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Social distancing in the classroom: how technology is aiding the new normal in higher education

As learning institutions get stuck into a new term, both students and teachers are adapting to the new COVID-19 education landscape.  

Like many workplaces, education leaders are struggling with numerous challenges, including how to ensure pupil safety and social distancing in what are typically crowded environments, and how to manage when certain pupils are joining the lesson virtually.

It’s no mean feat keeping classes engaged during a normal school year, but technology can help students stay safe and future-proof schools for the long haul; with or without the pandemic.

Social distancing in the classroom

Social distancing measures are expected to continue for some time and are a key consideration in the future of education.

In theory, getting students back into classrooms is a positive move, as long as it is done safely. In practice, however, social distancing poses a number of challenges for students and those enforcing the rules.

Many education establishments already work within limited space at the best of times. Now the UK government is advising that adults maintain a two-metre distance from others and avoid prolonged, face-to-face contact within a metre of anyone, changes must be made to conform to the new rules effectively.

When instigating Covid-driven changes, educators have key considerations: how to include those excluded from the physical environment; and how to engage those children pushed to the back of the classroom in a bid to maintain distancing and teachers are instructed not to move about the room.

Within many classrooms, moving students apart raises the significant challenge of ensuring that everyone can adequately see the lesson visuals being shown at the front of the room. Ensuring equal opportunities for learning in classrooms must be a priority.

The tech solution to distancing  

Flat panels, commonly used in many school environments, offer little flexibility and have no scope for increasing the screen size. Given that around 58% of students aged between 12-22 claim they can’t read all of the content on a 70-inch flat panel at the best of times, further distancing poses a serious concern for learners.

The size of a display in relation to a student’s location impacts engagement, learning and comprehension. A more flexible, high-quality and reliable option is a projector. Scaling screen sizes up, the screen becomes accessible to everyone in the room. Lessons can be inclusive, collaborative and memorable.

Students should sit a maximum distance away from a screen of six times the vertical display height and interactive projectors address this by providing a larger surface area. This allows students to learn while sitting in spaced out classroom arrangements and have the same screen experience as if they were logging in from home.

Projectors also provide an opportunity for teachers to create engaging instruction by sharing content that can include documents and videos from a tablet or laptop.

Additionally, unlike with their flat panel counterparts, there are no visible finger marks left on screen if touched. Some whiteboards even offer anti-bacterial surfaces, eradicating any breeding ground for bacteria and viruses – particularly useful in today’s climate.

Learning from the past

When the pandemic forced the majority of schools to close in March, many administrators chose video conferencing platforms like Zoom to quickly shift to online learning.

Now that schools are reopening their doors, it is time to consider the full array of learning tools and display technologies that are available to enhance the new learning environment and bridge the divide between in-person and remote learning. Keeping students in education appears to be a priority through this stage of the pandemic, but for the foreseeable future social distancing and removal from the school when symptomatic will prevail.

We’re already seeing some innovative uses of technology in use as a result of the situation we find ourselves in. For example, visualisers or document cameras offer an ideal opportunity to share a projected live view of 3D objects.

They make it possible for large groups of people, both in and outside of a room, to share a detailed, close-up view of an item without crowding around it and without having to pass the object between them. Not only can everyone see the content, they can also annotate it. This includes sharing ideas, adding to group work and remaining fully included in the process. In this way, multiple devices can project simultaneously or share content between them.

Ensuring students and teachers are armed with the right technology means that the focus can be on learning in a collaborative and engaging experience, whether in the classroom, at home or a mix of both.

The new normal in education

The current challenging situation is expected to be prolonged, with gradual steps back to a revised version of ‘normal’, and no one quite knows what that will look like.

But regardless, we need to ensure that we’re fair – that all children in the room and remotely can see content and have equal opportunity to learn. No student will perform well if they are excluded from key lessons or if they fail to have the correct information because they can’t see it.

As teachers and students adapt to new education models, connected, collaborative learning is more important than ever before. Technologies such as projectors, interactive whiteboards, video calling, and document cameras can work together to create engaging learning environments that meet the new needs of today’s students and help ease the pressures facing teachers and lecturers.

As with many other issues that we are currently facing, technology can be the bridge that connects students and teachers, while setting the stage for a successful, albeit different, school year.

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