How will higher education survive COVID-19? New ways tech is helping retain students

06 November 2020

Over the last few months, students had to decide whether to go back to colleges transformed by COVID-19, or take a semester off and hope things get back to normal by spring. Despite the monumental efforts by universities to address concerns, it appears not all students were entirely assured as many institutions absorbed a 5% to 10% decline in tuition.

But as difficult as this fall has been for higher education, more worrying is the chance that next semester could be even worse.

For schools that shifted most or all of their courses online, a lot is riding on whether students have a good experience in the current semester underway. This was one of the key takeaways of a survey conducted earlier this year by the higher education strategy firm, Kennedy and Company.

On the positive side, the survey found that overall 90% of college students would be willing to enroll in an all-online class schedule. But for students who reported having a bad experience with online learning in the recent past, this percentage fell to 45%. More than any other factor, the quality of the learning experience is what drives the decision making process.

The impression students have over these next few months will likely impact enrollment levels. Not just in the spring, but potentially for several years. Students who take time off, tend to have a higher risk of never coming back to school at all. Institutions will have to work doubly hard to make up for the reduced enrollment this year in order to avoid carrying the weight of that small class for the next four to five more years.

Luckily, the news isn’t all bad. The CARES Act, signed into law in March of 2020, made billions of dollars in funding available for higher education. These funds will help institutions navigate the unprecedented challenges they face in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic.  Covered expenses include investments in IT, audio-visual, and distance learning infrastructure, as well as related staff salaries, outsourced providers, and online program management firms.

The key question institutions are faced with now is where to invest these funds to make the maximum impact today, while also supporting the institution’s overall long-term strategy.

For schools evaluating options to improve remote learning, it’s worth considering investments with dual value both online and in the classroom after COVID-19 is behind us. One such opportunity is to leverage recent advances that enable hands-on interaction for in-class and remote students, with one multi-functional technology.

Even before the pandemic, many institutions like UCSD School of Medicine and University of Nebraska Medical Center were already bringing touch-interactive multimedia into the classroom to improve student engagement levels and learning outcomes. Investments in the classroom like these can now pay dividends during the pandemic since the same technology used for in-person lectures can also provide touch-interactive collaboration for students at home.

Professors now have the freedom to offer a dynamic multimedia presentation for both in-class and remote students, with all the ease of using a chalkboard, and none of the constraints of a slide deck. Students can safely interact with the presentation content while maintaining social distance. With the professor presenting from a video wall, students can interact from their seat in the classroom or from home using a standard laptop or tablet.

Instead of staring at a slide deck or a talking head, remote students get a far more natural and engaging experience. Similar to an in-person class, students see a full view of the professor standing in front of the video wall, physically interacting with the content, annotating, and relating to the material with gestures. 

Instructors can focus in on particular assets and direct the attention of the in-person and online audience to a larger view of their real-time annotation. Letting the professor lead a remote class in a way more intuitive and familiar to them allows more of their enthusiasm come through, which helps get students inspired about the topic.

The video wall also offers flexibility to adapt on the fly based on input from students. It frees up professors to go off-script or dive deeper on a particular thread and bring up any range of digital assets, websites, or even live software applications for students to interact with.

When remote students can fully interact with the content on the wall, they feel more like an active participant in the discussion. The intuitive nature of touch interaction, along with the ability to contribute their own content real-time, gives students a more vivid experience. 

This is particularly useful for group project work. Group participants based in multiple locations can literally get on the same page, sharing a touch-interactive digital canvas displaying all of their project materials. Students can all make edits on the canvas simultaneously or log in later to work individually whenever needed. The team’s progress together is continuously saved and the completed project can be presented to the professor directly from the canvas.

New advances like these have opened up a range of exciting possibilities for our higher education system. Even before COVID-19, there was already a need for universities to deliver a more dynamic learning experience capable of inspiring the students of today. Institutions just no longer have the luxury to tackle these challenges slowly over time.

With concerns about enrollment levels for spring semester, the CARES funding presents a tremendous opportunity for schools to stand out in both recruitment and retention. If schools can show they’re invested in evolving traditional teaching methods and tools, it will go a long way toward assuring students about the quality of the learning experience.

Despite a difficult year for higher education, institutions have a rare chance to transform both the online experience for students today and the in-classroom experience far into the future.

About MultiTaction

MultiTaction provides academic institutions with interactive visualization and remote collaboration solutions, including multi-touch video walls and software for in-classroom and remote presentations, group projects, library and research centers, and alumni centers.