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Societies are slowly finally reopening for business. Whilst a lot of focus has been on how the pandemic impacted businesses, an often forgotten but equally important part of our society are students and those in higher education. As students, lecturers and support staff return to campus there is an opportunity for institutions to future-proof themselves and open up new markets for education. 
We take a look at the steps Universities can take.

Back in December 2020, 81% of UK students questioned by the Office of National Statistics reported that they would continue studying even if all their university teaching was moved online – a worrying statistic for the hundreds of universities that depend on charging fees for the traditional on-campus model.

From one angle, the higher education sector in the UK is facing an existential challenge from the long term impact of Covid-19. But seen from another perspective, the potential opportunities for digital learning that have arisen as a result are phenomenal – but only they are embraced and enabled.


Higher education has embraced remote learning

Universities need to become more attractive, especially if predictions of lower attendances ring true. Offering remote learning alongside a traditional on-campus model could open new markets, but currently it poses a threat to the traditional university business model. 

Technology will be key – both on-site and with remote-learning. Most students would benefit from recordings of their lectures being available for playback online, or additional and supplemental course content, outside their immediate lectures, being provided. In many cases this already happens, but the scope for improving this sector is immense. There is a lot more to a successful university course than simply watching videos.

During the lockdowns, many universities pioneered the use of interactive ‘Zoom Rooms’ – using web conferencing technology in the classroom to enable student-teacher facetime, and to enable peer-to-peer collaboration, which is proven to improve information retention and recall, over and above simply watching video playback. It also provides an essential point of engagement and contact that allows the institution to monitor the interests and progress of their students.

As with working from home, remote digital learning may be an option that students take so that they can fit it around other responsibilities in their lives, such jobs, caring for children or the elderly, and other personal commitments. Being able to access educational content remotely and asynchronously in accordance with their own timetables will be crucial – but to do this may require special IT hardware.


Secure remote learning in higher education

For Universities, course content will be valuable intellectual property that will need to be protected from pirating and unauthorised access. For some scientific courses, the very nature of the subject matter may contain confidential scientific material. Secure access will be a key component of remote learning that may require multi-stage validation processes to access, using secure fobs, card-readers or facial recognition.

Going further, advanced technical courses such as engineering or medicine are likely to require immersive technologies, such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), to create digitally malleable 3D models, or ‘virtual labs’ – that allow them to inspect and interact with detailed virtual engine models, or watch complex surgical procedures with an augmented reality overlay. 

Cutting edge advanced institutions such as Imperial College London have been pioneering work in this field – even conducting a ‘virtual field trip’ for their geoscience students – proving that it is possible to create very high-quality and engaging course content that can be delivered successfully to remotely located students via technological platforms.

Courses of this nature will require access to particular technologies that may not be widely available due to their technical complexity, or inaccessible due to their cost. Universities will require a technical solution – such as remotely located Smart Lockers – that can be used as secure distribution and collection points for valuable technical hardware, such as AR spectacles, VR headsets, and security fobs and code generators. 

Smart Lockers would allow universities to provide these items of specialist technical hardware to students on temporary loan, by using secure management systems such as ServiceNow to send out unique validation QR codes to students phones, allowing them to redeem hardware from the smart lockers on a 24 hr basis – providing convenient self-service access to remote-learning students. Innovative solutions such as this can provide the missing link between the student and the institution, that takes their remote learning experience to the highest level.


Reducing barriers to access specialist technology

Across society we are seeking to reduce barriers to access, to empower and enable people in their daily lives through technology, and through understanding of their varying needs. For many students, the ‘university experience’ is key – attending lectures in person, staying in halls of residence, and being immersed in the daily experience of campus life. 

But this paradigm does not suit everyone – not all personalities, not all budgets, and not all lifestyles.

Universities could use technology to diversify the options they provide, and to future-proof themselves against future pandemics, offering courses to geographically disparate people, in the UK and overseas, who may not have the time or resources to commit to the full UK campus experience. This would undoubtedly require investment and innovation, but could also deliver great rewards, to society, individuals and institutions alike.

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