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UMass Boston & Shorelight herald “real revolution”

Education delivery will profoundly change given its enforced shift online – and that’s a good thing, according to University of Massachusetts Boston interim chancellor, Katherine Newman, who told a global audience at a recent PIE Webinar: “We’re at the beginning of a real revolution here.”

It's possible to have a community experience online say edtech advocates. Photo: Tirachard Kumtanom / Pexels

“I think of Arizona State as a competitor"

Newman, who works with US private education company Shorelight Education, explained that Shorelight Live worked with UMass Amherst initially and succeeded in creating a virtual classroom environment that doesn’t have an online stigma.

“The educational experience in the Shorelight Live classroom was so strong that the faculty began adopting many of the techniques they learnt in their regular day classrooms on ground at the University of Massachusetts because it is actually a superior form of educational delivery,” she said.

“I think in one or two years online programs will become a normal overseas higher education option”

“There are just so many forms of communication and collaboration that Shorelight technology enables that it changed the way my faculty is operating in the classroom when they’re face to face with their students.”

Newman’s point was that embracing change will ensure the legacy and relevance of student-centric higher education. “Technology really helps us see how a student is progressing,” she said.

We are learning,  because I run a whole university –  that it isn’t enough for us to provide a classroom [online],” she continued.

“We are now trying to build all kinds of interactive social experiences, to try to mimic much more the experience of being a college student.”

The CEO and co-founder of Shorelight Education, Tom Dretler, echoed these observations. “What we’ve tried to do in as many ways as possible is simulate that whole university experience as best we can,” he said.

Now working with a number of universities in the US and one in China, Shorelight offers both its Shorelight Live technology platform and now a generalist credit-bearing online program, American Collegiate Live.

“To Katherine’s point, I think also faculty is so pleased with the interactions with their [Shorelight] students,” Dretler continued. “And so for us, it’s been a four-year experiment and a highly successful one.

He cited the bespoke bilingual support Shorelight offers because of its focus on enabling international students to access US education.

“If a student is a native Mandarin speaker and the professor is speaking in English, there’s support for that student through the technology that allows them to capture the key concepts in their native language.”

“Essentially we’ve put together our own tech package that allows for ease of communication, and it’s just tailored to international student needs,” Dretler added.

And even during the coronavirus pandemic, Shorelight has managed to have its best summer enrolment figures to date.

It’s truly global, the impact of Covid-19… but students want to do what they’ve always done, which is get the best education they possibly can,” continued Dretler.

“We were up 30% in summer, the best summer enrolments we’ve ever had – this was in the middle of all these crises.

“I think that people are going to follow the educational outcome that they seek, and if we meet them with outstanding technology, a welcoming environment and faculty members that are ready to engage, that we can serve the students wherever they are,” he added.

But as more and more online program management companies come on the scene and compete for buy-in from international students, Dretler acknowledged that competitive landscape is “changing pretty significantly”.

“I have a lot of respect for the others out there, whether it’s Navitas, Study Group or INTO, but I don’t think of those as our competitors as such because I think of them more in a narrow lane – and we don’t just stay in our lane necessarily,” said Dretler.

Answering a question about competitors, Dretler singled out Arizona State University as a peer organisation. “I have a lot of respect for Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State, who helped advise me in creating Shorelight,” Dretler revealed. “They want 100,000 online and 100,000 on-ground students; I think they have invested a lot in serving international.”

Shorelight’s VP, channel development, global, Shirley Xu added that the pandemic has put the Chinese market’s adoption of online learning ahead 10 years.

“Covid-19 is definitely not something we want, but now we are forced to accept online programs,” explained Xu.

“Now the parents and the students are open their minds and accepting it, and I think in one or two years online programs will become a normal overseas higher education option.

“We don’t know how long this Covid-19 will last, but I definitely think this is a great opportunity. And we’ve already seen a big successful summer,” she added.

• The PIE Webinar series can be found here.

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