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Five Ways to Accelerate Digital-First Learning in Education


Student-centered education is not new idea, but it has blossomed during COVID-19. Even as instructors navigate hybrid learning modelsmixing online and in-person—varying class sizes and non-traditional schedules, ensuring student success is top priorityAnd across the world’s educational institutions, technology barriers are coming down quickly.

At VMware 2020, I hosted the “Modernize Education to Support Digital Learning” panel (session OCTO2646)where I was joined by four education experts: two from K-through-12 schools, and two from higher education. We discussed how the pandemic, including the need to wear masks and maintain distancing of six feet, has dramatically disrupted educational delivery. We talked about new experiences for educators such as having to pivot from campus-only operations to online digital overnight, and how accelerating digital transformation journeys while adopting digital-first philosophies toward learning initiatives has enabled success. 

Everything is moving faster, panel members agreed. Take planning for instance. Driven by new realities, education-planning scenarios that used to take a year to eighteen months are now being sped through committees in two months. And instead of planning for the full academic year ahead, educators are only thinking three-to-six months ahead—that’s how fast things are changing.  

“Using technology as a way to improve student engagement has always been passion of mine,” says Patrick Turner, Former CIO of Schoolcraft College, in Livonia, Michigan. “These are exciting times when you consider that angle.”

Five Ways to Accelerate Digital-First Learning  

The schools I spoke with were already on digital transformation journeys, and offer five recommendations to those still working to come up to speed fast on digital-first learning architectures. 

  1. Accelerate the digital campus 
    Modernizing data centers—in many cases, actually allowing them to scale to the cloud as necessary for device management, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), or even educational content itself—is a foundational transformation that will allow schools to reap long-term benefits.“We’re looking at a completely different mindset of how to teach the kids, asynchronously and synchronously, depending on whose turn it is to come into the physical building,” says Harry Doctor, IT infrastructure manager, at West Windsor Plainsboro Regional School District, in West Windsor Township, New Jersey.“Everything is completely transformed and we’re using some very cool technologies that will be useful in the long term, after all this is over.”According to Doctor and other members of the panel, often the cost and operational efficiencies that come from transitioning from many, siloed hardware products to a single, standard, software-defined digital infrastructure can be reinvested into innovation.
  2. Drive differentiation and new business models 
    Higher educational institutions are, by necessity, changing their business models. According to recent research presented, 50% of universities are changing the way they attract new revenue now that tuition, government support, and endowments are all declining. And 30% of higher educational institutions are starting to implement micro credentials—which are micro degrees that focus on what employers need to equip students with for the skills they need to succeed in business.Technology is foundational to this, as having high-quality instructors communicating effortlessly with students no matter where they happen to be will be a key driver of competitive differentiation among educational institutions.
  3. Empower student-centered learning  
    The remote model is not going away any time soon, so the question becomes, how do schools close the digital divide that has always been there but is more visible now? How do schools ensure that all students have equal access to the communications tools, educational content, and other resources they need to have parity with each other?

    One cost-efficient solution is using virtualization and the digital workspace that enables students to use the devicethey own to easily access the content they need, when they need it, to fully participate in lessons. At the same time, it will be important for district and university IT teams to address connectivity disparities by modernizing networking. Again, a software-defined approach incorporating an SD-WAN solution at the edge can be game-changing for instruction.“With digital technology you can bring up visual content on the screenwhether in front of a classroom or online for remote learnersand do some whiteboarding that you can annotate in real time,” Turner says. He’s seen instructors creating digital quizzes, with the students’ answers versus correct results being shown on the screen immediately. “And they get to the point where they are cheering for each other and kibitzing and using methodologies to remediate mistakes right away,” says Turner. “This sort of thing helps students learn and feel successful.”
  4. Empower educators and staffs  
    With cloud-based application portals, educators and staff can work side by side while remote to get their jobs done, day in and day out. But it can take time and effort to get educators comfortable with digital-first learning, cautioned Mike Atkins, infrastructure architect at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana.“Getting the faculty to feel comfortable teaching when the student is not in front of them has been a huge challenge,” says AtkinsBut everyone is learning togetherI’ve even seen students helping instructors out, which is a really good situation.”Institutions that embrace a modern, digital IT foundation not only serve educator and students needs today, they are becoming future ready for anything that may be thrown at them next.
  5. Protect student data and educationainstitutions’ brands  
    For regulatory and safety reasons, protecting student and institutional data from being compromised from hackers is an essential aspect of having a digital-first educational strategy. Securing both the digital and physical assets is thus a priority. And intrinsic security—where security is built into infrastructure and applications through policies rather than bolted on—as well as unified endpoint management and mobile device management are all part of a strong defense-in-depth strategy.

    “We’ve had a cloud-first strategy for quite some time so we’re consuming a lot of software-as-a service [SaaS], which gives us great visibility into our traffic
    , so we can notice any anomalies,” says Paul Saltmarsh, senior IT officer at Brisbane Catholic Education in Brisbane, Australia. The K-through-12 school uses the mobile device management application in VMware Workspace One to get transparency into what the schools’ devices are up to, what services they are consuming, and whether or not they are “misbehaving,” says Saltmarsh.

    “We have a highly distributed environment147 sites over a fairly large geographical areaso the ability to remotely wipe or disable the device at any moment in time has been a cornerstone of us being comfortable with distributed learning, he adds. 

Digital-First Learning Requires the Right Technology 
Proven technology partners such as VMware help speed and smooth the path to digital-first learning as educational technologists wrestle with key considerations and strategies for how best to:  

  • Put the student in the center. A student-centered educational model means delivering any application regardless of its purpose—from web-conferencing to assess-based like a learning management system. IT has to create a model that ties all apps together and deliver that securely to a managed device for the student.
  • Ensure applications are accessible from anywhere. Whether located in a private data center, in one or more public clouds or on the edge, IT must create the digital foundation—compute, storage, networking, and management—for any application to accessed from any device, from any cloud.
  • Build in security to make digital-first learning possibleData and information must be wrapped in protections wherever it travels and restsAnd intrinsic security can be a true differentiator in driving digital-first, student-centered education.
  • Enable continuous innovation. As emerging technologies such as AI-driven adaptive learning that is personalized to individual students catches on, IT must have a way to harness data-driven insights. For example, take student information from learning management systems and combine it with predictive analytics to identify which students are high risk, and provide support so that student can graduate.  

There is little doubt that the traditional, in-person-only educational model worldwide is changingAnd institutions must become future ready to accommodate change today and for what’s coming tomorrow. 

Watch VMworld 2020 “Modernize Education to Support Digital Learning” panel (OCTO2646), to learn more. 


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