TRENDS IN HIGHER EDUCATION

“Those relationships are as much a part of the educational process as the classes,”
Lessiter added.

College campuses long have been regarded as breeding grounds for disruptions in technology and culture. Today, many colleges and universities are finding the coronavirus pandemic to be a disputer all its own.

The pandemic forced colleges and universities to rethink how classes are taught, said Dr. Julie Lessiter, vice chancellor of strategic initiatives at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

“I would say that the one big thing coming out of COVID and the changes in higher education is updating technology in the classroom and being able to update the pedagogue — how we teach,” she said. “It’s been painful, but it’s a positive outcome.”

Louisiana Tech has gone through a similar transformation, said Dr. Donna Johnson, Deputy Chief Innovation Officer.

At the beginning of the pandemic, La. Tech saw the biggest impact on its Tech Barksdale offerings at Barksdale Are Force Base.

“Not only did we have to abide by university protocols for the pandemic, we had to overlap with base protocols as well,” Johnson said.

Tech shifted all face-to-face classes on online modality at Tech Barksdale, as well as the Bossier City campus and the main campus in Ruston. Tech adopted two approaches to online teaching. The first was a synchronous modality, where students logged in at a prescribed time and participated in class lectures, discussions, assignments and tests. The second was an asynchronous modality, in which students could access information in more of an on-demand style.

The asynchronous modality was possible, Johnson said, because La. Tech already had a Learning Management System in place, where course materials could be uploaded and accessed.

“We were able to start using more of the tools in our toolbox,” Johnson said. “While we had those tools, not everyone was using them pre-pandemic.”

Lessiter said higher education is just one area where COVID has accelerated the use of technology in our everyday life.

“We no longer go to the bank or go to the store,” she said. “We do it on the phone. Even going to a restaurant is different. Education is the same.”

She said one of the first hurdles that had to be crossed was understanding what constituted “online learning.”

“There was a huge misconceptions about online learning in the past,” she said. “There was this notion that a teacher would put PowerPoint slides on a page with voiceover. That’s not online learning at all.”

From the outset of the pandemic, as learning shifted from in-person to virtual environments, LSUS invested money and personnel in training the faculty how to teach online, Lessiter said. One of the ways La. Tech addresses training issues was to implement the Q&A Cafe for faculty members to get their questions about teaching in an online environment answered, Johnson said.

The key, Lessiter said, is the notion of active learning, regardless of the environment. It has involved embracing some new methods.

“It’s how students learn nowadays,” Lessiter said. “It used to be a teach lectures and students take notes. But this generation is on their phones all the time, watching short videos and other active learning. We’re able to incorporate that in the classroom.”

In addition to active learning, building community is another factor of higher education that has changed in the wake of the pandemic, Lessiter said. Regardless of the platform — in-person, online or a hybrid model — providing an opportunity to engage with students remains critical. she said.

She sees it often in the library among students enrolled in the online MBA program.

“I see many students working together in person, in groups, who are taking online classes,” she said. “They are doing out-of-class assignments together. It’s neat to see.”

Those relationships are as much a part of the educational process as the classes, Lessiter added.

“It’s the value of bringing people together,” she said. “Learning how to communicate, how to disagree and work through it. It’s the soft-skill part that we pride ourselves on teaching. You can do it online, but it’s easier in a face-to-face setting.”

The rise of online and hybrid learning has opened the door to higher education for more people.

“It’s lowered the threshold for what’s achievable,” La. Tech’s Johnson said. “It’s removed the barriers of space and time that exist. Where traditional students focus on their studies and the overall college experience, non-traditional students have competing priorities. Now we can bring learning to non-traditional students so they can fit in with the other priorities in their lives.”

Lessiter said online learning models help people who were once intimidated by the college experience.

“I have taught online and in the classroom,” she said. “A certain sort of person doesn’t feel comfortable speaking in a classroom. But they give rich, contextual conversation sitting behind a computer. It’s a personal preference.”

Johnson said La. Tech continues to proactively evaluate its online teaching opportunities and hone its processes, while continuing to recognize that there is more to college than classes.

“Louisiana Tech very much supports the traditional campus experience, which cannot be replicated online,” Johnson said. “We will always serve the traditional student. Now that we have gotten these new proficiencies, we can reach different type of student and serve a more diverse population.”

Johnson serves on a statewide task force for Complete LA, an initiative by the University of Louisiana system, under the direction of Dr. Jim Henderson, to help adults with some college experience complete their degree programs.

“Within the UL system, each institution has committed to meet the needs of non-traditional students in our state. Those students prefer the distance modality. I think what we will see is a more effective use of technology. I don’t see higher education as a whole forsaking the traditional campus experience. What we are going to see a trend in diversifying. This is an awesome opportunity to serve different students in different ways.”

These shifts are taking place on a larger scale and are here to stay, according to Steven Butschi, Head of Education at Google Cloud.

Butschi said in a recent article at the website Fierce Education that the “typical” college student no longer exists. Colleges and universities must continue to innovate to provide a better educational experience to the modern evolving college student.

“We will get more innovative and redefine how technology is used in higher education,” he said in the article. “Across departments, functional areas and classes, people will get better at managing/ using/storing data.”

Even before the pandemic disrupted campus life, LSUS was moving in the direction to create more active learning opportunities through it Collabratory. The Collabratory is an immersive learning space with a three-part mission:

• TO PROVIDE LSUS STUDENTS with the opportunity to engage in active learning and be exposed to the technology of today and the future.

• TO PROVIDE OUTREACH to K-12 students so they are exposed to technology of the future.

• TO PARTNER WITH LOCAL INDUSTRY so students are able to experience real-world working environments before they graduate.

“It’s an environment where students can come in and create,” Lessiter said. “They learn by doing. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a STEM field or an arts field. Technology is in every step of our lives, and it’s only going to dominate more and more.”

She said COVID has presented challenges in getting K-12 students bussed in to the Collabratory. LSUS is planning Super Saturday programs for children to use the 3-D printers and holographic technology to create.

“The ability to be creative is going to be a key skill,” Lessiter said. “We have to hone in on the creativity gene to have that next generation of creators.”