By Teresa de Onis
Your residence halls are where most online learning is taking place now and where students will enhance their in-class experience after the pandemic is over, both in their rooms and in newly created learning and collaboration spaces. Modern Wi-Fi is key to delivering the new academic experiences, and there may be an opportunity to apply American Rescue Plan Act funds to this effort due to the changes in instructions your school has and will continue to implement.
Smart thinkers and innovators in higher education are exploring how remote learning might be applied to amplify and even revolutionize the higher ed experience and how blending synchronous and asynchronous modalities with traditional, in-classroom learning might dramatically improve the way students and faculty interact and collaborate with each other. For small to mid-size colleges and universities looking to attract, retain, and graduate more diverse learners across all socioeconomic backgrounds, blended learning is the key.
Today, amid a public health crisis and social unrest, our new reality won’t tolerate any complacency. While there is light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, and I am very optimistic about a return to “normalcy” in Fall 2021, the world has changed, and we can’t go back to our old ways. Ready or not, colleges and universities all over the country have learned how good (or bad) they are at deploying synchronous and asynchronous learning. Blended learning is not an optional convenience. It is an absolute necessity now.
In this new blended learning environment, students can interact with a lecture – pause, rewind, play again – to focus on important areas of the content that may require additional time. Or they might replay material that slipped by them as they grappled with other aspects of the lesson. The private sector offers this type of learning environment today for employees. The new synchronous technology platforms can measure sentiment in real-time, analyzing student engagement and response to indicate where the class may have been lost or need further review. Students, in-person or in their residence hall or at other locations, can interact with professors in real time, asking them to slow down or to give examples. Professors can use that information to follow up with more detail or drive longer-term improvements in content and delivery.
Occasionally, life happens. A student may need to leave the classroom early. Another may not be able to attend at all on a given day. Asynchronous playback of the day’s lecture in a residence hall allows that student to pick up where he or she left off or to capture the lesson in its entirety before returning to class next time. No back-and-forth email between professor and student. No chasing down fellow students for notes or help. Imagine the efficiency gains here.
Over the last fifteen years, the focus of on-campus residence halls has been on community building. Living and learning-oriented communities have been launched at many universities nationwide. For smaller schools, these communities exist in floors of residence halls. Some larger schools may have entire neighborhoods dedicated to an area of academic interest or lifestyle. Sports, LGBTQ, or science themed areas are but a few examples.
We have also seen social distancing protocols inspire the creation of study pods, in which groups of students with similar interests or learning styles can group together to stream coursework simultaneously and discuss. Some schools created random student “bubbles” to be in the classroom (or out of it) on a given schedule. These micro cohorts or pods born of social distancing protocols necessity could have an interesting and positive impact on academic collaboration, or they could create opportunities for students who might have otherwise never interacted to work together and learn from each other.
With this kind of impact, what feels like a near-term inconvenience – randomly assigned days to attend class in person – could quickly morph into a preferred method of collaborating and learning for all students involved, with the residence hall and other on-campus common areas used as the meeting points for such collaborations.
As blended learning begins to take shape all around us, the role of IT will make a hard shift from just a cost center to a vital contributor in the fight for student enrollment, retention, persistence, and outcomes. For you and your housing officer peers, this means relying on your own business savvy more than ever as you keep the student experience front and center.
While the technology underpinnings of asynchronous learning are simpler to manage, synchronous learning is intricately linked to the performance of your Wi-Fi network. Imagine a student enjoying an incredible experience from your learning platform and its content, only to see it fall apart the first time your Wi-Fi cuts out during a live stream. Unlike asynchronous learning, in which a temporary connectivity drop could be tolerated, a lost connection during a live streamed lecture is a death knell. Reliable, highly available connectivity is core to delivering a new and improved academic experience – more important than any technology platform designed to deliver it. How will you modernize your Wi-Fi to deliver exceptional academic experiences?
The great news is that the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 reflects an understanding of the depth of the changes in instruction that are taking place and the overwhelming costs that institutions and students face in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors of the new law also understood that blended learning is here to stay and is key to unlocking a more fair, equitable, and accessible higher education.
The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEER III) within the American Rescue Plan Act provides $39.5 billion in federal funding to higher ed, with the vast majority (91%) of the funds allocated to public and private nonprofit institutions. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) will receive 5% of the remaining funds, while the rest will be split between aid for students attending for-profit institutions and for institutions that have the greatest unmet need related to COVID-19. Institutions must spend half of the funding on emergency financial aid grants to students who may be facing hunger, homelessness, and other hardships, giving a lift to our neediest students.
The act specifically calls out the ability to use funds for changes in instruction related to the pandemic, so there may be an opportunity to modernize your residence hall networks through this funding model. All funds must be used by September 30, 2023, and ACE (American Council on Education) has completed a simulation of the funds allocation by school.