The digitalization of education has been a hot topic since the onset of the pandemic. Schools at all levels experienced severe growing pains as they instantaneously transitioned to full-time remote learning. As a result, education lagged well behind other industries in the public perception of how well they responded to the pandemic with digital alternatives.
We also quickly learned during the transition process how much disparity existed in the ability of schools to offer effective online education. Not surprisingly, many of these disparities reflected greater long-term inequalities in educational opportunities between well-to-do schools and schools with far fewer resources.
The tools are there to build a more robust, resilient, inclusive, and egalitarian educational system. But, unfortunately, many schools were either ill-informed about what tools were available, poorly trained to use them, or simply underfunded and unable to access them. As we emerge from the pandemic, it is the perfect time to assess how the educational system should apply digital learning tools both to strengthen the system against future large-scale disruptions and to level the educational playing field for all students.
What should digital education look like?
Let’s start with what digital education should not be. Too many people default only to classes taking place by videoconference. They recall stories about how ineffective these classes were early in the transition and insist that in-person, in-building learning is the only real option. But this is a simplistic view of remote education that ignores the tremendous potential of digital learning.
So what should effective digital learning be? Using the right tools, we can build entire digital campuses that include options for instruction, progress assessment, and practical experiences. And importantly, these digital campuses can be a source of affordable education for all, including many traditionally underserved communities.
Bringing education into the future, however, requires a shift away from traditional thinking, as well as substantial upgrades to existing infrastructure. But the investment will pay off handsomely.
To see the enormous potential of digital education, you need look no farther than the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Moving to a primarily digital experience during the pandemic required the university to rethink the delivery of educational resources to accommodate locked-down student populations across New Zealand’s North Island. “The nature of education is changing. We are focused on scalable, agile solutions that deliver resilience, flexibility, and control, while allowing us to forge the future of learning,” says Sanit Kumar, the University’s Infrastructure Services Portfolio Manager (ISPM) – Cloud, Network & Data Centre Services.
With campuses spread across the island, including large hospital campuses, bandwidth of any solution was a major concern for the University. Kumar highlighted the issue:
“Enhancing stakeholder experiences is at the heart of what we set out to do. The previous solution we are migrating from, had hard limits on bandwidth. Increasing it was not instantaneous and it had financial implications that took time to get approvals for. We needed to have the ability to increase (and decrease) bandwidth in response to user needs.”
The University turned to VMware SD-WAN™, along with Spark Managed Network from VMware partner Spark, to develop solutions that allowed them to best serve their widespread community.
VMware SD-WAN allowed the university to optimize their bandwidth use by role-based prioritization of data traffic. Delivering what each different site needs based on these priorities also helped reduce latency issues and provide an enhanced user experience.
The University’s medical students are reaping substantial benefits of the transition. Digitization of the learning experience has gone far beyond simply replicating in-class lectures. In fact, it was practical training experiences where the university had the most innovation.
The University now has a large suite of innovative digital tools for its medical students that replicate everything from lab analysis to hands-on patient diagnosis and treatment. And that is crucial for enhanced learning according to Warren Grant, the Business Services Manager for the Faculty of Medical and Health Science:
“Indeed, this network capability enables us to better serve our remote sites from behind the scenes, but more importantly it gives us the scope to improve our pedagogy. That’s really exciting. From the cardiac monitoring software that emulates patient response to stimuli, to the ability to rethink one-dimensional articles and bring them to life with rich, interactive content – we can improve learning outcomes and transform the way we teach.”
Behind the scenes, VMware is helping the University’s IT team continue to streamline and enhance the student experience. With the VMware SASE Orchestrator, the team gets high visibility into traffic, allowing them to predict and respond to the needs of their different sites and troubleshoot issues with ease.
Kumar notes that VMware has become more than a vendor – they are a trusted partner in future development efforts:
“As we navigate 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and significant shifts in the digital and learning landscape we know we’re in safe hands with Spark and VMware. At a leadership level, we share our KPI’s and deliverables openly, knowing we can rely on them to help us strategize and deliver the best user experiences”.
Auckland is setting a prime example of what the future of education should be, giving students options to learn no matter where they are or what disruptions they may be facing. And the improvements they are making also help improve the tools available to in-person students.
Reframing the value proposition
Education is facing a remarkably similar transition to that many businesses have experienced with the rise of e-commerce. And just as those businesses had to do, educational institutions must rethink, refocus and reframe their value proposition for students.
In addition, many colleges are seeing drastic declines in enrollment. Exacerbating these declines is the increasing trend at many well-known high-tech companies to forgo degree requirements in favor of hands-on experience. Companies are also moving away from traditional hiring pathways like on-campus recruiting to alternative options, such as hiring freelancers who have trained themselves (and who frequently make as much as if formally employed by the company).
Can digital education help established institutions regain an edge and rebuild their reputations? Almost certainly. It doesn’t take much thought to see many potential improvements over traditional models:
- Multi-cloud environments help institutions put all the necessary applications and resources in students’ hands when and where they need them, creating a thriving, full-featured, on-demand learning environment.
- Collaboration tools help retain the incredibly important socialization aspects of in-person learning.
- Improvements in online training, including gamification, which focus on experiences students know and appreciate, build student competence and confidence.
- Improved security tools ensure that students and institutions are confident in online privacy during the educational process.
- Institutions can offer more of the relevant, hands-on, practical experiences employers now frequently value above degrees in ways that engage students’ interest.
More importantly, digital campuses also can help address longstanding inclusion and equality issues that plague education. Digital learning is far more scalable than traditional education, allowing institutions to reach a broader segment of the population. And digital models give educational institutions lower-cost delivery options compared to large physical campuses. These methods help remove some of the barriers that have in the past prevented full participation by female and ethnic minority student populations.
Of course, educational institutions can’t simply flip a switch and move to a fully digital experience, nor should they. In-person education still has numerous benefits. But these institutions should consider how they can leverage technology to offer a better educational experience.
Certainly, schools must update their current infrastructure and make more transitions to hybrid cloud and multi-cloud environments. They also need to push for more public investment in upgrading communications infrastructure worldwide. They need to invest in security tools to ensure that their platforms are trustworthy. And they need to continue to make innovative improvements in the content and the delivery methods for their training.
But with the right mindset and the right partners, schools can reengage students, bringing them a more cost-effective and better overall educational experience tailored to their unique needs and interests. Auckland’s partnership with VMware is the perfect example. The opportunity is there for the educational system to lead the way rather than follow the crowd. They only need to take it.
Watch the video and read the full story about the University of Auckland’s success with digital education on the Spark website.