Engaging a new generation of learners during a pandemic

Adobe partnered with The Chronicle of Higher Education to launch its latest installment of an ongoing webinar series, “Engaging a New Generation of Learners.

Illustration of people on electronics with the words Engaging a New Generation of Learners.

By Sebastian Distefano

Posted on 04-01-2021

Last month, Adobe partnered with The Chronicle of Higher Education to launch its latest installment of an ongoing webinar series, ”Engaging a New Generation of Learners,” which brings together college thought leaders in a series of panels to better understand education trends beyond COVID-19.

Panelists included:

Together these individuals leveraged insights from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent survey to underscore the evolving expectations of their students. Panelists also explained how their institutions embraced technology when moving to remote learning environments and highlighted the steps that other colleges can take to successfully meet the needs of students beyond the pandemic.

Below are a few highlights from the webinar:

Hybrid learning is here to stay

As students surpass the one-year mark of attending school remotely, it’s evident that this shift is shaping the way they want to learn. Author Jeff Selingo kicked off the webinar discussion by presenting data from The Chronicle of Higher Education and Harris Insights, which polled 800 high school and college students about their current learning environments and how they anticipate these environments will change in the future.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, students typically believed opportunities to leverage technology in higher education curricula were limited to project-based learning and research development. However, the survey findings show that COVID-19 has reprogrammed how this new generation of learners believes technology can enhance their academic experience. In fact, the survey reveals that more than 6 in 10 students indicated they will likely take virtual classes in college, post-pandemic.

“The pandemic has changed habits — and it’s not just the habits of students — it’s unlikely that institutions are simply going to go back to the old way of doing things,” Selingo said. “It’s unlikely that many institutions out there are going to forgo their investments, for example, in technology and training of faculty members to teach online.”

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Students’ continued interest in virtual learning suggests that more colleges and universities will presumably adopt hybrid models once in-person classes resume. In fact, 60 percent of college students expect between 26 and 75 percent of their courses to have a virtual component in a post-pandemic world. This change may place increased pressure on higher education institutions to improve the quality of experiences they provide for students as they establish hybrid classrooms.

Hybrid learning models can enhance student engagement

In recent years, students and their families have typically measured the value of higher education by evaluating student success after graduation, considering metrics such as employability and skills development. However, this assessment doesn’t factor in the real-time impact of experiences that students gain before graduation — knowledge acquired within classrooms (virtual or in person) that can lead to higher retention and, ultimately, graduation rates.

Marcia Ballinger explained in the panel, “Engaging a New Generation,” that the flexible nature of a hybrid model strengthens student engagement and provides greater access to all students, especially those who are working parents.

“Community college students will want to see that continuation of the blended approach [as] they like the convenience of having online [courses],” Ballinger said. “Prior to the pandemic, about half of our students took at least one online class [many of which were Gen Ed and transfer courses] and now we have 88 percent taking online classes.”

Reginald DesRoches echoed the benefits of a hybrid learning environment. Like many colleges across the nation, Rice predominantly taught its courses in-person and on campus prior to the pandemic and was poised to make a swift transition to remote learning environments last year. This migration enabled faculty to understand how to use technology in new ways to engage their students even beyond emergency remote instruction.

However, in his experience as a former dean of engineering, DesRoches realized that some learning experiences cannot be replicated, such as laboratory and studio work. To ensure that students receive the same quality of experiences whether they’re learning from a remote or in-person environment, DesRoches said that Rice will expand its use of a “flipped classroom model.” In contrast to a traditional lecture-style course, the flipped classroom encourages faculty to publish personalized course content online for students to access outside of class. Students are able to use their allotted classroom time to collaborate with their peers and professors by working on hands-on projects.

Looking beyond the initial transition back to on-campus environments, DesRoches emphasized his long-term goal of using AI to adapt online course content at scale to students’ unique learning styles, which he believes will ultimately help make the hybrid classroom experience more impactful.

Offering greater access to digital tools

The transition to remote learning was easier for some colleges than others. As many institutions express interest in maintaining hybrid learning environments after the pandemic, it’s critical to understand how to streamline this process and ensure all students are set up for success as they shift to this new environment. Amir Dabirian discussed this topic during his session with Todd Taylor, “Engaging Students Beyond 2020.”

Dabirian said that a successful hybrid model requires colleges to provide students with the devices and digital tools they need maximize the value of their higher education experience. With more than 60 percent of its student body receiving financial aid, CSU Fullerton was aware that gaps in technology access could hinder their ability to deliver equitable academic experiences for all students during the pandemic. As a result, Dabirian and his team identified areas in which some individuals lacked access to the technology devices and tools that were necessary for sustaining engagement.

The university delivered nearly 8,000 laptops, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and other mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones to students, faculty and staff, which helped drive greater engagement rates. As faculty gradually embrace hybrid models in the future, Dabirian stressed the importance of colleges conducting regular IT audits and providing students with the tools they need to remain engaged.

Adapting teaching practices and modalities to strengthen student engagement

In our final panel session, Marc Austin and Gina Siesing explored how their institutions are enhancing their teaching practices and leveraging technology to transform student experiences.

Like many small liberal arts institutions, Bryn Mawr was tasked with determining how disruptive the transition to remote learning would be to its faculty and students. Siesing emphasized the importance of collaborating with peer institutions to augment core curricula through consortiums such as the Liberal Arts Collaborative for Digital Innovation (LACOL).

Although the consortium has been active for more than six years, Bryn Mawr leveraged its involvement in LACOL during the pandemic, which enabled more students to enroll in online courses taught by peer institutions in subjects they were passionate about, especially in key areas such as data science, mathematics and lesser taught languages.

Austin explained how George Mason University was committed to not only improving remote learning experiences for more than 40,000 students, but also enhancing its online services for them.

Located just outside of Washington, D.C., George Mason has a large student body of U.S. veterans. To ensure that these individuals could quickly obtain financial assistance resources from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, George Mason updated its Office of Military Services web page, which helps prospective and current students navigate the complex process. The Office of Military Services also listed tutoring benefits on their web page so veteran students can obtain the assistance they need to be successful in their academic careers and remain engaged.

“If you have to go hunting around on the website to find five different forms to do something, that’s going to be difficult,” Austin said. “So, it was an opportunity for us to improve the way in which we deliver not only the academic services, but the other support services that we have at the university.”

It’s amazing to see the positive outcomes that have come out of higher education during the pandemic. Although colleges and universities will likely resume on-campus classes this Fall, academic leaders must factor in the evolving expectations of their students for more hybrid environments and embrace the technology they adopted when moving to remote learning environments. By taking this approach, they’ll ensure students have engaging academic experiences in both remote and in-person learning environments.

Be sure to keep an eye out for details from Adobe on upcoming webinars with the Chronicle of Higher Education later this year. In the meantime, tune into the on-demand webinar.

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