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How Can Students and Schools Maintain Digital Flexibility in Times of COVID-19 Crisis?

It would be an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world of education. Indeed, rather than being disrupted, academia was turned on its head because traditional education has been a face-to-face process for millennia. In fact, the off-the-beaten-path system that used to be called 'distance education' was now being called on to be "the new normal." Unfortunately, distance education or remote learning had not fully evolved. It was like asking a half-formed embryo to 'grow up quickly' and become a full-fledged adult in a matter of weeks. That's why remote classes and other online initiatives taken by schools have been done in a slapdash manner, leaving a lot of gaps and unexpected potholes. The result? An entire generation of students who unwillingly gave up physical school for the digital equivalent, and an equally disgruntled educator workforce that was forced to go digital without proper training or preparation of any kind.

In hindsight, we now know a lot more about online education methodologies and how to set up digital classrooms, but the past two years are something we'll never get back. However, rather than look back and regret what we didn't know, let's focus on what we do know and address the elephant in the room - how should schools prepare for classroom digitization in the future? The pandemic may have accelerated the digitization of schools and colleges, but we must also recognize that this is all part of the natural evolution of educational methodologies. Centuries-old - indeed, millennia-old - pedagogical methods don't work anymore, and it's time we recognized this hard fact.

So, how should schools prepare themselves for classroom digitization and a paperless environment during COVID-19 and such situations? Let's explore some key elements of this transformation that the education system is still undergoing.

The Nuts and Bolts: Hardware, Platform, and Software Needs

Digital equity is one of the basic requirements of remote learning. This includes hardware on which to conduct classroom sessions - such as smartphones, tablets, and PCs - as well as the software that acts as critical platforms or mediums for teaching and learning. But where does the responsibility for this lie, and how do we create a standardized base of requirements so the rest of the pieces of the puzzle can quickly fall into place? Let's find out.

• Hardware

During the early days of the pandemic, some schools in the United States began purchasing hardware for their students and teachers in the form of Chromebooks and other relatively low-cost devices. This investment in digital equity proved to be a stellar idea as it allowed these institutions to speed up their journey toward full classroom digitization. Not all institutions can invest in digital equity in bulk, but with the cost of hardware constantly coming down, this is becoming more affordable. As an example, here's a look at the price of a particular brand of laptop over the period between September 2021 and June 2022. We can see that the price of this model dropped from a peak of about $550 down to the current $420 or so. That's a 25% markdown in a matter of nine months or so.

handware price
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Moreover, buying thousands of laptops in bulk is far cheaper than forcing students to buy their own. There are a number of ways that schools can subsidize such costs. In the U.S., students from low-income families can get free laptops providing they are eligible, which means they have to produce tax returns and other documents to prove their income and residential status in the U.S. Schools themselves have budgets to provide hardware for their students and teachers. As such, there's really no reason that all students, as well as educators, cannot be armed with Chromebooks and other cost-effective solutions.

• Platform

But that's only the first piece of the puzzle. Digital equity also means online platforms where classes can be held in an organized manner. This needs to take into consideration the varying Internet speeds that students and teachers will have access to, as well as the cost of having a robust connection with unlimited or at least adequate data allowances.

Several tools have emerged for this purpose over the course of the pandemic, Microsoft Teams being the most robust of all. In fact, here's what Business of Apps says:

"Microsoft Teams saw a huge uptick in users during the pandemic, rising from 20 million users in November 2019 to 44 million in March 2020, then 75 million by April. According to digital experience management company Aternity, Microsoft Teams usage growth surpassed Zoom from February to June."

That's old data, of course. Today, there are more than 145 million daily active users of Microsoft Teams, and a large portion of that is from the education segment. The advantage of Teams over Zoom is clear because the former is a more rounded platform with capabilities such as chat, video conferencing, file sharing, and more, while Zoom is simply a video conferencing tool with a few extra add-ons.

But regardless of what platform you intend to use - Teams, Zoom, Google Classroom, etc. - the fact remains that we are now ready to provide the basis for online education in a comprehensive manner.

• Software

We already live in a highly collaborative software environment. Proof of this is in online platforms such as Teams, Google Drive, etc. that live on the cloud. This cloud transformation, which happened over the past ten years or so, has allowed students and educators to quickly switch to online solutions rather than standalone software. However, installable options such as PDF editors, word processors, spreadsheet programs, and so on are still highly valued because they form a bridge between online and offline requirements.

Today, schools use a hybrid model where students can work on their projects offline and then submit them to a cloud-based portal such as OneDrive or Google Drive. In such a scenario, document applications have come to the forefront, as we'll see in the section on PDF software.

The gist of this is that software equity is as crucial as hardware and platform optionalities, and the reality is that we already have all the tools we need to successfully transition to a paperless world in an effort at full-scale classroom digitization. Today, most software companies offer special bundles and other attractive options for students and teachers, and all it takes for an institution to get bulk licensing is to give the company a call or send an email. Once your institutional status has been verified, the cost of acquiring software becomes immensely more affordable.


Preparing Educators for a Tech-aligned Future

Once the basic foundation has been set, the next step is to 'educate the educators' to make them tech-savvy enough to be able to handle an online learning scenario. Interestingly, the average age of educators in the United States has been climbing steadily over the past few decades. In 2017-2018, the average age of teachers in the public school system was 42.4; compare this with the 1980 figure of just 36 years and you can see that a large portion of the population comes from the pre-Internet era. In other words, the majority of teachers in public schools today were already well into their 20s when the Internet became popular around the early '90s.

This poses a challenge because not all teachers have a flair for technology. And the challenge is doubled because of the heavy workloads they need to handle almost on a daily basis. To counter this, schools need to not only train teachers on using cloud-based applications but also on how to be more productive when working from home. Many schools today still face this challenge, even though the importance of technological training for teachers was highlighted as far back as 2008 in a study by Miller, Schrum, and Shelley. The study essentially found that three out of four teachers felt that training was the key to increasing the use of technology in the classroom.

Interestingly, this was 14 years ago when the traditional classroom was the default modality for teaching. That means the school system failed to heed the advice of more than 75% of teachers who felt that training was essential to classroom digitization. And the effects of that failure is what we're dealing with today.


Confidentiality

Another major hurdle to classroom digitization is the problem of confidentiality. In the traditional education model, students could turn in their work physically to the teacher, who would then grade them and hand them back to the students - again, physically. Since that is not possible in an online learning scenario, the right tools need to be used in order to maintain the same level of confidentiality when distributing or collecting academic papers, grades, etc.

Thankfully, software platforms such as Teams have integrated security features that help maintain this. What's lacking is the awareness and technological know-how for teachers to use these the way they were intended. That's another area where training for teachers is essential. In addition, parents need to be kept in the loop as well, which further complicates the problem because multiple channels are required to segregate parent-teacher and student-teacher communication.

The weak link here is educators and the system they operate in, not the technology itself. Cloud security is already an important part of the software as a service business model and has been for more than a decade. All that remains is for teachers and students to catch up with it. Students find this easy enough because most of them were born in the Age of Information and social media. The bottleneck here appears to be the school system itself, which doesn't appear to be fully ready to handle the virtual classrooms of the future.


The Emergent Role of PDF in a Paperless Classroom

In the real world, the PDF format has already become ubiquitous when it comes to bulky academic papers, business reports, legal documents, medical records, and such. However, the need for adopting this format has never been more urgent, and the reasons for that are many:

  • PDFs are relatively static and stable documents
  • Changing content is not easy
  • It displays the same way on any platform (OS, device, etc.)
  • It's easy to share because of the smaller footprint
  • There are ample premium and free tools to create and manage PDFs

And that last point brings us to the supporting software for students and teachers. What's the best PDF software for academic use? Let's look at a real-life showcase product called UPDF, which is essentially a free utility but one that comes with premium features such as true PDF editing, annotation tools, and page organizing features. We'll see how a college or school student can effectively use UPDF to manage their daily workflows.

UPDF - Getting it Right

The average student deals with dozens and dozens of study-related files every month. In a year, that racks up to 100 or more documents in the form of textbooks, assignments, and other academic papers. So, a robust tool is required to take care of the editing, annotation, and organizing needs of students. The tool of choice for all these PDF tasks is UPDF, a free utility with premium features. Here's what students and teachers can do with UPDF:

updf for students
  • PDF Annotations: Markups are critical to student life. Taking notes, highlighting important content, underlining text that's relevant to the subject, etc. All these tasks require an annotation tool, and UPDF has exactly what's needed - text markups, shapes, drawing, etc.
  • PDF Editing: Modifying academic content on PDF documents requires a robust PDF editor, and UPDF is the ideal tool because it's user-friendly and has very simple controls that let you manipulate the contents of any PDF file. Adding, deleting, or replacing text and image content is what UPDF is good at, and that's what students need most of all.
  • PDF Organizing: In many cases, students will need to extract pages from a PDF, reorder them, rotate them, replace them with pages from other files, and so on. UPDF offers all of this in an easy-to-use interface with full control over documents.
  • PDF Reading: Opening, viewing, and reading PDFs can be done on any PDF editor, even your Chrome browser. However, students need more robust functionality, which UPDF provides through features such as multiple reading modes, easy navigation, and bookmarking. It enhances the reading experience so reading digital books feels like reading actual physical material.

Parting Thoughts

The importance of having a solid PDF utility cannot be overstated. If we want to move to a paperless environment, PDF is the only viable way to do this. Moreover, having the right PDF tools is equally critical because that's a student's (and teacher's) main mode of communication. And a free PDF utility for academic use such as UPDF provides the perfect platform for students and educators to rely on for all their documentation needs, whether it's submitting assignments, creating handouts, or sharing study material online. UPDF does it all, and with style! If we want to digitize our classrooms and prepare for a hybrid education model in the future (or even right now), then we need to equip our students and their teachers with the right technology and the right tools. In combination with Teams and other collaborative platforms, UPDF is the perfect PDF utility for academia, whether you're a student looking to stay ahead of the curve or a teacher looking for tech-friendly ways to serve your students.