virtual cadavers to be practiced on and architecture students a way to view their creations from the ground level. A key value proposition of VR is that it makes experiences repeatable, which can help students learn through trial and error in a way that wouldn’t be possible in the real-world.

As of 2018, 28% of higher education institutions deployed AR VR in some capacity. Looking to the future, the number of campuses implementing the technology continues to grow.


Blockchains for Education


The mere mention of blockchain may conjure up thoughts of Bitcoins, cryptomining, and volatile price charts. But the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies may also have applications in higher education as well. The Office of Education Technology even launched the Blockchain Innovation Challenge to explore opportunities to apply the tech to education. But exactly is a blockchain? Think of it as a digital ledger or database that stores information in linked records (or blocks. Each block has a hash value or digital signature which can be checked upon by the blocks before and after, so data in blockchains can’t be edited easily.

For higher education technology, blockchains may be used to store student records, certificates, and diplomas, which cannot be falsified or altered. Employers can access the blockchain to verify an applicant’s credentials or other higher education institutions can use it to verify course credits for transfers.

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Wallace Chu

Author Wallace Chu

A self-professed tech hipster that loves computers and music. Uses an iPhone ironically.

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