Hybrid Learning: A Key Investment for Universities in Response to COVID-19

state of higher ed

By Michael Boreham
Futuresource Consulting

Make no mistake: COVID-19 has caused incredible disruption to higher education. As campus living is stripped from the usual buzz of freshers’ week, students are understandably concerned about how university is set to become a not-so-memorable experience. With physical lectures restricted, a 10 p.m. curfew on nightlife, and all sporting events canceled, students are either pushing back against paying full tuition fees or deferring their studies entirely. For many colleges and universities, the drop in revenue is likely to be painful, with most relying on charges levied on students to remain financially secure.

While it will be impossible to replicate the physical experience for students studying remotely, it is of absolute necessity that universities are able to heighten their student offering throughout the pandemic, and better prepare for any future crisis moving forward. Universities must adopt a robust strategy that ensures all students receive a high-quality education, one that supports engagement, participation and provides slick access to all learning materials.

COVID-19 Accelerating Higher Education Trends

If a positive can be taken from the current situation, it is that COVID-19 should fast-track a long-overdue technological disruption in higher education, one that ensures the same level of educational sources are made accessible from around the world. As a trend that was already in motion before the pandemic, the need to blend place-bound approaches to learning with accessible content from lectures will now be accelerated at breathtaking speed.

The Advancement of Digital Content

For many institutions, this approach is taking shape in the form of hybrid learning — a combination of virtual lectures, one-to-one communication and online collaboration tools. For the short-term, many institutions will look to advance their digital content offering depending on the level of technology available. Examples of low-tech approaches include tutorials via Microsoft Teams, as well as Facebook and TikTok for content creation and one-to-one messaging. For those able to implement high-tech approaches, virtual labs such as “Labster” will be of prime importance, along with the real time broadcast of lectures, virtual libraries and content creation tools.

At the same time, Learning Management Systems (LMS) have become a must-have for institutions. Futuresource’s recent higher ed research showcased that 88% of large universities in North America are already running an effective LMS and that future spend priorities include focusing on cloud based LMS improvements. As institutions become more advanced with their use of LMS, they will look to create personalized learning experiences built on greater understanding of student data captured through such systems.

Networked Infrastructure as the Long-Term Solution

Key to the future success of institutions will be their long-term investment in networked infrastructures and cloud services as a key component of the hybrid learning model. Thirty-three percent of higher education institutions surveyed stated they were using either public or private Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) for storing institutional data in the cloud. Moreover, of those currently using IaaS in North America, over half expect to have 50% or more of their data stored in the cloud in the next 2 years. We can expect moving forward for all institutions, regardless of size, to accelerate this adoption.

Institutions are not just using cloud to host data; increasingly they are using cloud services to develop applications. When questioned on their use of Platform as a Service (PaaS) for developing applications in a cloud environment, 36% of institutions claimed to be already doing this. Institutions are beginning to realize some of the benefits from cloud, such as lower infrastructure costs, greater flexibility to scale up and down services, regular updates and patches, as well as increased reliability in terms of network availability. These benefits will become more relevant as the volume of learning materials become digitized.

AV Technologies Drive Lecture Capture Solutions

Solutions that support a different approach to the delivery of lectures continue to drive investment into AV learning space technologies, with wireless presentation solutions remaining a popular investment. In North America, the latest Futuresource research indicates that audio products and displays are the most popular areas for AV expenditure moving forward, with collaboration devices being the most popular across larger universities. This reflects the importance of establishing the right setup for hybrid learning.

As lecture capture solutions and related assessment tools become crucial to the quality of education received, so too must universities better support those with limited access to devices. As it stands, over 60% of large institutions currently offer discounted devices to students on campus. The demand for portable devices to provide greater access to online content and lectures is further backed up by our higher ed research, which shows that less than half of devices owned by institutions are now desktops or PCs, with laptops or MacBooks leading the way across all university sizes.

Looking Ahead to a Post-COVID Future

Moving forward, colleges and universities alike will need to carefully consider how resources are best offered to students, with the demand for flexibility and improved access falling in line with online and in-person hybrid formats that have been fast-tracked by COVID-19.

While the need to create a future-proof strategy for education is clear, the challenge will lie in creating a hybrid model that provides a personalized, yet fruitful, offering for students investing in their studies.