Toward the Virtual Classroom: New Teaching and Learning Technologies in Higher Education

New information communications have emerged and this has drastically changed many facets of human life, and is altering existing in ways unprecedented in the history of humanity.

Over the past several years, society has witnessed considerable changes in the way education is delivered, and the landscape is constantly changing, with the impact of the new pandemic. No aspect of higher education will remain untouched by innovations being put in place to deal with the impact of COVID-19 in education. The emergence of these new technologies have made it possible for new ways of delivering educational content. And a number of institutions have invested significant resources in these technologies.

Today, virtual learning environments are widespread and used by most academic institutions around the world.  While these technologies have been described as disruptive in some circles, since they disrupt established practices and displace dominant, incumbent technologies, others have described them as sustaining technologies since they enhance the performance of established technologies. These new technologies, whether disruptive or sustaining are having a clear and positive impact on higher education provision.

For example, we’ve seen the replacement of old manual library catalogs with computer terminals; digital and virtual libraries have either replaced or complemented physical libraries; faculty offices have been computerized; and instructional technologies using LCD projectors and smartboards have replaced old teaching devices such as the chalk and the blackboard.

Today, the term virtual education or online learning has come to supplement the conventional brick and mortar educational system. And the term virtual university is used to describe tertiary institutions offering online courses. The continually improving reputation of online learning has also helped fuel its expansion, as initial skepticism has faltered in the face of mounting evidence that shows that online learning can be just as effective as face-to-face education.

These innovations have altered the four-walled notion of the classroom, and have put education within the reach of many individuals around the world. These new technologies and approaches to education are already having a clear and positive impact on higher education provision as educational resources from around the globe become more freely accessible and more interactive media for learning are employed.

Three main trends have emerged with the advent of new learning technologies. First is the emergence of new educational and classroom tools that facilitate new ways of course delivery; second is the emergence of new educational systems to supplement and complement the traditional teaching model; and third is the shift in pedagogy in teaching and learning.

New learning technologies have been classified under the rubric of online collaboration tools. These are tools that allow students and instructors to share documents online, edit them in real time and project them on a screen. A good example is Google Apps, a suite of cloud computing productivity and collaboration software tools that includes Google’s popular web applications such as Gmail, Google Drive, Google Hangouts, Google Calendar, and Google Docs. Another is Wrike, a tool that creates a collaborative workspace where team members can share tasks, files, and ideas. Other examples online collaboration tools are Slack, Yammer, Trello, Red Pen, Basecamp, BeeCanvas.

Presentation tools enable instructors to embed high-resolution photographs, diagrams, videos and sound files to augment text and verbal lecture content. Good examples are PowerPoint and Prezi.

Electronic readers are portable electronic devices designed primarily for the purpose of reading digital books and periodicals. They enable students and instructors to communicate through text, drawings and diagrams. Good examples are the Barnes and Nobles Nook, the Kobo, Apple ipad, the Amazon Kindle, Sony, the Samsung Galaxy, and others. The emergence of e-readers have had an impact on the textbook. It is vanishing, as least in its traditional form.

Course or learning management systems allow instructors to organize all the resources students need for a class (e.g. syllabi, assignments, readings, online quizzes), provide valuable grading tools, and create spaces for discussion, document sharing, and video and audio commentary. They can be proprietary or open source. Good examples of proprietary LMS are Blackboard, WebCT, D2L, Canvas and others. Examples of open source LMSs are Moodle, Sakai, Latitude Learning, Schoology, Google Classroom, Openclass, Kornukopia, and others.

Clickers are small handheld devices used in the classroom to collect student responses to interactive tests and quizzes. It is also known by names such as personal response system, student performance system, classroom performance system, classroom communication system, audience response system or an interactive response system. This is great for instant polling, which can quickly assess students’ understanding and help instructors adjust pace and content.

Lecture capture tools enable instructors to record lectures directly from their computer, without elaborate or additional classroom equipment. Good examples are Google Hangouts, Panopto, the Camtesian tools developed by Techsmith, and Kaltura capture tools.

Social media tools, a group of Internet-based applications that build on the foundations of web 2.0. are increasingly being used by people to promote social interactions, collaboration, sharing of resources and media, advance professional development, and others. The list is endless. There are microblogging tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Podcast, Blogs, and others.  The availability of these educational tools have given rise to new ways of delivering education which has led to the emergence of new educational models.

Albert Einstein once said that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Current needs suggest that we must learn to view the world and therefore education, in a new way. Change is a threat to established order. But, those who fail to use the technologies of their day to advance their development will be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Osei Darkwa, Ph.D.

Visiting Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

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