Dec 22 2022

3 Tech Trends Shaping Modern Higher Ed Classrooms

A learning expert shares what he sees on the horizon for 2023 and beyond.

The past two-and-a-half years have seen higher education embrace the boundless potential of technology in the classroom like never before. Digital collaboration is an invaluable part of most college courses, powerful networks connect students from every corner of campus and beyond, and once futuristic tools like virtual reality are enabling students and faculty to see the world in a whole new way.

Sure, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic may have forced the issue, but the result is the same. Technology is leading the way in higher education, where institutions have incorporated the tools that helped them through the pandemic into their core missions and curriculum.

So, what happens now? Students, faculty and staff aren’t going to be turning away from technology anytime soon. But with the dust of the pandemic finally settling, what’s the next big thing that’s coming to your classroom in 2023?

To help answer that question, EdTech caught up with Derek Bruff, visiting associate director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Mississippi and one of our 2022 Higher Ed IT Influencers to Follow, to get his perspective.

Here are three trends Bruff has noticed as he and his colleagues prepare for the new year.

Tech Trends ToC graphic


1. New Uses for Pandemic-Era Digital Learning Tools

Video collaboration tools — ZoomCisco WebexGoogle Meet and more — and the other digital ways we stayed connected back in the spring and summer of 2020 are now a staple of higher education, especially as hybrid learning becomes the standard rather than the exception.

And Bruff says that with a few years under their belts, instructors are getting more adept at taking advantage of everything those tools have to offer.

For example, Zoom’s polling feature (and polls offered by third-party providers like Poll Everywhere, Top Hat and iClicker) has been embraced by instructors looking to create the kind of student interaction that was feared lost when we all quickly pivoted to our respective Zoom windows. In-class polling keeps students engaged during instruction and allows feedback in real time, something that’s valuable not only for remote learners but for those who have returned to campus.

“Some faculty who didn’t have their students take their phones out during class are now more OK with that because they can see there is some value here,” says Bruff.

The use of pandemic-era tech tools extends beyond video collaboration as well. Being able to annotate documents in real time using Google Docs and tools like Perusall and Hypothesis allows students and instructors to work together even in asynchronous environments. And using tools like Google’s Sheets and Jamboard to take notes during group work helps faculty members check on their students’ progress without physically bouncing from group to group and listening in.

LEARN MORE: How to create a sense of community in hybrid learning.

2. The Physical Learning Environment’s Impact on Student Success

During the pandemic, Bruff says, higher education faculty members got a look inside their students’ home environments and were able to witness firsthand some of the drawbacks of a less-than-perfect learning space.

Students attended class from their cars, on their phones, in Starbucks parking lots and all manner of other odd locales during periods of required remote learning. That led faculty and administrators to start thinking about physical learning spaces.

“No one had to think about learning environments before,” says Bruff. “Not to say that it worked great, but no one really had to think about it. It was just where you taught.”

Conversations these days, Bruff says, are also about demonstrating value to encourage students to attend class on campus.

“Some campuses are struggling to answer the question of why we should all show up at one place and time for learning.”

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With the help of digital tools, and with a couple years of experience, student success is improving in remote and asynchronous settings, so universities have turned to less traditional classroom experiences to enhance in-person learning.

Flexible furniture and other active learning elements are growing more widespread, and Bruff says both “horizontal and vertical spaces” should be considered. “Vertical” surfaces include digital displays, whiteboards and even chalkboards; “horizontal” table space for learners gives instructors a chance to stay mobile during class.

3. Futuristic Tools Now ‘Ready for Prime Time’

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a room full of headset-wearing people exploring some far-off land was more science fiction than reality, but tools like virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) should now be on the radar in higher education.

Bruff says 2023 might not be the year VR takes over every college classroom, but that universities who haven’t at least considered such tools are in danger of being left behind.

VR is more accessible than ever thanks to falling costs, particularly for end users, while loads of new content is available every day for faculty. It’s not yet clear if or how learning outcomes can improve thanks to VR, but while the potential cost-benefit ratio was untenable for higher ed in recent years, that’s no longer the case.

Another tool higher ed leaders are sure to hear about in 2023, if they haven’t already, is AI text and image generation. ChatGPT’s potential for allowing students to submit passable five-paragraph essays through a new kind of untraceable plagiarism aside, these generators are only going to get smarter in the new year.

Bruff says there will eventually be questions of access once the now-free or low-cost tools become more business-focused, but for now, higher education leaders can stay focused on the latest new challenge they didn’t expect to face.

“The big question that a lot of faculty are asking is what happens if I ask a fairly generic essay question on an exam, because you’re going to get a pretty decent answer from an AI text generator right now,” says Bruff. “That was not true 12 months ago. That is true now.”


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