Enrollment in higher education may be declining, but the number of students participating in distance learning continues to rise. According to a study by the Babson Survey Research Group, enrollments of distance learners increased for the 14th straight year in 2016. More than 6 million college students – 31.6 percent of the total – now take at least one distance education course. At the same time, more than 1 million fewer students now study on a physical campus, a drop of 6.4 percent between 2012 and 2016.
For full-time and part-time students, whether they’re enrolled in four-year or two-year programs, taking online courses is now embedded in the learning equation. And today’s distance learning involves much more than signing into a web meeting or using a course management system. That’s because today’s students – often adults older than 25 – must be able to balance work and school and to collaborate via voice, messaging and video — often in real-time and regardless of the device they own.
Go where the learners are
With digital landscape changing so rapidly, colleges must deploy communications technology that enables learners to connect and collaborate no matter where they are—working at home on a desktop, communicating via mobile devices or holding conference calls with other students who may live a mile, or 2,000 miles, away.
The new classroom. Colleges are re-imagining classroom design to offer more flexible technology. Learners need to connect their own devices easily to access cloud-based institutional resources and interact with data-rich content like video. That means dependable Wi-Fi is a must, as are classrooms with flexible furniture, display equipment and plenty of power outlets.
“As teaching delivery models have evolved, so have the spaces needed for learning. A traditional lecture hall, for example, may sit empty while professors hold court in smaller classrooms that facilitate collaborative and interactive learning,” observed JLL higher education practice leaders David Houck and Kevin Wayer in Education Dive.
Mobile integration. In order for learners to collaborate across multiple devices, schools need communications technology that supports mobile applications. With unified communications (UC), APIs are used to connect diverse software and enable any mobile device to connect via the cloud, so students can work with instructors and with each other, sharing files and collaborating on group projects.
Augmented and virtual reality learning tools operate via mobile applications, too, and give students access to more information in real-time while increasing engagement.
Higher education also uses mobile apps to engage distance learners and help them feel like they’re part of the community. “The rise of non-traditional students will force colleges to think outside the box and use technology to deliver a comprehensive student experience,” commented Mariana Cavalcanti, vice president of user experience at Ellucian, in Education Dive. “With more non-traditional students coming to two- and four-year schools, colleges will need to use mobile technology to keep them engaged and learning.”
It involves more than just online classes, however. “Colleges will need to recreate the campus experience through apps and other technology that allows the non-traditional student to feel a part of the university community,” Cavalcanti added.
Collaboration across geography. With the power of unified communications and API integration, students on all campuses connect using the same web-based platform. Whether it’s a course management system like Blackboard or a virtual learning environment, students at micro-campuses in distant cities learn together across the globe. The University of Arizona, for example, partners with schools in other countries to deliver degree programs to local students. Using the cloud, students dial-in for real-time video and audio learning.
UC helps you compete for students
For institutions of higher education, the ability to offer distance learning to every type of student – from the traditional on-campus community to adult learners juggling professional careers – creates a competitive advantage. As the population of students studying on physical campuses shrinks, schools that innovate and create new learning spaces, both on campus and in the cloud, will be more likely to succeed.