What You Should Know About the Technology Behind Virtual Learning
Online Education. Distance Learning. Virtual Classroom.
These terms have become part of our vernacular due to the major impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s entire educational system, from pre-school through post-secondary education. With the shutdown of bricks and mortar K-12 schools and higher education in March 2020, instruction was essentially only available online – and most likely to occur from the student’s home. As school systems, colleges and universities across the country begin the 2020-2021 school year, the mode of instruction varies from total online education, to hybrid models with partial in-person and partial online, to complete reopening of bricks and mortar schools. However, driven by the influence of technology on every industry sector and on how we navigate our personal day-to-day lives, distance/virtual/online learning has for many years been a critical and increasingly central component of how children, youth and adults are educated. Greater Baltimore’s education technology industry has emerged as a leader in the development and application of these ‘EdTech’ tools that support life-long learning, beginning with early childhood.
Technology has been reshaping education in ways that in large part have become the norm. Many colleges and universities have long incorporated online courses into the curriculum, particularly programs that cater to graduate students, part-time students, and professionals seeking to change or advance their career. An example is the University of Maryland Global Campus (previously known as “University of Maryland University College”) which for decades has offered extensive course work online. ‘Blended learning’ is becoming increasingly common, with the use of electronic devices to support in-person, teacher-led instruction in and out of the classroom. This has facilitated the ability of instructors to move beyond older models of standardized learning to new models that are more creative, interactive and self-directed.
Additionally, while once it was primarily the instructor who held the key to imparting information with the support of books and hard-copy resource materials, today anyone with a mobile phone has access to an infinite amount of information that is often much more current than a textbook or reference book. Apps available on smart phones can aid instruction, particularly with the use of more engaging forms of learning such as videos, gaming, and augmented and virtual reality. Consequently, many educators see their role as expanding beyond primarily disseminating information to one that increasingly uses class time – whether bricks and mortar or virtual – to supervise self-directed instruction, encourage collaboration, personalize instruction and intervene with more directed instruction when the student is struggling.
Advances in technology challenge all industries with the need to continually educate, train and retrain those working in or hoping to establish a career in those industries. The education industry is no different, and education technology provides the means to assist instructors in meeting learning goals while making learning meaningful and rewarding for their students at all levels. The Greater Baltimore region is rich in the assets and talent necessary to not only keep abreast of these advances, but also to develop and help implement top-quality instruction and the tools that support that instruction. A few examples:
- Towson University’s Department of Educational Technology and Literacy provides graduate-level education with a robust suite of innovative academic and research curriculum focused on integrating technology into curriculum, educational systems, and the workplace to increase learning and productivity. (https://www.towson.edu/coe/departments/edtech/)
- The Towson University Incubator is a hub of innovation and has the largest concentration of EdTech emerging companies in Maryland, with over 20 EdTech member companies. (https://www.towson.edu/campus/partnerships-research/venture-creation/incubator/ )
- The Instructional Systems Development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) offers graduate degree and certification programs to train professionals to design and deliver effective learning products to help meet the demand generated by the expansion of online learning platforms and non-traditional educational opportunities. (https://professionalprograms.umbc.edu/instructional-systems-development/)
- The Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation, part of the University System of Maryland (USM), has partnered with a Copenhagen company, Labster, to implement technology that will allow all of the universities in the System to access the company’s 150 virtual laboratory simulations, which can be used if a course is moved entirely online, or to supplement in-person instruction. While the platform is critical during the pandemic when access to labs is limited or non-existent, Labster’s platform has significant application in ‘normal’ circumstances to help instructors track student activity and offer support when students are not directly engaged in the laboratory setting. (https://www.usmd.edu/cai/ )
While we can celebrate the richness of the Region’s assets in EdTech, we would be remiss if we did not note the challenges as well. No doubt, technology will continue to impact how we live, learn and work; enhancing and expanding our world. The pace of technological progress also presents challenges. As mentioned in this article, understanding the ‘latest and greatest’ education methodologies and tools is central if educators are to provide quality instruction – a goal that can prove difficult for teachers who may already be stretched very thin. A larger and more important challenge, however, is the disparities in access to technology for disadvantaged populations.
This fact would be true even when students are back in classrooms where they are able to access the programs and devices that are becoming a standard part of in-school instruction, but unable to complete homework assignments or other research because they can’t reliably access the internet once they leave school.
Greater Baltimore’s innovative education technology industry and the tools companies are developing right here in the Region are at the forefront of the future of educational content delivery. Whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like post-pandemic, however, must eradicate the digital divide in order for every student in America to have an equal opportunity for a quality education that leads to economic security and a high-quality of life.
Access the full EAGB August 2020 Region On Point newsletter here.
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