Education's Future is Already Here
It was a year ago that the decision came. My college decided we were going fully online. Maybe just for a few weeks: that was the nervous gossip amongst my friends and colleagues. But somehow I knew in my gut that the moment would prove to be monumental for the evolution of higher education.
Over the previous decades, US higher education had become unrealistically overpriced and inaccessible to many, bringing its value, relevance, and sustainability into question. With the sudden onset of the pandemic, the entire questionable system was spun into crisis mode, with college budgets quickly draining away. Out of crisis, however, new systems are being developed and exciting solutions are already evident.
Now, a year later, while still a Professor of Psychology at my college, I am proud to be part of a fast-growing venture-backed startup, InSpace Proximity. InSpace is a virtual communication and collaboration platform that mimics the social cues of a traditional classroom. When we were forced to go online a year ago, Zoom and Google Meets constrained our ability to be effective educators and learners. These generalist web-conferencing tools put us in boxes and made us lazy. It allowed students to simply click in to class and tune-out – in extreme cases while walking the dog, driving, or shopping at the grocery store.
InSpace is an online environment where anything that can be performed in the traditional classroom can be achieved equally well. I’m the type of educator who expects and demands full engagement. Students come together in my class to create knowledge; I facilitate. I now have the tool to do all of this virtually.
Within InSpace I can open a large discussion room and ask my students to sit in a circle, just as I would in a traditional classroom. Students are free to move around; they have full agency and choice and the social cues and etiquettes of the traditional class have been brought back, thank goodness! If I want to lecture to a larger group from a stage, I have that choice. If I want to show a video clip to my class, we all gather around the screen in theatre type seating. If I want my students to have small group discussions, they can move themselves in to break-out spaces, where they can continue to stay in touch with one another visually while only working with the people within their closest proximity. You have to see it to believe it!
I can now be the passionate educator I was pre-pandemic; whatever experience I can create non-virtually, I can now create virtually. That’s a game-changer! InSpace is now within 150 educational institutions and quickly growing. But, will this all come to a crashing end post-pandemic? Most definitely not! Instead, I argue that educators like myself and a platform such as InSpace are collaboratively building the educational future that is already here.
Online education is transforming at an extreme pace. Today’s pedagogy screams for effective use of both asynchronous and synchronous learning moments. Learning platforms such as WebCT and Canvas made asynchronous learning possible and became last decade’s vehicle for online education. But online education in that format lacks human connection, which is why it never fully caught on. We are now already effectively blending asynchronous online teaching with synchronous remote face-to-face meetings. In Zoom or Google Meets, the synchronous meetings fall totally flat. However, done in InSpace and suddenly high-quality face-to-face virtual learning becomes reality!
But how do students respond to this form of learning innovation? We asked hundreds of students what they love the most about their InSpace educational experience. They told us that with InSpace they felt more engaged than they had since the beginning of the pandemic and that no other virtual tool came as close to emulating the pre-pandemic traditional classroom experience.
Yet, so much is still to come. In the near future, envision how machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual realities will lead us to an educational market where a virtual or hybrid virtual/traditional education may even supersede the traditional one in terms of quality, cost-of-delivery, and access. Embedded virtual AI bots can assist students to be more effective, giving them a litany of new tools to use while providing learning performance data to educators, assisting them to pivot better to their students’ needs.
Augmented and virtual realities can break down geographical barriers. Envision some students sitting in person in a traditional classroom, while others join seamlessly from remote locations for synchronous learning. Not only is this an equity issue, allowing students from all over the country and world to gain access, but it's also the solution for colleges and universities that have out priced the value of their on-campus education and now find themselves in financial crisis.
Flexibility is the only way out of the crisis for higher education. Flexibility and choice in educational delivery is what will drive new student markets from all over the world. The higher education institutions that get this and act now will survive and even thrive. The ones that choose to wait or are late to enthusiastically adapt to the ongoing educational revolution will find themselves nothing more than a relic in the eyes of future historians.