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Four ways universities can future-proof education

The COVID crisis sparked invention for universities. Now they must hold on to the best of those changes and forge new frontiers.

The COVID crisis sparked invention for universities. Now they must hold on to the best of those changes and forge new frontiers. Image: Imperial College

Alice Gast
President, Imperial College London
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • The COVID-19 crisis accelerated changes that were on the horizon for universities, stepping up research and moving teaching online.
  • Now they must hold on to the best of those changes, and forge new frontiers.
  • Embracing technology will allow universities to reach more people, but personalization and human interaction are important, too.

Universities dealt with the pandemic crisis by accelerating changes that were on the horizon. Now as we look forward, we must keep the best of these changes and forge ahead with new frontiers. When much of the world went into lockdown, universities stepped up research and moved teaching online. The crisis spurred invention and brought new ways of teaching and learning, innovative new ideas and advances in technologies. Many changes will stay with us as we modernize our on-campus learning.

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Here are four things I believe universities must do to stay relevant and provide the education needed in the century ahead:

1. Embrace technology

The pace of digital transformation in the last two years has been breathtaking and we’ve seen some really creative ways of harnessing technology to continue delivering education despite these challenging times. As the Financial Times recently reported, hybrid learning 'has changed the art of the possible' and students’ expectations have grown.

For example, when COVID strikes, medical students are forbidden from the patient wards. How can medical students learn if not taking part in hospital rounds? New technology such as the Microsoft HoloLens, a holographic device that can stream a live video feed, enables medical students to “be there” with clinicians and patients. The mixed-reality technology also enables the clinical live stream to be supplemented visually with digital information, such as the patient’s drug charts and treatment information or radiographs, which can be superimposed as holograms onto the environment.

Previously, ward rounds could only accommodate a few students, and content was heavily dependent on the nature of the cases that had been admitted to the ward. Using the headset, the teachers can now deliver real-world sessions to hundreds of students all over the world.

Two students working in the virtual reality room, Imperial College
Two students working in the virtual reality room, Imperial College. Image: Imperial College

As borders around the world closed during the height of the pandemic, how could students take field trips? Here at Imperial, we put on a number of virtual field trips which have taken our students to places not accessible during the pandemic. These were in fact pioneered before the pandemic with geology lessons from the surface of Mars.

During one virtual trip to the Pyrenees, students interpreted high-resolution photographs, Google Earth, and drone-scanned virtual models of geological formations. There were some unexpected advantages of conducting a field trip in this way, such as the detailed photo panoramas enabling students to observe more detail than they would have been able to in the field. We have a much better understanding now of how these virtual and digital methods can enhance the way that students can interact with physical environments and experiences.

2. Optimize human interaction

The ‘flipped classroom’ is here to stay. Recorded traditional lectures are one resource in an array of material for students to learn from. While they are useful for students to review in their own time and at own pace, they will not completely replace in-person time. The time students and teacher spend together is precious and can focus on probing questions, finding areas needing more clarity and having meaningful discussions and dialogue.

It’s also vital that students continue to learn through hands-on experiences and not just absorb information passively. One of the biggest challenges of COVID-19 restrictions was finding a way for students to carry out practical work without attending campus. A group of innovative students and staff at Imperial developed ‘Lab in a Box' experiments for home study that were delivered to a student's front door. The experiments, which try to match the experience of a real lab, introduce an element of flexibility and accessibility to our teaching which could hardly have been imagined a few short years ago. Building an interferometer, with guidance, but on your own, is a challenging and rewarding learning experience.

As we put more of the learning and doing into students’ hands, they will engage with enthusiasm and excitement.

3. Personalize content

Online learning provides unprecedented opportunities to use data analytics to understand individual learning and to tailor education for that learning. We see this already in language apps such as Duolingo, which use artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict which areas of vocabulary users need to spend more time practising and adjusting their lessons accordingly. This can be applied to other areas of learning and content can be adapted to evolve with the learner much more quickly.

Combining online lectures with interactive elements such as polls or questions, with informed, tailored personalized support can accelerate learning. As data reveals content that students find most challenging, the lecturer, tutors, and teaching algorithms can focus instruction in these key areas to improve learning outcomes.

Volunteers from Imperial College made PPE for healthcare workers
Volunteers from Imperial College made PPE for healthcare workers. Image: Imperial College

4. Reach more people

The pandemic crisis has revealed the benefits of being able to reach a much larger audience through technology. In early 2020, just weeks after the novel coronavirus was first observed, a group of leading public health experts and epidemiologists at the Jameel Institute launched an online COVID-19 course. The course enrolled more than 140,000 people around the world as they learned how to gain a deeper understanding of Covid-19 and its spread.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

As one of the world’s most international universities, we had students studying remotely and across multiple time zones during the strict lockdowns of 2020. In response, we piloted a 24-hour virtual classroom designed to relieve the difficulty experienced by some students of not being able to engage online at specific times due to their time zone, home environment or connectivity. We must continue this and use technology to broaden our reach.

The world’s population is shifting, and in 20 years’ time, our students will be coming from different places than they are now. We expect to see increasing demand for higher education from students in places such as India and Africa and it is becoming much easier to reach those students and make further learning more equitable.

Combining our use of technology, optimizing our human interactions and personalizing our instruction will allow us to stay relevant and in demand through the changes ahead.

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