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How Can Higher Education Reimagine the Learning Experience in 2021 and Beyond?

  • 6 Min Read

Changing student needs, difficulties with on-campus learning, and planning your return to the classroom. Find out why Clay Shirky, NYU Vice Provost for Educational Technologies, says the new normal is an opportunity for higher ed institutions—and how your organization can respond.

While many higher education institutions successfully pivoted to online learning in 2020, the questions remain: What do these institutions look like in a post-pandemic world, and what needs to be done in light of this shift? In this highly anticipated webinar, New York University’s Vice Provost for Educational Technologies Clay Shirky proposes that, while it may be easy to revert to our pre-COVID-19 norms and traditions, it’s important to acknowledge the new opportunities and the positive impact technology has had in aiding student success like never before. Shirky shares his perspective on the phases of higher education’s response to COVID-19, the changing dynamic of student needs, and what he thinks is most important to look for in technology in order to help students learn.

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“Everything that looks like a big challenge from a distance is actually a lot of little challenges aggregated.” – Clay Shirky

Shirky began the discussion by sharing how he set up aggregated communication channels prior to the pandemic, which allowed for open communication between schools within NYU. From his perspective, nothing he had done during the crisis mattered quite as much as the planning he did for these aggregated communications channels, as they allowed for a higher level of collaboration and problem-solving among staff. For example, when someone in NYU’s dental school faced a problem, they could talk to a colleague in the nursing school to understand how they had handled a similar issue, as opposed to everyone bringing their questions directly to Shirky and other NYU administrators. This aggregate experience helped avoid a bottleneck and gave staff more context to the bigger picture of the institution, as opposed to individual departments and schools—a tool Shirky argues is a must.

The Difficulty in Returning to On-Campus Learning

Referencing a graphic from Phil Hill and MindWires (below), Shirky shares that these four phases summarize his experience at NYU with one exception: Phase 4 underestimates the degree to which transitioning back to face-to-face learning is also difficult. To that end, it is argued that there will be a bumpy transition period as we move into a new normal; local students may be vaccinated and ready for in-person learning, but there will be thousands of students stranded outside of the country facing longer wait times to receive a vaccine and waiting for international visa channels to open. “It’s proving to be almost as difficult to unspool the adaptations to COVID-19 as it was to spool them up,” says Shirky.

Multiple Phases of Higher Education Response to COVID-19

Responding to Student Needs Going Forward

Adapting to the new normal is a complicated opportunity for higher education, argues Shirky. It is important that institutions reflect on the learning provided in 2020 to preserve the implementations that propelled them forward. In this webinar, he argues that institutions have been more accommodating to students during this crisis than before. “We have found students to be terrifically engaged and pushing us hard to think about ways to take advantage of what we’ve done in the short term to create value in the long term,” he explains. “One of the most salutary adaptations that NYU has undergone during COVID is simply recognizing the idea that the rest of the students’ life outside of class has profound material effects on their ability to participate and be included and do well.” As NYU’s Vice Provost for Educational Technologies, he describes this as a cultural shift in which faculty are aware that not all students are equally well supported outside of the classroom—an issue that was easier to overlook in the pre-pandemic world.

“Once you adopt universal design principles… The utility for a wide range of constituencies that you didn’t even realize were underserved now becomes part of the equation.” – Clay Shirky

The Path Forward

In speaking about NYU’s plan going forward, Shirky shares that they are looking to identify areas where online and digital learning can solve problems that can’t otherwise be solved. For example, high-demand classes that used to be restricted based on the size of the physical classroom will no longer face that same limitation given the physical flexibility in an online setting. “When you start to think about technology as an amplifier, you then start the conversation with your own goals, not with the technology capabilities,” he explains. In another example, he shares that one of the things he looks for when thinking about amplifying a goal is conceptual simplicity. In essence, how much will a practice have to change in order to implement a new way of working? The answer always has to be some, but there is a sweet spot that consists of enough change to be valuable yet still simple enough for faculty to be able to onboard it for one another.

NYU’s Take: Finding the Best LMS to Reach Their Goals

Shirky and the team at NYU decided to search for a new learning management system (LMS) before COVID-19 hit. “We said to ourselves—endlessly and before COVID—that if we just succeed in getting a better version of the capabilities we already have by changing learning management systems, then we will have failed and we will have wasted the university’s money,” Shirky recalls. In the face of budget cuts and pandemic-related restrictions, Shirky and the team at NYU continued to advocate for a new LMS—one that worked better than what they had while still allowing them to switch and implement it easily.

In making their decision, they were focused on two goals: increasing the number of faculty who were using the LMS and increasing their capabilities with the tools provided. “Seventy-five percent of faculty use four features in the LMS we’re moving off of. We’re not changing LMS to get those four features in a slightly more web-friendly format,” he notes. While Shirky understood that reaching their goal was going to be tough (especially in a year when comfort and familiarity were needed), he argues that the key opportunity was for faculty fluidity on the far side of the transition. In other words, Shirky saw faculty understanding of the tools as the desired outcome—that, if given a tool, educators at NYU could understand the tool and use it easily and effectively without extensive training or a call to IT.

Learn other important considerations in this LMS evaluation guide

At the core of this webinar, Shirky argues that, with a big change like the one we’ll experience in the post-pandemic shift, colleges and universities in Canada and the United States really have only one chance to educate faculty, students, and admin about the new system in a way that will promote their willingness to try it.

Don’t miss your chance to level up and future-proof your organization. To learn more and uncover how you can reimagine learning in 2021, watch the full webinar on demand here!

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