How the integration of new technology is changing the higher education landscape

How the integration of new technology is changing the higher education landscape
Source: Shutterstock

We are living in exciting times. Technology is rapidly-evolving, with buzzwords such as virtual reality, blockchain, automation and big data circulating in the news and on social media. The cutting-edge future depicted in popular shows and media such as The Jetsons, Futurama and Back to the Future may be closer than we realise.

Several universities in certain countries have been quick to take on these new technological advancements, for both educational and administrative purposes.

Here are some exciting ways universities are integrating advanced new technologies, and the positive results that have stemmed from it.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is not just for gaming, and is proving very popular in schools and universities alike. These immersive technologies have immense potential to simulate real life experiences.

For example, Anatomage Table creates virtual cadavers that allow medical students to practice their skills in a safe, digital enviroment.

This ‘virtual dissection table’ is a big feature of the J and K Virtual Reality Learning Center at the Western University of Health Sciences, which allows students to learn about anatomical functions by moving layers of virtual tissue to view more than 300 anatomical visualizations, created using scans of real patients and cadavers.

The virtual dissection table, which allows students to practice in a safe environment. Source: What’s Up at Upstate

Universities on the other side of the globe have been quick to adopt emerging technologies. In China, students at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine are being immersed in a three-dimensional human body marked with acupoints and meridian pathways.

The innovative programme, launched in May last year, teaches students the traditional technique of acupunture using virtual reality (VR). Professor Cheng Kai, said the system, BodyMap – developed by Augmented Intelligence in the American state of Virginia – can be used both on-campus and remotely.

He said, “There’s a very high level of requirement for precision in acupuncture teaching. For example, there’s an acupoint called jinming, which is situated very near the optic nerve. Needling this acupoint carries a certain danger [if the practitioner does not grasp the precise depth and angle for the insertion of the needle]. The VR learning system is a big improvement on traditional acupuncture teaching based on two-dimensional images and the use of real people as models.”

Medical students use VR goggles and a gaming controller at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine to learn acupunture. Source: SCMP

Besides using virtual reality for experiental learning purposes, it can also be useful for faculty and staff.
To address complaints from pre-service teachers who haven’t gained much classroom experience, researchers at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York are using VR to create an interactive and authentic classroom environment where teachers can practice teaching.

Richard Lamb, a researcher and Associate Professor and Director of the Neurocognition Science Laboratory, said that although VR training isn’t a replacement for actual classroom experience, it’s a great way to build confidence in pre-service teachers by preparing them for realistic classroom situations.

Using a VR headset and 360-degree videos, created with help from Crosswater Digital Media, VR-Teach simulates difficult student behaviors in the classroom, where  teachers enter a virtual classroom and face a range of common classroom challenges, such as students yelling or playing on their phones. Afterwards, teachers discuss the choices they made in handling these situations.

Virtual teaching assistants 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the talk of the town in the tech world, but many are yet to grasp the full potential of this complex and rapidly-growing field.

But we all already use it in our daily lives – in search engines, predictive e-mails, virtual assistants (like Siri and Alexa), mobile banking, chatbots, and even those ads that pop up on your Facebook and seem to know what you’ve been browsing for.

Simply put, AI is the simulation of human intelligence processes by computer systems. These processes encompass learning (the acquisition of information and rules for using the information), reasoning (using rules to reach approximate or definite conclusions) and self-correction.

Universities are using AI in interesting ways. For example, AI tutoring is being tested by several universities worldwide, helping students get the help and guidance they require when professors must attend to hundreds of students in a single lecture hall.

New AI-based, individualised learning tools are enhancing student learning, such as  ALEKS, an adaptive, artificially-intelligent learning system that provides students with an personalised learning experience tailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses; and Bayesian Knowledge Tracing, which uses algorithms to monitor the user’s knowledge and adapt accordingly to help them master the subject.

Socratic, a digital tutor app that uses AI to help students. Source: Emerging Ed Tech

Some institutions have already tested it out, with positive results. At Clemson University, the pass rate for a math course increased from 45 to 70 percent after the AI software was introduced, according to a case study conducted by ALEKS.

“ALEKS allows you to focus on instruction and meeting the individual needs of your students while allowing the burden of assessment to fall on ALEKS,” said Eliza Gallagher, Assistant Professor of Maths at Clemson.

Using analytics to keep tabs on student progress

Predictive data analytics have been around for some time, but the education industry is now understanding how to capitalize this practice in a way that truly defines the college learning experience, according to Brian Rowe, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Perceivant.

“While for many a college degree may be the golden ticket to a better job, this incentive alone isn’t enough to stop millions from dropping out of school or delaying graduation,” he writes. “In fact, some universities are experiencing freshman retention rates as low as 47 percent.”

“On top of the incredibly high dropout rate, the affordability of college continues to be scrutinized. This has put universities under intense pressure to demonstrate a tangible return on investment for students and their parents. The answer to this predicament is a practice called predictive analytics.”

Purdue University has successfully used data analytics through its system ‘Course Signals’, which helps predict academic and behavioral issues among the student population.

The system gives notifications to both students and teachers when action is required to help them reach their potential, stay on track and decrease school dropout rates.

The Course Signals dashboard lets professors know how their students are doing at a glance. Source: Purdue University

Course Signals is able to gauge a student’s academic preparation, engagement, effort levels and academic performance at a given point in time by using predictive modeling and data mining. Then, it creates a ‘risk profile’ for students based on a traffic light system, with ‘red’ meaning that students are at risk of failing.

Course Signals has been in use since 2007, dramatically improving student performance and retention. According to the website, As and Bs have increased by as much as 28% in some courses. In most cases, the greatest improvement is seen in students who were initially receiving Cs and Ds in early assignments, and pull up half a letter grade or more to a B or C.”

These are just some examples of how students and educators are benefiting from embracing new technologies for higher education.

As newer technologies lik 5G become a reality, and current technologies like cloud computing and blockchain further evolve, they will become even faster and more accessible, giving more universities on all corners of the globe the chance to experiment with tech in the classroom.

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