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Remote learning can work better at universities. Here’s how.

This year doesn’t have to feel like a lost one for college students or professors.

A college building covered with ivy next to a leafy tree in the fall. Photo credit: Peter Spiro
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The year of 2020 might be remembered as a lost one for college students, with the pandemic taking so much from them: the chance to meet new friends in-person, the bonds formed in lecture halls, the extracurriculars now banned due to social distancing. (In short, much of the typical college experience.)

According to the CDC, the lowest risk for students and educators alike is to engage in virtual-only classes, activities, and events. This has created a unique moment in which schools need to navigate the challenges of distance learning; the future of school is dependent on quickly adopting and scaling both new and existing technology solutions. Many universities already transitioned to digital textbooks, but they now face the daunting task of delivering ubiquitous digital access to create a connected campus. Students will need to view materials from anywhere: whether at an off-campus apartment or their parents’ house across the country. Video conferencing software needs to be rock-solidly reliable for lectures.

Effectively managing content online was important long before 2020, but distance learning has never been implemented on a scale such as this. To provide a solution that can encompass entire student bodies, some of which might include upward of 50,000 students, schools are relying on the partnership of companies like Xerox to accelerate their digital transformation.

Two college students wearing medical masks study at a laptop. Photo credit: Vadym Drobot

Apps are adapting

Learning, of course, is collaborative. A remote strategy is most effective when it enables teachers to seamlessly share their plans with their departments, scanning course materials they need and sorting files online so their peers can access them. This can both eliminate overlap and blend information together in helpful ways — students can refer to what they’ve learned in, say, an ancient history class to make connections to how this relates to studies in the modern era. Through cloud-based apps, students can access what they’ve learned in the past and apply it to their current projects. Going a step further, generations of teachers know that learning is most effective through repetition; now, with the ability to pull up info from the past, students may find it easier for lessons to stick.

Even before 2020, many teachers struggled with the amount of time that goes into lesson planning. The pandemic has only exacerbated this. So, any amount of time that teachers can reinvest from the tedium of proofreading and test grading into creating overarching lecture themes can go a long way. Specific cloud-based apps are made just for the teaching experience: for example, there’s existing software like the Proofreader Service Portal from Xerox that can check scanned documents for spelling and grammatical errors — even cross-referencing it online to detect plagiarism. Tests also get a makeover: as students take their midterms and finals online, they can be graded instantly through multiple-choice test apps. Saving teachers this time means more opportunities for high-level work, or even more chances to consult with students one-on-one. In a pre-pandemic era, we called that concept “office hours.” Perhaps on video conferencing software they’ll need a new name?

View of University Avenue in Syracuse, New York in the fall with trees and ornate stone college buildings. Photo credit: Debra Millet

Taking notes from old-school to new-school

Among remote learning’s key components is digital document capture. What’s known as optical character recognition (OCR) means people can scan printed text and encode it for easy copying, pasting, and searching. Those on both sides of the lectern likely will consider it a lifesaver. For teachers creating lesson plans, it enables them to save time when pulling information from the hundreds of pages of a textbook. And students who, in the past, might have had to manually type out entire paragraphs to cite research will see how it can help during crunch time at finals. An effective OCR program like the kind used by Xerox DocuShare can be tailored to a document’s format, scanning multiple pages quickly, and indexing them for easy searching and access.

Taking this one step further, AI automation can discern what teachers and students might deem important and extract it for them: no more sifting through page after page of text, a time-consuming process both on the page or the screen. Think of a literature class that needs to search for a specific author’s work, or a teacher pulling a chemistry textbook’s chapter on covalent bonds for this week’s lecture. Advanced automation works best when it’s customized to each assignment.

Going paperless seems to be the trend, but there’s still a need to share documents physically. Teachers working from home likely won’t have the big office machines that they’re used to, so Xerox tech can let them pull digitized data from anywhere and share it with their peers and students, enabling them to print it from anywhere, too. An effective printing solution can let them store, edit, and collaborate on files that match the varying needs of students across experience levels — whether they’re analyzing a classic novel or learning the body’s complex anatomy.

Brunette woman smiles at smart phone held in front of a laptop in a home office. Photo credit: Ruslan Galiullin

Socialization goes beyond the campus

Finally, upgrading the remote learning experience has led to another key benefit, one not immediately obvious. College kids are social creatures, setting out into the world for possibly the first time in their young lives. In March, many schools abruptly closed at the beginning of the pandemic and offered little or no information to students, contributing to “an end of the world feeling.” Officials from both universities and governments scrambled for plans, experimented with reopening, and then more than 130,000 cases of COVID-19 hit across 1,600 colleges and universities. Students and faculty went back home, and the tantalizing idea of a return to campus life was once again taken away, leading to further isolation.

Remote learning has the unique chance to alleviate this. Already, we’re getting used to social events taking place over video, from birthday parties to happy hours to concerts to simple group chats. By leveraging the instantaneous connection that video conferencing provides, university departments can host small class activities like virtual gatherings — to foster the camaraderie that students have lost by not seeing each other in-person. It starts by freeing up time for teachers, enabling them to devote more time to their students. And students who’ve reduced their stress thanks to easier digital learning will be able to enter these digital spaces in a state that says: “I’m ready to take it all in.”

Universities owe it to their students to keep up with the changing face of technology. In the past two decades, almost every college student has encountered some form of collaborative online coursework, whether it’s turning in papers digitally or collaborating on group projects. But then, 2020 happened: tasking everyone to revolutionize the way they work, learn, and collaborate on a moment’s notice. The best schools of the future will turn this moment in time into an opportunity, reinventing what it means to have a true “college experience.”

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