ASU Sync(s) in-person and online learning to offer a new mixed modality

By Kyle Bowen, Executive Director of Learning Experience, University Technology Office, Arizona State University

Kyle Bowen, Executive Director of Learning Experience, University Technology Office, Arizona State University

When the shift to remote learning came in mid-March, students like Kathleen Casey, a senior studying kinesiology at Arizona State University (ASU), did not know how this would impact their academic futures. As a Barrett Honors student, Kathleen’s ASU experience would typically culminate in the defense of her thesis, attended in-person by close friends, family and faculty.

However, as we soon realized, the pandemic would dramatically change in-person interactions, challenging institutions to rethink how they engage with students, now and into the future.

Finding new ways to engage learners

In order to continue reaching learners, we had to design new ways to ensure the act of synchronous learning was no longer location-based. By combining the interactivity of in-person instruction with the flexibility of remote learning, we created technology-enhanced environments that offer students multiple participant pathways to engage in fully interactive and live learning.

ASU Sync drives this movement at Arizona State University, adding a third mixed modality approach alongside our immersive on-campus and online course offerings. At its core, ASU Sync uses the seamless integration of technology and integrated tool sets to enable live interactive experiences while also offering flexibility for personalization and active experimentation with faculty and students. 

While we are still in the discovery phase of understanding the affordances of ASU Sync, key benefits have surfaced: 

Collaboration on a broader scale: In addition to the tool set we provided faculty, we also equipped students with the technologies needed to not only connect, but co-create with each other. The ASU Digital Backpack — comprised of Zoom, Slack, G-Suite, Adobe Creative Cloud, and Dropbox, freely available to all learners — offers a collection of authentic technologies to support learning, creating and collaborating. Kathleen was able to work on her thesis with many of these tools, and present it in real-time via Zoom. These tools are also commonly used in the workforce, providing a place to learn that also helps students develop skills for the future.

A new dimension of inclusivity: During the shift to ASU Sync, we realized that giving learners more control over the moment of learning resulted in increased learner agency. There are many examples where ASU Sync offered new benefits for the learning experience. For example, Kathleen noted that as a generally anxious public speaker, presenting her thesis online helped her feel more at-ease. 

The evolving universal learner: Today, the learner profile is more complex than ever before. The interchangeability, in which students can shift between in-class or remote options, afforded by ASU Sync further helps to alleviate the compromises — work, family and other obligations — that students used to have to make in order to actively participate in classroom learning. 

• New space thinking: Where learning takes place is no longer categorized by technology. In-person, online, synchronous and asynchronous are all now mixed to provide learners with greater flexibility. This shapes new thinking about the design of physical spaces and the architecture of digital platforms as a blending of immersive and digital experiences.

Moving forward 

The pandemic accelerated the move into remote work and learning across higher education. What are typically considered slow moving institutions had to rapidly adopt new technologies and methodologies to meet the needs of studentsduring the shift to remote and further continue to adapt to change during the fall semester. In doing so, students were able to stay engaged and complete their semesters – in fact, Kathleen successfully defended her thesis in a virtual setting, extending the invitation to family and friends from afar.

Upon reflection of the past year, we realize this shift has been instrumental in broadening our understanding of learning management and how to better reach students in an ever evolving world of work, life and learning. 

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