Colleges tap tech to calm students paying for remote classes

A student leaving the Boston University student union building on July 23 in Boston, United States. As the Covid-19 pandemic rages across the country, many schools are making permanent plans to conduct classes virtually this fall. — AP

Colleges in the United States are rolling out new technology for a mostly online semester that begins next month, but these efforts are unlikely to impress students paying tens of thousands of dollars for in-person instruction.

The University of Michigan will provide stronger WiFi and new cloud storage accounts to help students learn on campus while maintaining social distance. The University of Southern California plans virtual 3-D labs for some science courses, while the University of California at Berkeley is giving laptops, webcams and headphones to thousands of students in need.

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages across the United States, many schools are making permanent plans to conduct classes virtually this fall. Administrators heeded complaints about lockdown learning during the previous semester and are tapping technology to try to improve the experience. Students doubt e-learning will pass what is shaping up to be the industry’s toughest test yet.

"Online classes kinda suck and there’s no technology that can fix that,” said Annie Tsan, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Without technological updates that make the online classroom more accessible and enjoyable, there’s no guarantee students will stay at their institutions. Some are considering a gap semester or two, withholding tuition payments or transferring. This risks another blow to a higher eduction sector that was already struggling financially before the pandemic.

"70% of our revenue comes from tuition, room and board,” said Zach Messitte, president of Ripon College in Wisconsin. "If 30% of our students decide not to come back, that’s just an enormous revenue hit. This will impact the revenue of schools across the country.”

The University of Michigan’s new WiFi shows the potential and the pitfalls of this technology push by colleges. There will be more bandwidth and the WiFi signal will be extended through additional routers, so even without in-person classes, Michigan hopes students will come to the campus. One proposal even encourages students to park at the college and turn their cars into makeshift study halls.

"I don’t think it’s going to be as impactful as they think,” said Nicholas Silk, a senior at Michigan. "Most people who live on or off campus already have WiFi in their residences. Plus, I don’t even have a car. I won’t be sitting outside of a building just to use campus WiFi.”

Michigan is also partnering with Zoom Video Communications Inc and Canvas, a learning-management system from Instructure Inc, to enable automated transcription during video conferencing classes. This will help students follow lectures more easily in real time and let them refer to the material after the class ends. Students will also have access to cloud storage from Dropbox Inc and Adobe Inc’s Creative Cloud software for video and sound editing.

The University of Southern California in Los Angeles is teaming up with startup Labster ApS to provide virtual-reality science labs for students. The labs will function similarly to flight simulators, but be accessible remotely via laptop. Students can use Facebook Inc’s Oculus VR headsets to access the labs, though this device is not required. Labster’s 3-D labs focus on biology and cover dissections, medical diagnostic procedures, field sampling and other processes. Chemistry students will use VR software from startup Beyond Labz.

Since the pandemic began, Labster said it has partnered with dozens of colleges, including George Washington University, Fordham University and San Jose State University.

Schools are also using technology to keep less wealthy students connected. The University of California at Berkeley set aside more than US$4mil (RM17mil) to provide about 3,300 laptops, 800 WiFi hotspots, webcams and headphones in August to those who qualify for a new Student Technology Equity Program.

The University of California at Irvine has sent almost 300 students laptops and WiFi hotspots. Almost 40% of those who attend the college qualify for Federal Pell grants that are given to low-income candidates. Tom Andriola, chief information officer for the University of California System, hopes the effort brings "equity in terms of the ability to access the Internet and to watch a live stream lecture, or be able to access systems.”

However, schools are often chosen based on physical resources, such as residence halls, research labs and media-production studios. For students counting on these assets, faster WiFi, a free laptop and virtual reality may not be enough. Although some universities, like Princeton, have provided tuition discounts, many schools still expect students to pay the full amount. Some schools, like USC, even announced tuition increases before they released plans to go online.

A number of students are still deciding if it is worth it to attend classes at all this fall. "If I do not have access to the resources that make USC, USC, there is no reason as to why I should be paying full price to essentially now attend school in my living room,” said Casey Gardner, a senior studying theatre at the school. – Bloomberg

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