Jan van Houtte, Director Learning Experience, at Barco

Distance learning has taken a huge leap forward in the past decade with the evolution of tech-aided solutions. Even before the Covid-19 lockdown, there was an increasing demand for virtual courses, largely stimulated by professionals seeking up- or cross-skilling opportunities and overseas students. Now, as Governments begin to ease restrictions, academic institutes and business schools can begin to imagine how educational needs and delivery might further evolve in the post-pandemic era.

With face-to-face teaching suspended during the enforced closure, many universities and institutions turned to technology to provide the vehicle by which to continue to deliver education, support and guidance to their students. These largely positive experiences, using digital tools to connect and communicate, have triggered a renewed interest in whether technology could and should play a far greater role in the future provision of education.

Over the next few months, universities and business schools will be consulting with staff about what comes next as individual safely is of paramount concern. However, many have already recognised that the challenges presented during lockdown are similar to those facing educational bodies in the near future: a need for more remote interaction to accommodate both the impact of Covid-19 and the rising number of international students and mid-career professionals pursuing distance learning courses. Teaching organisations are also acknowledging that quickly advancing technologies, with the power to create compelling virtual teaching environments, now have the ability to deliver targeted learning opportunities to far wider audiences around the world where specialist tutors may have ordinarily been inaccessible or in short supply, creating valuable new revenue streams.

Many educational institutions are also considering the benefits of introducing a hybrid teaching model where students spend part of their time interacting within a physical classroom environment, while the remainder is undertaken within a virtual setting. This balance delivers valuable face-to-face engagement where a more ‘practical’ lesson approach is beneficial, combined with the flexibility to continue sessions remotely to enable students to fulfil other career and personal commitments. The virtual technology also creates opportunities for guest speakers and educators from anywhere in the world to connect with students, meaning that access to specialist expertise or training is no longer limited by physical location.

Learning and development has the power to improve career prospects and has become a lifelong endeavour. But work commitments, family obligations or geographical locations can be a barrier to attending physical classes. So, many more students and professionals from myriad industries and specialisms are choosing to develop their potential by joining virtual programmes.

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As distance learning becomes more popular, learning sessions must endeavour to deliver a more engaging, collaborative and emotionally fulfilling experience for participants. People are social by nature and need emotional cues to encourage curiosity and an openness to new ideas and concepts. Their thirst for knowledge is stimulated when they share learning experiences in a fully interactive setting with peers and educators. More traditional forms of remote learning, reliant on conventional forms of digital communication, such as email, conference calls and one-way video presentations, limits students’ ability to interact as a group. The ‘read and learn’ structure reduces mental stimulation and often produces a mediocre learning experience.

In response, there is a growing interest in technology solutions that offer synchronous learning where peers and teachers actively engage with each other in a collaborative, real-time, virtual environment. This demand was one of the reasons Barco developed its weConnect virtual classroom solution. Using an in-classroom video wall and audio-visual streaming tools, the teacher is able to communicate with students individually or as a group and take part in a true two-way dialogue during sessions. As a result, remote participants engage and collaborate in ‘real-time’ with their peers and teachers, much in the same way they would in a physical classroom, while being able to ‘virtually’ access specialist tuition from any academic institution of their choice, located anywhere in the world.

The University College London (UCL), for instance, has recognised the virtues of an interactive virtual classroom to teach its international medical students.

Using Barco’s weConnect solution, UCL’s Division of Surgery and Interventional Science is able to offer remote, real-time teaching to students from 150 countries around the world. UCL saw that with the recent spread of Covid-19 and the increasing need to connect with international students and tutors across Europe, the Americas and Asia, it needed to seek a more collaborative technology solution to expediate its virtual lecture programme. Working within the virtual classroom environment has enabled participants to overcome current travel restrictions whilst benefiting from highly specialised medical training, otherwise unavailable.

As the world enters a time of huge economic and societal uncertainty, it may be tempting for educational bodies to consider suspending investment. But this period should be viewed as an opportunity to rethink how technology can enhance educational opportunities and generate new income through attractive new offers for previous untapped markets. Universities and academic institutes should look at ways to build technology into their delivery strategies to provide superior virtual learning experiences for students who may not be able to travel at this time or wish to remotely upskill to improve their career prospects in an increasingly competitive job market. That same technology will also deliver the agility and flexibility to remain ‘open for business’ should there be further waves of the pandemic.

Jan van Houtte, Director Learning Experience, at Barco

Barco designs technology to enable bright outcomes around the world. Seeing beyond the image, we develop visualization and collaboration solutions to help you work together, share insights, and wow audiences. Our focus is on three core markets: Enterprise (from meeting, classroom and control rooms to corporate spaces), Healthcare (from the radiology department to the operating room), and Entertainment (from movie theatres to live events and attractions). In 2019, we realised sales of 1.083 billion euro. We have a global team of 3,600 employees, whose passion for technology is captured in 400 granted patents.

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