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‘Building Back Better’ – digital innovation will be key to universities’ post-COVID-19 recovery

Kenny Nicholl, Chief Growth Officer at PebblePad
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It would be a massive understatement to say that the Covid-19 crisis has thrown some curveballs at the university sector.  For institutions around the world, the initial focus was on pivoting to online learning – while prioritising health and safety of students and staff and making sense of rapidly changing directions from Governments.  It was a tough transition, and one which took significant effort, resource, initiative and new ways of thinking. 

But there have been positives too. For example, the power of connections and partnership came into its own, whether it was with other colleges and universities, city councils, or regional bodies or industry. And at PebblePad we have been continually impressed by the resilience of our college and university colleagues and their commitment to innovation – with the goal of continuing to deliver a quality and equitable education for all. 

Today, as the world opens up again, we believe that there are both new challenges and new opportunities which the industry must deliver against. 

The first is the need to seamlessly combine on-campus studies and practical application learned skills with remote learning. It’s unlikely the sector will want to (or be able to) put the genie entirely back in the bottle when it comes to online provision – it’s delivered significant benefits in terms of flexibility, accessibility and ability to measure progress. But it’s essential that face to face and online learning experiences feel cohesive in order to reassure students they’re getting the most from their learning journey (and the most for their investment, in terms of time, effort and money). 

There’s also an ongoing need for universities to ensure students are equipped for a rapidly changing employment landscape – which means moving beyond traditional subject based disciplines. In an uncertain jobs market, skills like adaptability, collaboration, digital know-how and critical thinking become increasingly important. 

And student as well as staff wellbeing will be more vital than ever. It’s been a punishing period for all students, living through a global pandemic, and their college and university community and colleagues are often the first line for support and guidance as everyone makes sense of their ‘new normal’ and the wellbeing challenges they’ve faced. 

So how do colleges and universities deliver against these post-Covid challenges? And how can they seize the opportunity to fundamentally disrupt the way that learning is delivered.   

Making sense of the learning journey 

The key to delivering a satisfying experience success is structuring the learning journey for the student, to set expectations, lay out goals, and signpost achievements – and then staying closely connected to the learner from day one of that journey.    

Indeed, those first few weeks are particularly important. Many students will arrive at college or university feeling anxious, unsure about what’s expected of them, and many won’t feel comfortable to ask for help or have the knowledge to find the answers independently.   

Using technology to support pedagogy can help students understand what the first semester/year holds in store (beyond modules and traditional assessment), and track and reflect on where they are at in their individual journey – vital in helping them understand what’s to come. Student-centred tech initiatives are about scaffolding the student experience to enable easy engagement with early activities and establish a strong foundation on which they can build.  

Empowering students 

It’s no secret that students need to have a sense of ownership over their learning and development. While structure (certainly in the early days) will be provided by the college or university, the student must have a sense of being able to control when and how they learn. This is why we believe that hybrid learning will ultimately win the day – combining the best of remote learning with on-campus studies. 

This requires the perfect balance between scaffolding the journey and encouraging learner independence – it’s core to developing future career ready employees. And the simple fact is that engaging students as partners in their learning and introducing these practices and pedagogies early (along with articulating the benefits) is a proven way to successfully engage and retain students.   

Activities such as independent study, research and project work engender professional and personal skills, problem-solving and critical thinking ability. 

Powering connection and collaboration 

A big challenge during the pandemic was in keeping students connected – universities know that when students work together their performance is enhanced, and the challenge now is keeping those connections active and productive while students combine on campus learning with online studies. 

But comprehensive collaboration, or connected learning, is more than just bringing feedback online and offering students the right to reply. It is the foundation of helping young people learn to live together, forming communication skills which will influence every aspect of their lives. A holistic approach to connected learning combines peer to peer engagement, reciprocal teaching and learner/staff collaboration. It provides students with the ability to learn on their own terms, in their own way – and gives teachers a better view of their learner progress – allowing timely intervention and the ability to adapt. 

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So there’s a tough road ahead for colleges and universities – but we believe it’s their abilities to harness digital technology to deliver a seamless on-campus and off campus experience, and power student-centric, collaborative learning, which will stand further and higher education organisations in good stead for the future. Importantly, we believe that there is a once in a generation opportunity to truly rethink the way learning is delivered, and to make positive and long-lasting change. 

Kenny Nicholl, Chief Growth Officer at PebblePad

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