Feb 01 2021

8 Higher Education IT Trends to Watch in 2021

Keep your eye on these trends as higher education prepares for a post-pandemic future.

Technology is shaping the future of education in many ways. With the shift to remote learning — and the increasing reliance on technology to ensure student health and safety — tech adoption is rapidly accelerating in higher education.

“With the pandemic, technology came in through the front door. We all recognized that technology was critically important to keeping teaching, learning, research and administration going,” says Susan Grajek, vice president for partnerships, communities and research at EDUCAUSE. “That has brought technology up into leadership-level conversations.”

So, where are those conversations heading? To better prepare for the post-pandemic future of higher education, here are eight trends that leaders and IT teams are watching this year.

1. Get Used to More Advanced Learning Management Systems

At Virginia Tech, the Canvas learning management system (LMS) was critical for coordinating synchronous and asynchronous learning. Such systems will only become more sophisticated moving forward, says Randy Marchany, the university’s IT security officer. “With COVID, instructors have become more video savvy,” he says. “We’re all getting smarter about how we use these tools.”

2. A Rise in Sophisticated Videoconferencing Platforms

Even after the pandemic, educators might continue lecturing over Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms. However, they’ll be doing it in more sophisticated ways. “People will be making these experiences more collaborative, more authentic — with much richer interactions and conversations,” Grajek says. “We are all becoming more experienced consumers, and we will see a lot of innovation in this area.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Here's 5 videoconferencing tools for student group projects.

3. A Proliferation of Clean Air and Healthy Building Tech

Maintaining clean air and sustainable buildings will remain a high priority for institutions moving forward. Universities will continue to invest in smart technologies and infrastructures that support wellness, says Anjali Joseph, director of the Center for Health Facilities Design and Testing at Clemson University. Schools are experimenting with various healthy building tech initiatives — from enhanced HVAC systems to UV lighting that eliminates viruses from air ducts.

MORE ON EDTECH: See which social distancing tech can help campuses reopen safely.

4. Increasing Use of Augmented and Virtual Reality

From virtual tours to immersive learning experiences, AR and VR technologies will likely continue to transform higher education. These technologies “will push further and faster into college campuses, leveraging physical infrastructure to provide different learning options,” says Joanna Bauer, vice president of academic affairs at Claremont Lincoln University. “For instance, institutions will bolt on AR and VR to simple learning platforms to enable basic levels of simulations and integration of gaming technologies.”

6. More Robust Networks to Come

Higher education institutions should prepare for an increasing number of students who rely on laptops and mobile devices to do coursework. As a result, universities and colleges must beef up networks. “They need to look at the network infrastructure: What is the backbone speed? Are the network pipes big enough and fast enough to handle all this additional traffic?” Marchany says.

In tandem with the rise of network optimization tools and services, universities and colleges should do more to ensure broadband equity for their communities, Grajek says. “If post-secondary education is a public good, then broadband has to be more widely available. That is something that needs to become part of the national agenda,” she says.

6. Outdoor Wi-Fi Is Here to Stay

Providing Wi-Fi in parking lots and other outdoor locations is now a common practice on campuses across the nation. This trend will only grow from here. Even after the pandemic subsides, outdoor wireless access will remain a popular feature for students and faculty alike. “We have benches in the courtyards. When faculty take classes outside in the spring, everyone sits on the grass,” Marchany says. “People ought to be able to connect to the network from anywhere on campus. We are not 100 percent outside yet, but we are getting there.”

MORE ON EDTECH: See how colleges are designing their outdoor learning spaces.

7. New Ways to Give Remote Exams

COVID-19 has created many challenges for remote assessments. Online proctoring services have raised serious privacy concerns; on the other hand, not having strategies for preventing remote academic dishonesty is unwise as well. With experts such as Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank predicting that online learning is here to stay, we will likely see a rise in alternatives to virtual exams. “Instructors can create assessments that require students to interact with the material more, and use resources for further research, resulting in deeper learning,” says Joshua C. Elliott, director of educational technology at Fairfield University.

8. Esports Investments to Rise in Years to Come

With conventional sports on pause, digital competitions are a socially distanced way to increase school spirit as well as engagement. “The pandemic has expedited changes that were already happening in business and society. Esports and gaming have surged in part due to their virtual nature, but also because they provide a social outlet people are desperate for,” says Armand Buzzelli, who oversees club sports at Robert Morris University. “That need will continue even after the pandemic.”

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