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As much of the curriculum has moved online, faculty members and instructional designers have adapted content delivery methods and modes to meet analogous learning outcomes through online media. This has required a rethinking of relevancy of materials and content that had been, in some cases for decades, delivered in the same face-to-face way by the same faculty member using PowerPoint slides. Even if the essential content remained the same, the shift to online provided the opportunity to optimize use of video, audio, animation, simulation and other online technologies to promote engagement and interaction by the students, resulting in deeper understanding and retention.

I recall, as I moved my classes online in the 1990s, pulling out my yellowed opening lecture notes on the physiology of human eyes and ears for my Communication Technologies class. Human anatomy had not changed, so that same content was replayed in person for years in the face-to-face classroom. In the intervening years, however, that section of the course changed with the addition of self-paced online modules enabling students to virtually examine in detail the optics, receptors, neurology and mechanics of human vision and hearing.

Yet there are many more hands-on aspects of some courses that have not been fully addressed in the online medium. Concerns were raised about some classes in the creative and performing arts, laboratory sections in the sciences, and even counseling techniques. In each of the instances where there seems to be no substitute for actual hands-on, we would do well to begin with a deep dive into current professional practice and emerging trends in that field. Where is current practice and how will it be changing in the near future?

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we must be vigilant to keep our classes relevant to the rapidly changing workplace and the emerging digital aspects of life in the 2020s. Many of us may have fallen behind the emerging practice in our fields as we focus on meeting the essential learning needs of our students. What previously had been a hands-on, manual process has often become, in this 4IR world, a technology-assisted, robotic or virtual practice. For example, telemedicine, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) technologies are now essential tools in health care. They supplant some of the physical and manual diagnostic practices of the past.

Cloud computing service as a software (SaaS) company Salesforce has described 4IR in their briefing on the topic:

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a way of describing the blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It’s a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies. It’s the collective force behind many products and services that are fast becoming indispensable to modern life.

Co-founder of Digital Bodies Maya Georgieva summarizes the change succinctly: “We’re moving from the information age to the experience age.” As every field moves into the new 4IR era, adoption and application of the new and emerging technologies are changing expectations and opportunities for the new college graduates. These are the same technologies that we should plan to utilize in our online learning.

One important development for online learning that is rolling out this year and next is the widespread deployment of 5G delivery to mobile computing nationwide. The major providers in the field are vying for leadership in 5G, creating a competitive rush to launch the service to reach as many subscribers as possible, as soon as possible. Certainly, 5G provides a huge upgrade in bandwidth, enabling better streaming of video and gaming. However, it is the low latency of 5G that enables the most powerful potential for distance learning. VR, AR and XR could not smoothly function in the 4G environment because of the lag in images and responses caused by a latency rate of 50 milliseconds (ms). The new 5G technologies drop that latency rate to 5 ms or less, which produces responses and images that our brains perceive as seamlessly instant.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced not just education but all fields to re-examine their reliance on face-to-face and hands-on approaches. It appears that many employers and industries will not return to the way things were in prior decades. COVID-19 has forced nearly all of us to reassess the role of face-to-face interactions and the potential of virtual engagements. Many have found economies and an assortment of advantages in the 4IR approaches to utilizing technologies. We must not only follow those trends, but also anticipate where our associated fields are going. Hands-on is becoming “goggles-on” and face-to-face is becoming “face-to-screen” in many fields.

Have you recently assessed the 4IR approaches and practices in the fields to which your graduates aspire for their careers? Are your teaching practices consistent, not only with relevant content, but also the delivery and engagement in those fields today? Have you examined the technologies that might enhance your teaching and better prepare your students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

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