The Technology Elements of an Effective Blended Learning Environment
When deployed effectively, the right hardware and software tools establish an engaging environment for students.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced colleges and universities to alter their practices, many have adopted blended learning approaches that incorporate both in-person and remote education.
On the instructional side, blended learning integrates online and face-to-face elements thoughtfully, using meaningful classroom interactions to complement students’ virtual work and interactions. On the technology side, software solutions, together with hardware components, are tightly integrated for ease of use and quality of content, both of which are essential to a seamless user experience.
Technologies that support blended learning connect members of a learning community virtually and facilitate a variety of learning modalities. When deployed and integrated effectively, they establish an engaging environment delivered through seamlessly interconnected hardware and software (PDF).
Devices such as tablets, laptops and phones are the primary delivery mode for online components of the blended learning course. Although many colleges have taken a BYOD approach to devices in the past, the expected expansion of online learning may lead them to take a more prescriptive approach in the future. This is partly an issue of digital equity: As students have attempted to work online during the pandemic, many have struggled with a lack of access to high-quality devices or difficulty in using their own devices to meet the demands of online instruction.
To ensure that all students receive the same quality of educational experience, some colleges have responded with loaner programs for devices or Wi-Fi hotspots. Others are moving to a structured-choice model, establishing the minimum specifications that students will need for a specific program and designating, for example, three devices from which to choose. Still others may adopt the one-to-one model used in K–12 education, particularly as Generation Z students begin college and bring with them years of experience with one-to-one programs.
Whichever route colleges take, they need to ensure that students’ devices are robust enough to support the additional demands of remote learning, including downloading and streaming videos, participating in synchronous class sessions, running specialized software and collaboration platforms, and maintaining security. If deploying devices to students or faculty, colleges need to consider what supports they will provide, such as prepackaged software, step-by-step setup instructions and support guides.
Colleges also need to consider the specific demands of individual departments or academic disciplines. As students move into advanced studies or compute-intensive programs, such as engineering, they may require devices that can handle specialized software or facilitate access through application or desktop virtualization.
Monitors, interactive whiteboards, cameras and audio equipment transform online instruction from a content-focused activity to an engaging, interactive experience. The ability for students and instructors to see, hear and speak with one another adds richness and connection that elevates the quality of instruction and creates a sense of community. In an EDUCAUSE survey, 70 percent of institutions said that most or all of their blended learning courses would support downloading and streaming of recorded classroom sessions, livestreaming and video capture of lectures and discussions, integration of classroom microphones, and video screens to show remote students.
In classrooms, high-quality cameras and microphones enable remote students to see and hear what’s happening. Cameras are typically placed at the back of the room, so as not to obstruct the views of in-person students. On devices, web cameras bring students and instructors together in the virtual space.
For instructors who rely heavily on whiteboards, special cameras that attach to a whiteboard can capture, save and share images in real time through a videoconferencing or collaboration platform. Automated image enhancement allows viewers to see what the instructor is writing on the whiteboard without the instructor blocking the view.
Although instructors may be teaching in a classroom, they often create content for asynchronous sessions from their offices. Here, too, they require high-quality recording equipment, particularly as video has become a primary source of course content. Students must be able to see and hear the instructor easily. Recordings also must be easy for faculty to incorporate into the learning management system (LMS) or collaboration platform, and simple for students to access.
Software for blended learning encompasses learning management systems, videoconferencing and collaboration platforms, video recording software and institution-specific software. Integration among these solutions, particularly between an LMS and a meeting platform, is a critical task for IT.
Learning management systems are feature-rich solutions that serve as the administrative hub for a course. Instructors post schedules, assignments and grades here, and students submit assignments and post in forums with classmates. Often, the LMS supports third-party integrations — the better the integration between the meeting platform and the LMS, the better the user experience will be, and the less work for students and instructors.
To optimize integration, colleges should review and streamline the collaboration tools in use on campus, with the goal of increasing consistency where it makes sense to do so. In 2020, particularly as colleges hastily stood up platforms in the spring, users may have created ad hoc solutions that do not integrate well with a school’s LMS or are not used consistently across departments. The more disparate the systems in use, the greater the burden on faculty, students and IT staff.
Finally, some colleges may incorporate adaptive learning software into blended learning curricula, personalizing the learning experience for each student by customizing content according to their individual progress through a course.
Colleges must have adequate infrastructure to support blended learning: networking, compute, storage and security. With more students accessing systems remotely, IT staff should evaluate network size and use to determine whether they need to increase bandwidth — or, perhaps, decrease it. Institutions should also clarify the storage parameters governing cloud-based resources, such as virtual meetings and online materials.
As a cost-saving strategy, many colleges are reassessing their Software as a Service agreements to increase standardization, eliminate redundancies and ensure that users are fully leveraging all the features of available licenses. On the back end, Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service solutions have proved to be valuable for many institutions, making it much easier to shift to and manage large-scale remote instruction.
Colleges should also evaluate their endpoint management and security strategies, together with network security, through the lens of remote learning, ensuring that students and faculty have the access they need without compromising sensitive data.
Want to learn more about how CDW can help you enable flexible learning? Read the white paper “Building Out Blended Learning Environments for Higher Education” from CDW.