Redefining physical and digital learning. An interview with CanopyLAB’s CEO

By Yamanda Boukmakh, Head of Partnerships at CanopyLAB and Future of Learning webinar series host.

 


 

What is the experience of attending a physical or a virtual university? How do we deliberately pick the tools that help craft the digital infrastructure and community we want our students to be a part of virtually? During a time where social distancing is at the tip of everyone’s tongues, has COVID-19 enabled social learning settings online beyond simple streaming and chat functionalities? CanopyLAB’s CEO and co-founder Sahra-Josephine Hjorth shares insightful examples from the first weeks of COVID-19, leveraging her experience in academia and building a fast-growing edtech company.

 

Educational institutions have put in a lot of time figuring out how our physical infrastructure works, but have actually not been given the privilege to work towards designing their digital learning space.

∼Sahra-Josephine Hjorth

 

Yamanda: As an expert who has worked hard in empowering educational institutions to use edtech long before the school closings during the current pandemic, what are the most valuable aspects of elearning?

 

Sahra-Josephine: If we look back the last 5 years, when I was teaching at Aalborg University, learning platforms were not being used for digital teaching, but instead as a content depository, a way to figure out where your classroom was and occasionally a blended learning experience where most of the learning is physical and some of it is digital.

 

The most valuable aspect is the ability to connect a knowledge institution with an individual who would have otherwise not been able to attend that institution.

 

Today, we see more digital teaching and some universities offer full degrees online, but it is still not the majority. When we look at learning beyond formal education, then we see a lot of free and open learning platforms where the entire offering is online, for instance, Coursera or Khan Academy. The most valuable aspect is the ability to connect a knowledge institution with an individual who would have otherwise not been able to attend that institution.

 

Yamanda: Jumping back to your point about the difference between elearning as a tool for digital teaching vs simply a content depository, we are now in 2020 and are able to do video calls, send voice messages and even attend virtual conferences. So why hasn’t online social learning boomed yet and what can we learn about the effect of Covid-19 on digital tools?

 

Sahra-Josephine: I think in all fairness, what COVID-19 has shown us is that teachers are incredibly resilient and adaptable. Their elearning ambitions and that of their students is incredibly high, but what we see in the current educational model, is that teachers are scrambling to find time to do their work.

 

I’d actually say that a lot of the blame of digital learning not having lived up to its potential so far is the fact that educational institutions have not prioritized pushing the boundaries of what you are able to do with learning technologies… institutions have not set aside a budget to live up to those edtech goals.

 

Yamanda: Talking about redefining learning spaces, what impact is COVID-19 having on the offering of a fully immersive university experience?

 

Sahra-Josephine: Looking back at my college experience especially during my Bachelor’s in the US, it was very emotionally attached to the physical campus. Unfortunately, what we are going to see is the bankruptcy of a lot of mid-range American colleges… The price of a college experience is actually only realistic for the immersive physical campus experience, forming friendships and connections for life. These relationships are often formed in the physical spaces of locking yourself up with your study group during finals, sleeping on the floor, and eating candy at midnight. You cannot charge that for a digital experience.

 

When redefining the college experience, how can we ensure that students’ needs outside of academia, like their emotional needs and the desire to form strong social connections, are actually being met in a virtual setting?

 

We need to completely redefine what the college experience is because I do not think there is a new normal, at least not right now. Not all schools have been in a hurry to define their digital campus experience before COVID-19 because it forces them to cut their price point. When redefining the college experience, how can we ensure that students’ needs outside of academia, like their emotional needs and the desire to form strong social connections, are actually being met in a virtual setting?

 

Yamanda: Could you elaborate on how far edtech has come with developing new tools that could enable these meaningful virtual connections?

 

Sahra-Josephine: Amazing tools like video chat has been around for years…. we have taken this technology for granted and not really developed it further. Actually, in research, I have seen more innovative ideas than those coming from Zoom, Teams, and Google Hangouts. Within research, we do see concepts like how to measure the level of engagement through chat, how to connect people with opposing views in pairs… all kinds of interesting things are mapped out, but no one is really investing in developing it.

 

Actually, in research, I have seen more innovative ideas than those coming from Zoom, Teams, and Google Hangouts. Within research, we do see concepts like how to measure the level of engagement through chat, how to connect people with opposing views in pairs… all kinds of interesting things are mapped out, but no one is really investing in developing it.

 

Yamanda: What emerging elearning trends are you looking forward to the most? And feel free to get nerdy on the tech details!

 

Sahra-Josephine: In CanopyLAB, our major investments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) have been very much on the HR/ teacher side. One of the things I am personally excited about is that we are soon releasing “Famanda” which is our internal term for “fake Yamanda”, which is basically an AI version of you. We have actually built an AI chat based on you and the training sessions you do with people who are going to build digital learning experiences. Especially during Covid-19, teachers are left fending for themselves and it is super important that we invest in these technologies designed to support them throughout their entire course creation experience, from using the platform features to designing their digital curriculum.

 

We have actually built an AI chat based on you and the training sessions you do with people who are going to build digital learning experiences. Especially during Covid-19, teachers are left fending for themselves and it is super important that we invest in these technologies designed to support them throughout their entire course creation experience, from using the platform features to designing their digital curriculum.

 

Interesting enough, people actually want to see the embodiment of AI and not just an IBM Watson type chat where you just see a chat pop up and text appears line by line. This is because it does not feel personal, they are just words on your computer screen. What we have done is created a digital rendering of Yamanda where she moves and you can talk to her via text bubbles.

 

Yamanda: Yes, we are super excited to see how the market reacts to that! Any other examples from CanopyLAB you’d like to share?

 

Sahra-Josephine: Within the field of adaptive learning the ability to curate parts or an entire course to fit the needs of the individual user. At CanopyLAB, we believe that at the beginning of a course, you could push a diagnostics quiz to determine what learners know and what they don’t know.

 

Something that we have been building and testing internally is the ability for our NLP algorithms to read all the materials and auto-create the questions… it also knows which content it took it from. I really strongly believe in automation of some of the boring things associated with digital learning so that we have more facilitation and face-to-face time together.

 

Yamanda: What sticks to me the most is the blurred boundaries that are redefining both the physical and digital learning space. Sahra-Josphine left me thinking about this brilliant question: If you could design the future of your digital learning experience, what would that look like? The sky’s the limit!

 

This conversation was made possible by the free course on the LAB called Introduction to the Future of Learning I: New and Emerging Trends created by CanopyLAB.

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Feeling inspired and hungry for more? Enroll in the free course here.

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