24 March 2021 - Why we need to focus on building a hybrid education model, that parallels the workplace
Over the past year, there has been much speculation about what the future of work might look like, in a post-pandemic world. Less often have we talked about what education might look like within that timeframe. The global pandemic has forced everyone to adapt but education institutions have had a huge mountain to climb, being steeped in tradition and often thriving around a campus-based culture. Up to a year ago, remote learning on such a grand scale was never thought possible, nor was it necessarily the ambition.
So much has shifted in 12 months and despite best efforts to acclimatise to a new way of learning, many challenges remain. Above all, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the need for universities to offer a consistent learning environment between the campus and those accessing lessons remotely, to ensure future success and resilience. If we consider that universities are nurturing the upcoming generation of workplace talent, perhaps this builds a case for us tackling the future of our education system first, to then run in parallel with workplace evolution.
As we contemplate the issue, our recent survey of UK universities sheds some valuable light on the subject.
Creating a consistent on-campus and off-site experience
A standout finding of the research is that more than half (53%) of students say they would prefer a flexible, blended approach to learning moving forward. Whether a student is on campus or learning remotely, the intention should be for universities to provide an experience of equal quality, giving students choice in how, when and where they learn.
It is time for us to consider what a ‘hybrid’ learning model should look like. Much like designs for the workplace, campus-based learning could be the place for collaboration, discussion, practical work, face-to-face supervisions, sports or socialising; while formal teaching could be delivered virtually. This will require a deep look at the digital applications and platforms that users will need, as well as audio visual and collaboration tools, which will all come at a cost. However, within our research, seven in ten (71%) respondents said their university is already selling real estate in the wake of COVID–19, which suggests a scaling back of costs and overheads, potentially freeing-up funds for IT investment and innovation.
Ensuring accessibility for all
A hybrid learning environment is vital for driving an inclusive student experience, allowing students to access information in a way that works best for them around their individual needs, for example full-time parents, workers, and international students. It may also help students with disabilities or financial challenges that make it difficult for them to learn on campus.
A disparity in higher education is happening, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Over the past year there have been heavily reported issues with laptops and technology provision, and our survey finds that only half (52%) of teaching at universities is currently happening remotely. If left unchecked, inequalities in student experience and provision will worsen, and there is the danger that some institutions will be left behind, particularly when matched against universities and courses that have been set-up to be virtual.
Higher education is a privilege, and, in the UK, it can come at a cost which is out of reach for some. The goal should be to make universities accessible to all, and with technology, we can level the playing field. By investing in a blended approach to learning which offers a first-rate learning experience both on and off campus, universities have the potential to open themselves up to students who may otherwise have struggled to attend, broadening the pool of talent, and ultimately driving diversity in the workforce.
Campus life has historically been a big pull for university students, however our research finds that sustainability is becoming increasingly important, for an environmentally conscious generation. Today, 43% of students say they assess the sustainability ranking of a university within their selection process. Students expect their university to progress and align with their personal green agendas.
As we contemplate the future, post COVID-19, sustainability needs to fit into every facet of university decision making, including technology. There are many sustainable benefits that come with a hybrid-work scenario, from green data centres through to reductions in travel time and on-campus activity.
Paralleling the workplace
The pandemic has shown that we have not advanced our education system at the same pace as the workplace, and it is important that we redress that balance quickly. While we do not know what the future holds, it is critical that we help to prepare students for working life, and post-pandemic, it seems likely this will be a hybrid working environment.
Fundamentally, this is an opportunity for us to evolve as a society and when we come out of the pandemic, we need to make sure that we build back better. If we begin with higher education, we can then extend these learnings to the entire education sector, including primary and secondary schools. It could be immensely powerful if we do it the right way.
And so, as we glimpse light at the end of the tunnel, students and teachers alike may be eager to get back to campus. However, if universities stand firm and continue their momentum for change, they can seriously overhaul their offering to make it far more inclusive and appealing to all, while also being prepared for whatever the world throws at us next. As we transition towards the ‘next normal’, I hope the UK education sector will become a shining example for other countries to follow.
To find out more about our research and what universities can do to future-proof, download our free ebook, ‘The present and the future of higher education IT’.