The COVID-19 pandemic is putting higher education under a level of pressure that could prove comparable to what retail has faced in recent years. Some of the biggest questions for institutions right now include, ‘how can we safely bring students back to campus?’ and ‘how can we improve the distance learning experience?’ Here we’ll briefly touch on a number of ways institutions can consider using technology to address these questions.
Staying Safe on Campus
We have discussed the potential for real-time occupancy tracking technologies to be repurposed in workplaces. Beyond providing space utilization data and analytics for real estate management and future design scenarios, these technologies can indicate whether a given space has reached maximum capacity for safe distancing. Educational institutions can consider the same technology for the same purpose. Occupancy tracking systems could push notifications to apps on smartphones indicating when a certain common space is or is not available.
There is also the potential, through a partnership with Apple and Google, for passive smartphone tracking to be used to facilitate contact tracing. These use cases are hypothetical, but the technologies are available today. While we see these technologies as applicable for facilitating a safe return to campus, thermal imaging is one that we believe has been recklessly oversold.
It has become widely accepted that gathering outdoors at proper distances with proper protection is safer than gathering indoors. Institutions can consider holding classes outdoors. This calls for portable audiovisual systems with screens bright enough to use in daylight. Institutions should extend robust Wi-Fi coverage into more outdoor areas by placing exterior-grade access points, both for outdoor classes and individual outdoor working.
Improving the Distance Experience
Distance learning is of course not just a response to the pandemic; it has been a growing trend for decades. Institutions can improve the distance learning experience by enhancing the ability of cameras to track instructors and in-classroom students. A fixed camera forces the instructor to stay in one place. Having a person operate a camera entails a labor cost and inevitably fails when the operator becomes distracted.
We addressed this challenge in our work for Chou Hall at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. The solution we came up with was to borrow sensor technology from the security world to enable a camera to track the instructor throughout the lecture hall well. Distance learners get a continuous, focused view of the instructor’s face, anything written on a marker board, and in-classroom students speaking from their seats.
Something we’ve implemented for great benefit is displays on the back wall of the classroom, or other locations, so that instructors see distance learners in their same field of vision as they see those physically present, and distance learners see instructors looking at them.
Lab classes are a particular challenge during the pandemic, yet their inclusion is crucial to many courses. Audiovisual approaches like overhead and instructor-worn cameras, that work well for culinary classrooms and chemistry labs, can be leveraged for a wide variety of normally hands-on classes to bring the instructor’s close-up view of activities to other students, both in and beyond the classroom.
Upgrading the Infrastructure
All of these technological upgrades to the campus point to the need for more robust technology infrastructure. Campuses need the network capacity to keep all this data flowing within the physical and virtual campus without interruption.
Internet and educational portal accesses are expected from within the classrooms, laboratories, libraries, dorms, and other learning spaces. COVID impact on space utilization will probably increase square-footage requirements. Distance learning will also increase the usage of video streaming and conferencing, which impacts network bandwidth usage and requires greater capacity and denser Wi-Fi deployments.
Adequate network capacity and control are no longer enough. Dynamic adjustments to both capacity loads and flows must be engineered to respond to fluid demands such as on-campus and off-campus events, entertainment, and learning environments. The COVID-19 event has reinforced the necessity of touchless technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth/BLE, and the use of BYO devices, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Touchless technologies promote wireless untethered connectivity to BYO devices, ultimately reducing physical cabling. Workplaces will ultimately need to implement the same touchless network that higher education campuses do.