March 7, 2022

EdTech: How technology is empowering universities to deliver high-quality online programmes

When universities were compelled to pivot from providing primarily campus-based programmes of study to delivering remote-first instruction, teachers and students alike found themselves navigating systems largely designed to deliver a facsimile of the traditional classroom experience, relayed via videoconferencing and other related connectivity tools.


It’s been far from plain sailing; many organisations understandably felt under-prepared – from both an academic and operational infrastructure perspective – for the global transition to online study.


However, this mass digital movement also served as a broader catalyst to educational advancement. It accelerated developments in EdTech from online sector pioneers who were already leveraging artificial intelligence to create more personalised learning pathways and build more responsive reporting and support mechanisms for students seeking digital learning options.


And, while most universities have begun to return to more familiar learning patterns, the interest in remote, hybrid and blending learning options – from students exploring fresh possibilities for skills advancement and from higher ed organisations seeking new revenue streams – looks set to continue apace.


Quality by design

It’s important to acknowledge that for online learning to match the quality of its campus counterpart, it must be firmly rooted in academic strategy and educational design. It’s not enough for institutions to use tech to divert existing programmes to an online audience; course providers must find new ways to embed best practice in courses that are engineered from the ground up to deliver high-quality learning opportunities, and to involve both teachers and students in that process.


Current HE pedagogy is framed within the traditional in-person model. But, if course designers start from the position that technology can enhance, rather than impede, the educational experience, it could transform HE access and academic achievement for millions. The demand for new pedagogies will, naturally, be matched by the development of fresh teaching styles, underpinned by more distributed support services. All will rely on innovations in technology.


As an overarching concern, each university’s leadership team will need to consider how their established mission and values can continue to inspire and inform in this new paradigm.


How should universities approach the challenge of scaling their online capabilities?

  • Plan a clear online education strategy that leverages staff knowledge and experience, at the same time building in provision for new skills development.
  • Consider how forming partnerships with third-party EdTech and online platform providers can advance progress.
  • Align online education strategies across campus-based, hybrid and blended study programmes.


EdTech trends

The global EdTech market has risen exponentially in the last ten years, growing from a venture capital investment of US$500m in 2010, to a whopping US$16.1bn in 2020, reflecting the increased demand for online learning options.


Some of the hottest EdTech trends include:


AI-driven adaptive learning…

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the key to offering a more personalised, interactive learning experience, analysing and interpreting students’ interests to deliver the precise content they need. Universities are already deploying AI-based chatbots to support students and answer questions; these approaches are also feeding into student-centric, self-service innovations that improve response times while reducing costs.


…and teaching

But AI could also form the basis of a reimagined tutoring platform, using machine learning (ML) to create tailored assignments and quizzes – even to offer course recommendations. Informed by learning analytics data, AI could build a complete student ecosystem that constantly tweaks course materials for the ultimate flexible learner experience. Implementing this kind of adaptive learning platform will help universities attract non-traditional students who want a cut-through to career progression.


Big data-based support

Higher education institutions are already using data analytics to identify students who may need more support along their learning journeys. This approach could be particularly valuable for mature students who don’t have access to in-person support and are already juggling additional real-world responsibilities. These analytics will look at which students are engaged – and which aren’t – enabling more precise targeting of support and the potential for creating better group dynamics.



Gamification is now a feature of the traditional classroom – virtual scenarios offer students a real-world experience without the real-life risks. It has enormous potential to help keep online students motivated, too, encouraging deeper engagement with their learning experience. With a market that’s expected to grow at a rate of 29% over the next five years, it’s shaping up to be one of the biggest EdTech trends of the decade.


TikTok tech

As short-form video usage increases in popularity, especially among Gen Z, savvy universities are leveraging the format to help students understand difficult concepts, as well as creating interest in classes via film-style trailers. There are implications for IT infrastructure, which may require upgrading to keep pace with student uptake.


VR and AR

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tech not only brings learning experiences to life but also helps students to learn topics faster, according to a recent study by PwC. Microsoft is already pioneering its own mixed-reality platform – Microsoft Mesh – in which students can communicate online with their teachers via 3D avatars. Meanwhile, Hollywood-inspired virtual reality company Dreamscape Immersive’s Dreamscape Learn platform is harnessing the power of storytelling to transform VR learning sessions for students at Arizona State University. It’s just a matter of time before this advanced tech becomes part and parcel of the online experience for students everywhere.


Digital credentials

The ‘credentialisation’ of degree components is also on the rise, marking a transition from fixed analogue qualifications to a more fluid form of certification that feeds into the growing trend of ‘unbundling’ higher education. As the market demands that universities move beyond one-and-done undergraduate degrees and towards more agile digital pathways that lend themselves to a process of continuous upskilling more closely aligned with employers’ evolving needs, this important shift in emphasis will enable students to embrace a lifelong approach to learning.


An organisation-wide transition

How organisations successfully replace the classroom dynamic is just one challenge in the context of a much wider rethink on the university experience. Considering the most effective approaches to managing group projects, lab work and practical assessments, as well as delivering student support and wider services, together with the opportunities for social enrichment in the context of a more dispersed university population, is eye-wateringly complex.


Although advances in technology are facilitating a fundamental reshaping of higher education provision, it will be down to individual organisations – and their leadership teams – to leverage tech in the best service of their staff and students. Early adopters are already demonstrating how online learning can create a tailored, personalised journey for students, providing access to learning platforms from any device and offering seamless integration with a broader range of academic and non-academic services and resources – such as coaching and pastoral support.


While each organisation’s operating model will vary according to its target audience, a student-centric strategic vision should be the starting point for any online learning experience. When thoughtfully constructed, online higher education programmes can guide students to create their own education roadmap, using a variety of tools to help review their progress and reinforce their goals, including motivational tips, performance analysis, and exam-preparation materials.


Raising the student experience – through integrated tech platforms, for example – should go hand-in-hand with the redesign of courses and delivery models and with the development of the educational infrastructure that will enable universities to analyse and redefine their offerings with the aim of creating truly exceptional learning experiences for everyone.


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