Enhancing the University Student Experience through Technology

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Enhancing the University Student Experience through Technology

Technology has become an integral part of our lives, impacting various aspects of society, including higher education. As it continues to advance at lightning speed, universities in Ontario continue to undergo profound transformation as they respond to the ever-evolving role of technology.

Growing advancements in technology have not only made learning more accessible and efficient, but have also augmented traditional teaching methods and classroom environments. Additionally, the use of technology in the higher education space has allowed students to access education from anywhere, breaking down barriers and ensuring equity. Moreover, through the use of improved technology-based educational data systems, universities have enhanced record-keeping, data analysis and security, helping foster an environment of continuous improvement and growth.

Whether it’s through the use of the latest apps in the classroom or blockchain technology for validating student records, it is clear technology has – and will continue to – redefine higher education in Ontario and has the potential for the continued success of our students.

Adapting and Evolving Teaching Methods and Classrooms for Student Success

Globally, technology is changing the way we teach and learn, offering limitless new possibilities for the universities of today and tomorrow. Without question, technology has ushered in a new era of innovative teaching methods in higher education and Ontario’s universities are at the forefront of this change, embracing innovative tech solutions to enhance and improve learning experiences.

Many universities in Ontario are using virtual simulations and virtual reality technology to allow students to engage in realistic simulations and gain hands-on experience in various fields. For example, medical students can practice surgical procedures in a virtual operating room, while engineering students can explore and manipulate complex 3-D models. Additionally, some programs such as nursing also offer simulation labs equipped with advanced technologies and virtual reality, providing students with realistic patient care scenarios and allowing them to gain practical skills and experience in a safe environment.

Within other classrooms, gamification has been an effective tool to engage students and make learning enjoyable. Gamified educational platforms, quizzes and challenges motivate students to actively participate and stay invested in their studies. One Ontario university, for example, is highly engaged with cutting-edge gamification research and teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Through an innovative Game Development and Interactive Media program, and laboratory that is equipped with state-of-the art software and equipment, they are fostering the development of high-quality animation, 3D models, sound recording and production, game engines, and gameplay code as they train the next generation of game developers.

While work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities are not new to university curriculums, and have become a crucial component of many courses and programs, technology has played a vital role in enhancing these real-world learning experiences. Through the use of technology, Ontario’s universities are providing students with the opportunity to participate in remote internships and virtual hackathons, collaborate on real-world projects with industry partners and gain valuable insights into their chosen professions, all through digital platforms.

Below are a few additional examples of how Ontario’s universities are using technology to better support and enhance the student learning experience:

  • Online Learning Platforms: Universities use Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle, where students can access course materials, submit assignments, participate in online discussions and communicate with professors and peers. Mobile apps have also become indispensable in the learning process, providing students with the flexibility to access course materials and resources on-the-go.
  • Social Media: Social media platforms are widely used by universities to create online communities, share important updates, host virtual events and provide a platform for students to connect with each other.
  • Online Clubs and Organizations: COVID prompted university student clubs and organizations to transition their activities online. They used platforms like Discord, Slack or university-hosted virtual environments to continue discussions, organize events and facilitate collaboration.
  • Virtual Events: Universities often organize virtual events, tours, workshops and webinars to keep students engaged and informed on various topics. These events are held via live streaming or pre-recorded videos, allowing students to participate remotely. Over the last few years, we have seen universities across the province hold hybrid graduation ceremonies to celebrate the momentous occasion while still ensuring students and families stay connected.
  • Online Peer-to-Peer Support: Many universities set up online peer mentoring programs or student forums where experienced students could assist new or struggling students with academic or personal matters.
  • Student Mental Health: Many universities have adopted innovative mental health programs through the use of technologies to better support students, including mobile apps that provide guiding mindfulness sessions or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tools; counselling services like Good2Talk; and other supportive technologies, such as such as an app to help Indigenous community members find appropriate mental health supports.
  • eCampusOntario Courses Portal: An online portal where learners can access information on thousands of online courses and programs from Ontario’s publicly funded universities, colleges and Indigenous institutions.

As technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, Ontario’s universities will continue to adapt and evolve their teaching methods to ensure they are staying current and meeting student needs by leveraging the most effective methods and new technologies.

Student Access and Keeping Students Connected

Over the next decade, advanced technologies will put higher education within the reach of many more individuals – not just across Ontario, but around the world. Gone are the days when students were limited to physical classrooms as now technology has helped shatter those boundaries, allowing students the flexibility to participate and learn from virtually anywhere.

Online learning has unlocked vast opportunities for life-long learning and continuing education, especially for those who face geographical barriers or have other commitments like jobs or family responsibilities, empowering individuals to upskill and stay relevant in a rapidly changing job market. As the labour market continues to change at a rapid pace, and the need to continually train and upskill adults across a variety of subjects and careers grows, Ontario’s universities are adapting to meet the needs of these students, not only in the form of continuing education programs that are offered, but even in the way they’re delivered.

Furthermore, technology has played a significant role in removing barriers to access. To help enhance accessibility for students with disabilities and improve remote learning for students from remote areas, northern communities, and international locations, universities are offering more options, now, than ever before. Webinars, video conferencing, virtual classrooms and assistive technologies have facilitated improved communication between students, professors and peers, fostering a sense of belonging and community.

Ethical use of AI

As the use of artificial intelligence (AI) continues to grow, it is increasingly important to understand how to use AI ethically and responsibly. Many commentators point to the risks of AI in allowing students to create content and complete assignments. While these risks are real, many commentators also point AI’s ability to support student success. AI can help detect plagiarism, provide information services through chatbots, create new learning management systems, transcribe lectures, enhance online discussion boards, analyze student learning experiences, accelerate academic research and discovery and automate administrative operations. However, as universities adopt AI, it is essential that they continue to ensure transparency, ethical use, data privacy, and data security to maintain trust among students, faculty, and stakeholders.

One Ontario university, for example, is leading the way in research, education, and training related to the ethical use of AI. Working with an advisory panel of academic and industry leaders, the university has launched a hub for artificial intelligence to grapple with ethical questions amidst growing concern around issues of privacy, bias and human-machine interaction, taking aim at regulations and public policy related to the ethics of AI technologies. Researchers will also apply AI to human and animal health, environmental sciences, food and agriculture.

Improved Educational Data Systems

Data and data analysis have always been a part of higher education. And as big data analytics continues to be a powerful tool in education, Ontario’s universities are embracing modern educational data systems that are revolutionizing administrative processes. Applications, transcripts and other crucial documents, for example, are now digitized, reducing paperwork and streamlining bureaucratic procedures.

Universities are gathering and analyzing vast amounts of data, enabling them to make data-driven decisions and improve the overall learning experience. Historical data maintained through big data systems helps in identifying trends, weaknesses and strengths, thus enabling institutions to adapt and refine their educational offerings.

While the use of software like Microsoft Office 365, Google Workspace and collaborative cloud-based tools has allowed students to work together on projects and assignments remotely, the move to cloud-based systems, has also enabled universities to increase data storage capacity and scale their resources as needed. Universities are using these cloud-based technologies for student relationship building, learning management systems and assessment management applications. These technologies streamline various operations within the institutions and provide more granular data, allowing for better support and personalized attention.

In addition, the implementation of blockchain technology is helping ensure the integrity and security of academic records, making them tamper-proof and easily verifiable. Processes such as sharing student data between institutions for a semester exchange, or student transfers, are a few instances where blockchain is being applied.

For example, in 2019, one Ontario university announced it was awarding “digital degrees” using blockchain to Faculty of Engineering students after the university implemented micro-credentials using blockchain to securely validate students’ learning. Additionally, some Ontario universities are implementing pilot projects with eCampus Ontario and industry partners to award micro-credentials using blockchain.

As more and more digital tools for education emerge, the use of technology in universities continues to revolutionize administrative processes and improve efficiencies in various areas. A few examples include:

  • MyCreds, which serves as a secure digital credential wallet, enabling the issuing and verification of official digital documents, such as transcripts, degrees, diplomas, micro-credentials and badges, allowing students to easily transfer credits between institutions and access a broader range of courses.
  • The Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC), which streamlines the application process by eliminating the need for each institution to process its own applications. This not only saves students time and costs, but also eliminates duplication of work for universities.
  • The Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL), which facilitates the sharing of digital and print library services among Ontario’s universities. By pooling resources and engaging in collective purchasing, universities are saving costs and improving access to library materials.
  • The Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health, which has partnered with colleges and students to create a centralized resource for frontline service providers. This resource streamlines the sharing of mental health education and resources, enhancing support for students’ well-being.

With the help of the latest technologies, Ontario’s universities are continuously improving operations, cost savings, support services and data-driven decision-making within the higher education sector.

Conclusion

The impact of technology on higher education in Ontario has been nothing short of transformative. Today, technology is being used in increasingly strategic and innovative ways to expand access to education, improve student learning outcomes, provide greater institutional effectiveness and enable greater efficiencies.

Adapting teaching methods, leveraging online platforms and embracing cutting-edge technologies have made education more engaging, accessible and efficient. The digital transformation has helped to remove geographical and physical barriers and has made life-long learning a reality for students from diverse backgrounds. Improved educational data systems have also helped revolutionize record-keeping, enhance decision-making and increase security.

And as technology continues to evolve, Ontario’s universities must remain at the forefront of innovation, ensuring that students receive a world-class education that prepares them for the challenges of the future.

By working together with government, business and community partners, we can ensure universities have the resources they need to continue to support students, lead innovation and harness the power of technology, ensuring that higher education in Ontario is poised to lead the way in shaping a brighter and more inclusive future for generations to come.

– Steve Orsini, President and CEO, Council of Ontario Universities (he/him)

This article is featured in the latest edition of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance magazine, Educated Solutions.

Tags: OUSA