Universities are in a state of change. As the gap between the corporate and college worlds widens, institutions find themselves having to train students for jobs and technologies that don’t exist yet. Couple this with the shifting expectations of a generation shaped by access to limitless information regardless of location, time of day, or need, and it comes as no surprise that the traditional lecture hall will soon be a thing of the past. As universities seek to increase enrolment, they have to shift the experience to cater to student expectations.
Blended learning—the method of teaching through a mixture of classroom-based, online, and self-guided techniques—has been the norm for a while, but just like the taxi and the takeaway meal, education is facing a digital shakeup. More than just digitization, this shakeup has the potential to democratize education and make degrees accessible to all, regardless of socio-economic background or location.
Utrecht University in the Netherlands is at the forefront of this shakeup. To help shape the campus of the future, the university teamed up with Ricoh to develop a “Teaching & Learning Lab,” a space dedicated to testing the latest innovations, developing applications, and measuring their impact.
Designed as a completely flexible, modular space, at first glance the classrooms are not as futuristic as you might expect. But dig deeper and advances made here could well revolutionize higher education in the future. Centered around different visual communication solutions—such as internet-connected interactive whiteboards—the classroom allows for collaboration between teacher and student in a way that has not been possible before.
Wireless connectivity between devices, applications, and solutions mean the teacher is no longer tethered to a laptop at the front of the class, allowing for more natural interaction. Students are also able to access the interactive whiteboards from their devices, viewing and editing as needed. This collaborative approach is having an impact not just on lectures, but shifting the role of the lecturer. They are no longer rigid instructors, becoming facilitators who curate information and skills.
Of course, this extends outside the classroom, too. Students, or teachers, can be anywhere in the world. Suddenly students who are unable to relocate get the same access to professors as those in the classroom.
Ricoh believes this access will fundamentally change students’ ability to learn from top professorial talent. Medical students in the Netherlands could be taught by a world-class surgeon in Tokyo, for example. This type of distance learning is already being tested by Utrecht University. As part of a project with students in Indonesia, a math professor is able to use video-conferencing software to teach students without ever having to leave their classroom in Europe.
Collaboration isn’t just limited to the classroom and has been key to developing the lab. The partnership is part of a wider digital transformation program the university is undertaking, aiming to future-proof the campus and explore emerging technologies. When the Faculty of Science (Institute of Environmental Biology) was looking for a way to improve the observation of monkeys, Ricoh suggested a solution. By using the RICOH THETA 360 camera, they have been able to observe and playback the animals in their natural habitat, with a 360 field of vision. This made observation easier from any location, ensuring students have access to the best material, regardless of where they are.
Another area being explored is artificial intelligence. “One of the biggest issues students and staff face is organizing moderation and facilitation,” says Jeroen Spierings, regional head of education at Ricoh. “I believe AI has huge potential here.”
Far from just hypothesizing, Ricoh and Utrecht University are using Ricoh Intelligent Workplace—a meeting assistant developed for corporations—in the lab. Using text to speech, speech to text, and optical character recognition, the assistant records each meeting, processes everything that’s said or written, and is able to assign actions and follow ups automatically. While this tech is currently designed for enterprise, Ricoh is working with Utrecht University to develop an education-specific product, helping close the gap between the corporate and education worlds.
Ricoh sees a bright future for the advancement of technology in the Teaching & Learning Lab and is working with other education institutes in the Utrecht region, as well as other partners. They aim to launch more labs in universities over the next three years, with interest coming from across Europe and beyond.
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This article was written for Ricoh by Quartz Creative and not the Quartz editorial staff.