Will Evans, Director at Performance Networks

Will #virtual learning go viral after the pandemic passes? 

The further education industry has been through a period of radical change in the last few months. Innovation has never been more prevalent, and those that have delayed making technology changes may be feeling the burn right now.

The sudden closure of university campuses has caused the mass virtual delivery of many courses. While there are teething problems, those which are better prepared have been able to make the transition far more smoothly. 

Will Evans, Director at Performance Networks, looks at recent successes and draws on findings from their recent State of Education whitepaper, to explore what changes universities can expect. 

Flexibility will become harder to ignore

The Jisc Digital Student Experience report surveys students from 50 UK institutions. When they were asked what good looks like to them, many answers were digital-related, including virtual classrooms, interactive lectures and course-specific apps. Distance and online-learning offers students the flexibility to combine their studies with work and other commitments.

While we’re embracing a more flexible approach to work-life, it’s going to become increasingly harder for universities to ignore the benefits of offering a similar approach to students, especially now the technology has shown it can be done. Once the immediate health threat passes, it’s clear that there needs to be more progression.

EXAMPLE:  Aberystwyth University

The cosmopolitan town in Wales comes in 71st place overall in the Complete University Guide. Yet, with a student satisfaction score of 4.24 (out of 5) it’s second in the UK for satisfaction. It’s hard to believe there isn’t a link between this and the fact that the institution has been praised for its widely available WiFi and its virtual learning environment. 

And on the site for the Welsh university, one of its core plans for the next few years is to continue to develop a virtual infrastructure and digital strategy.

Can’t make it to an Open Day? No problem

Aberystwyth is offering virtual tours of its campus, as future students are unable to attend the Open Days right now. This situation has caused many institutions to adapt and offer virtual tours of universities so people can see what it’s like on campus and what facilities are available. Sometimes it’s useful for people to drive to view what student life would be like in the city, but virtual technology is becoming more advanced, and many universities now offer 360-degree tours of not just campus, but also the city itself. 

Accommodation will also see a transformation. CityBlock, a national student accommodation provider, enables virtual 360-degree tours for prospective students, allowing them to view bedrooms and any other areas, such as gyms and communal spaces, before booking. Transitioning from the terrestrial age to the Netflix age is daunting, but CityBlock has made it far easier to do so. Their systems enable tenancy agreements to be made online or even on a smartphone, making no-contact relationships between landlords and tenants much easier right now, and in the future facilitates less travel for students. 

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Security threats will increase

As universities bring their learning online, cybercriminals can increase their efforts to take advantage of those who may have poor security. With a large number of people migrating to networks which are often unsecure and bypassing a VPN, hackers will spot an opportunity. 

Hackers have already been playing on the fear of what’s caused the change in working and learning - coronavirus-themed cyberattacks. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued warnings about attackers passing themselves off as the organisation. And Cisco has seen a 3.5x increase in malware and 2x increase in ransomware in recent months. Universities can plan to tackle some of these challenges, with the most important being that of user education. Students will need to be up to date with the latest information on how to protect their software from being targeted by hackers, and the tell-tale signs of malware and ransomware. 

DNS-layer security will also be invaluable, providing the first line of defense against online threats to safely re-route users to a blocked page instead of an IP address which is associated with malicious activity. 

Competition will soar

There was already increased complexity in the education market, especially as universities compete with online learning institutions. But as the need for mobility increases after coronavirus passes, those that can offer students the best virtual experience may thrive. 

Technology quality has had a growing spotlight on it during coronavirus - nobody wants to be the person who drops out of a video call halfway through. Stable networks will be just as important as a desirable offering. Expectations of the quality of your WiFi and network will rise. If you offer virtual learning but your Halls of Residence have poor WiFi, word can quickly spread. Those that thrive in this time will be seen and heard, but so will those who fail to deliver. It’s important to listen to your customers, who are the students. 

Just like those who have been hesitant to work from home are seeing that it can work, students are also seeing the benefits of being able to learn virtually. We all like to have a choice, and your students are able to make the choice between campus and virtual learning, it’s likely to make your university experience far more appealing.  Where before, universities only had to compete with each other in terms of the leaderboard for course quality, there are now many more aspects to appeal to students. 

Will Evans, Director at Performance Networks

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