MARCI POWELL looks at the how digital and collaborative learning are transforming tertiary education in New Zealand and beyond.

It’s an exciting time to be a student or teacher living in New Zealand as digital technology is continuing to transform education as we know it, creating new learning opportunities for students and teachers alike. The roll-out of ultra-fast broadband (UFB) is well underway, with the education sector being given priority status by the Government. Innovative technology solutions in visual collaboration have also brought enormous benefit and impact to education: sparking learning and global awareness, adding extra value to lessons, making content more absorbing for students, and encouraging intercultural and cross-border teamwork.

With technology advancing at a rapid pace, one of the challenges facing tertiary institutes is the need to stay ahead of the digital curve. Students are quick to embrace what’s new and expect the technology they use for personal interactions to be available in the lecture hall.

Recognising the need to help educators adapt to new teaching practices, The Mind Lab and Unitec Institute of Technology recently launched a new postgraduate qualification in digital and collaborative learning, the first of its kind in

New Zealand. Through the availability of innovative programmes like this, teachers can develop new digital skills, implement progressive teaching practices and gain the ability to transfer this knowledge directly into their teaching environment.

The collaborative classroom

Collaborative environments are online spaces — often cloud-based — where the focus is on making it easy to collaborate and work in groups, whether the students are in the same physical location or not. Class or project groups can assemble a collaborative workspace very quickly using widgets to pull information from a range of sources.

Collaborative learning is being further spurred by the integration of video into virtual classrooms. As a result of the growth in online and virtual education, video conferencing has become a key enabler for providing a richer, more flexible, and cost-efficient means to online learning.

Five key benefits of video collaboration in education

  1. Classroom experiences and learning opportunities are enhanced: students have the chance to participate in cross-cultural exchanges, speak other languages, interview subject-matter experts and participate in virtual field trips.
  2. Increased access to education: equity in access is achieved for students who are too ill to come to school or college, live remotely, or who are travelling. Campuses can also expand services to students and alumni by allowing greater enrollment and access to career services from any location.
  3. Student achievement is likely to improve: Students have the opportunity to practice skills they need in the workplace. Gartner Research reports that by 2015, 90 per cent of enterprise tablets will be video-enabled. Technology such as video collaboration in the workplace plays an important role in employee performance and productivity. In addition, students gain the applied skills employers need such as critical thinking, problem-solving and team work.
  4. Educators have more opportunity to participate in collaborative activities: participating in professional development workshops and seminars via video helps educators avoid having to take time off from class schedules to travel. This allows more instructors to take advantage of additional training, saving campuses money in travel and lodging costs.
  5. Distance-learning is improved: one of the best reasons to launch a distance education initiative is to increase access to courses and programmes, particularly when meeting the needs of an underserved population. Students enrolled in distance-learning courses can benefit through virtual and interactive face-to-face encounters, rather than just being text-based. This increases engagement and participation.

Creating educational equity for all

Because of the increase in the ability to access education over video, we can now provide educational equity to students in even the most remote locations. Not only are courses now becoming more accessible, other applications such as student services, coaching, virtual office hours, interviewing, recruitment, administrators and staff are also highly mobile. The availability of distance learning through video conferencing has widened the subject choices available to students. In many cases, this has led to the retention of students who might have otherwise left home to study elsewhere.

Overcoming first time jitters

For those taking the leap into video collaboration in the classroom for the first time it may seem overwhelming. Here are some common video collaboration challenges and tips for getting the most out of the experience:

  1. Sharing content – with the right video conferencing solution e.g. high- definition you can see all the participants clearly, plus share content with them anytime, anywhere – all in real time.
  2. Full participation – video collaboration features eye contact and non-verbal cues, encouraging everyone to collaborate and contribute as if they are in the same room.
  3. Getting everyone in front of the whiteboard – choose a video collaboration solution that allows everyone in your meeting to brainstorm and annotate directly on your content in real-time.
  4. Being a good host – full participation is easier when you use video collaboration and content sharing technology that lets you see everyone you’ve invited to a meeting while also viewing and annotating on the content.

Video collaboration within the flipped classroom

We are also seeing greater flexibility in the way education is delivered over video with flipped classrooms gaining in popularity. In a flipped classroom environment, instruction is delivered by on-demand video and online content at home; while the classroom time is reserved for activity-based ‘homework’ and practice. For example, when I teach, I normally teach from one campus to four others using video. I use a virtual meeting room to connect all campuses and can then share and receive content remotely.

First, we all join the meeting in what I call the “big classroom”. Embracing the idea of flipped learning, students will have already viewed my pre-recorded lecture prior to coming to class. This ensures that face-to-face time can be spent in a problem-based learning environment. Students then go into their collaborative student groups for 20-30 minutes to work using their own devices, such as tablets or laptops to join their assigned meeting room. If they need me to facilitate or answer questions, they use Microsoft Lync to message me and I visit their online meeting room. After the allotted time, we all meet back in the “big classroom” to discuss outcomes.

As for class time, instead of only sharing content, my students and I share, annotate and collaborate with the content using touch screen interactive whiteboard technology. Sessions are also recorded for absentees.

What does the future hold?

Globally, I believe its students who are pushing educators to be more innovative and forward thinking in the way they teach and how students learn. People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want. As New Zealand moves forward, higher education will become increasingly mobile, resulting in students carrying their university in their pockets.

Campuses will still exist as places of teaching and learning, research, community engagement, and varied forms of student experience. But digital technologies will transform the way education is delivered and supported, and the way education is accessed in remote and regional areas. If universities are to be the future of education rather than relics of the past, they do not need to have a campus on every corner but, rather, be accessible wherever our learners are, at times and in forms to meet their learning, social and psychological needs.

Marci Powell is Polycom’s Global Director for Education Industry Solutions and Chair Emerita and Past President of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA). She began her career as a classroom teacher and has over 20 years’ experience in her field, with wide-ranging expertise in thought-leadership and strategic planning in the use of technology to address education needs.

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