Early Tech Investments Made Transition to Remote Learning Easier for Universities

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When COVID-19 hit, universities were forced to transition instantly to a remote teaching and learning environment. Not only were faculty and staff learning how to work from home full time, but there was also the added complexity of trying to educate their now distant students.

Those universities that were already leveraging and implementing remote learning technologies before the pandemic, were able to make the transition easier. These higher education institutions were able to train and equip their teachers sooner and ensure their students were learning continuously nearly immediately.

Georgia State University was one such institution that was able to address the needs of its facility and students quickly once COVID-19 hit, according to Phil Ventimiglia, the university’s first Chief Innovation Officer. Ventimiglia has nearly two decades of experience in new technology development and strategy.

“We have been on a journey these last couple of years to really introduce technology into more of our pedagogy of how we teach and learn,” Ventimiglia said during REMOTE: The Connected Faculty Summit. ” So, in terms of teaching and learning, we've been focusing on both how you teach and what you teach. So we've been incorporating digital literacy into our core curriculum and using technology to extend the learning process through both synchronous and asynchronous capabilities so that you can go and do more flipping in the classroom and hybrid learning,” he said.

As a result, even before COVID-19, Georgia State was building out what they call “classrooms of the future”, which are more active and designed to be easily flipped into remote or hybrid learning environments, according to Ventimiglia. This allows them more easily to digitize the learning content instead of having a student sit in a lecture hall, he said, adding that a lot of the space they used were adaptive and reuse buildings allowing for a more active and inclusive learning environment.

“And so even before COVID, we were on a journey to go build out what we call our simulcast classrooms, which allow us to go and stream or simulcast classes so that you can have 50 or a hundred students sitting in a classroom and then another couple hundred sitting in the library or dorm room or wherever they may be, with fully interactive capabilities with the ability  to raise their hands, ask questions [and having the] ancillary benefit of recording those lectures and those classes, so that students can go in and review the notes and watch it later,” Ventimiglia said. “And so, we already had that capability in place,” he said.

As a result, when COVID-19 forced all education institutions into a remote learning environment, Georgia State had a certain foundation in place already which allowed them to focus on how to deliver the best experience,  as fast as possible to the students, Ventimiglia  said. “We made some very conscious decisions based upon the technology and making sure that the technology works. So probably the first really conscious decision was for the spring that we were going only to do asynchronous learning, very limited synchronous learning because we wanted to ensure that students have access and there were no issues getting online,” he said.

Georgia State then focused on putting their faculty through a boot camp of how to record their lectures, how to use the asynchronous tools, and how to have a discussion groups to keep students engaged. This helped prepare the faculty for the fall semester and the ability to incorporate more synchronous learning into its curriculum.

“So, prior to COVID, we were already on a journey where we as a university fundamentally believed that the future of the undergraduate experience especially is going to be multi-modal,” Ventimiglia said. “And what we mean by that is in the future, there's really not a delineation between traditional face to face, hybrid and online. They all come together to deliver an experience that depending on what is best for the student, they will learn across all those different modalities,” he said, adding it was a five-year plus journey but accelerated six months ago.

At first Georgia State put in place these tools and processes in for disaster recovery and ensure business continuity and ended up needing to leverage it much quicker than it anticipated, according to Ventimiglia.

For its part, the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, also had made significant investments in remote learning prior to COVID-19, specifically in the area of video conference, according to Richard Hoar, Technology Programming Director at FIT.

“Online collaboration was already a big priority for our team before the current virus. We were using that to extend our video resources into the cloud and give people kind of unfettered access to the global communications that they were increasingly needing. We were fortunate enough to have a, a pretty strong Web conferencing and communications platform established both in terms of  hosting accounts for the faculty and staff, as well as some pilot systems around the campus for group video and lecture capture,” Hoar said, adding that primarily the tools were actually used in order to facilitate remote education or online learning and most of the classes were actually hosted face to face.

This allowed FIT to very quickly go from manually provisioning dozens of users in need every day to flipping that switch and then make the service available to tis entire staff. It allowed for the ability to host meetings from whatever device was available.

“It is connected to our single sign on, which is a great feature as well. So, we don't have to worry about people memorizing separate passwords, and it keeps everything nice and secure for us, Hoar said. This means that FIT offered multiple collaboration technologies and instructors were able to pick and choose which one they actually wanted to leverage for their classroom lectures, he said.

“We never really came to the table thinking that we're going to provide a mandatory one size fits all tool for everyone. That's a tough thing to sell because individual faculty members, individual curriculum, individual pedagogy, they're going to have their own needs,” Hoar said. “The goal for me has always been to come up with a tool for collaboration online that would support as many people as possible, as holistically as possible, and then simply just make it available. So should they have a need one day to do something different than they've been doing, it is to ready to go,” adding that FIT will always be prepared to be In a fully remote or partially remote environment moving forward.