Business of Engineering

How tech is shifting the educational landscape

The COVID-19 pandemic is allowing technology innovations to reshape opportunities for students, faculty and institutions.

By Swapna Sathyan, MBA April 13, 2021
Courtesy: CannonDesign

Prabhudev Konana, Ph.D., the Dean of College Park at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business (and previously Associate Dean for Instructional Innovation at University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business), has dedicated his work to educating future generations.

He is an incredible spark of knowledge and passion, on the phone, in person… and even in hologram form.

Hologram form? Yes, last year Professor Konana, with the support of UT Austin Senior Assistant Dean Joe Stephens, demonstrated his commitment for learning innovation when he and other UT Austin professors took the initiative to deliver classes via hologram. Through an application called Recourse, the instructors were beamed into classrooms to safely teach students during the pandemic. While the benefit during the COVID-19 outbreak is safety, technology innovations will continue to reshape opportunities for students, faculty and institutions.

It’s not surprising to find Professor Konana at the cutting-edge of pedagogical delivery. He is both ever-focused on the future and one of the nation’s most accomplished instructors. He successfully bridges the realms of education, research and business with an emphasis on analytics and technology.

Konana—via phone, not hologram—recently talked about his ideas and expectations for the future of education and technology.

Question: Our team at CannonDesign is always scanning the horizon for technology that will reshape the built environment. I am interested to learn of your work with holograms, where do you think this and VR/AR will take education in the future?

Konana: Connecting with students via hologram is truly a new frontier. My colleagues and I were happy to take it on and surprised at the authenticity of the experience. You’re able to see how students respond – those in the classroom and those dialed in via zoom. We turned to the hologram experience to increase safety during the pandemic, but this technology has a place in learning moving forward.

With any breakthrough technology, it’s key to not treat it as a panacea. In reality, this technology has been available, the pandemic just accelerated adoption. And while it’s very exciting, we should dispel any notion that everyone should learn this way. For instance, we know that VR gives some people headaches. Also, we all learn differently, so some people will adapt to new technologies easier than others.

But, can holograms and VR supplement and enhance traditional learning? Absolutely. Imagine medical students beaming into surgical rooms via hologram or engineering student prototyping new products and environments virtually in real time. Students will be able to imagine new ideas and then test, experience, modify and evolve them virtually, which is incredibly powerful. I think these tools will be integral to the future of learning, especially for subjects where visualization is critical. The pandemic accelerated our trajectory, we’re not there yet, but we’re en route.

Question: When you say we’re en route, can you elaborate? What is the next generation of hologram technology you envision?

Konana: For any technology to be widely used, it needs to become more accessible. Right now, for holograms, we need specialized technology to record, specialized technology to project. It’s expensive and only accessible to certain people and institutions.

These technologies need to progress to where they’re on every corner like Starbucks or in every home like desktop computers. If we get the timing and the technology right, students will be able to access learning via VR and hologram from their home. Or, they’ll visit the hologram coffee shop for an hour meeting. They can spend their free time watching live sports via VR, or they’ll beam themselves to the stadium.

Those realities can be achieved. But the technology needs to mature and become less specialized. Then, you’ll see business embrace it too. Large companies will have hologram studios and smaller businesses will have access. That’s a path we can take if the technology continues to prove effective at scale.

Question: Do you have an estimated timeline for that technology maturation?

Konana: It’s very hard to put a timeline toward technology maturation. For years we’ve been talking about online education and then the pandemic emerged earlier this year and in two weeks time, everything went online. Technology needs to progress to a certain point, human behavior has to change to embrace it, there needs to be this convergence that is hard to predict.

With online learning, I already think elements of this shift are permanent. We’re hearing from students who love being able to take classes from their rooms and then come to the classroom only for group projects or lab experiences. Faculty are saying their virtual office hours are better attended than in-person. I’m not saying we’re not going back to in-person, we will, but not at the same scale as before.

Question: It’s interesting to hear you talk about how virtual learning is changing education. Do you think it will lead to changes in how universities are designed?

Konana: Yes, markets are shifting. There is still a huge market for students who want to be on campus, to live amidst their friends and experience that social life. New apartment buildings, student centers, recreation centers, they will continue to go up.

The market demand around classrooms won’t be the same though. Students and professors are realizing they can handle the basics online, and then convene for higher-level thinking and problem solving. That means fewer classrooms, fewer academic buildings, but increased flexibility.

Universities aren’t going away, but there will be increased consolidation. As online learning progresses, you’ll see institutions with multiple campuses centralize their resources on one campus moving forward. There will be focus on creating incredible student experiences and maximizing the balance between online and in-person learning.

Question: With increased online learning, do you think universities will try to expand their footprint to more international students, or even students from new states?

Konana: Yes, online learning expands geographic markets and some institutions will evolve more rapidly to embrace that reality. But, where I see expansion is more into lifelong learning due to the rapid evolution of technology.

For example, students who graduated five years ago really had no experience with blockchain, now it’s critical. The half-life of education is shrinking and that makes continuing education more necessary.

Question: Yes, we talk about the continuum of education a great deal. Do you think universities will embrace subscription for life models?

Konana: On some level, yes. It’s already happening with tiered pricing translating to different access to resources. That’s definitely a possible path forward.

All these changes have the potential to increase the size of the pie for higher-education and lifelong learning.

Question: This has been fascinating. I guess I want to close by touching on human behavior again. You referenced it above, but what makes some technologies better at evolving human behavior than others?

Konana: That’s an essential question with no easy answer. Sometimes it’s dramatic like COVID, behavior has to change immediately and never finds its way back to its previous state. So then, all of these things, online learning, telehealth, they were ready and available, but now they’re needed and embraced.

It’s not always that dramatic though. Starbucks is everywhere because they changed what coffee meant to people. They said you can work here, you can study here, you can talk to your friends here, and oh by the way, you can buy coffee and food. The WeWork model has found similar success in the business world.

When I work with business students, they often have these incredible business plans that forget to consider behavior change. New products and tech can be incredible, but if behavior doesn’t change to embrace them, it’s just untapped potential. That’s what keeps us all going, unlocking the exciting potential for the future.


Swapna Sathyan, MBA
Author Bio: An architect by training, Swapna has more than 20 years of experience partnering with C-Suite executives to provide consulting and program leadership related to business and workplace strategy, organizational design, strategic change, workforce transitions, culture and leadership alignment for companies across all industries.