Technology continues to shape learning in higher education


New McKinsey research shows that students and faculty are eager to continue using new classroom learning technologies adopted during the pandemic, but institutions could do more to support the shift.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a shift to remote learning overnight for most higher-education students, starting in the spring of 2020. To complement video lectures and engage students in the virtual classroom, educators adopted technologies that enabled more interactivity and hybrid models of online and in-person activities.

These tools changed learning, teaching, and assessment in ways that may persist after the pandemic. Investors have taken note. Edtech start-ups raised record amounts of venture capital in 2020 and 2021, and market valuations for bigger players soared.

A study conducted by McKinsey in 2021 found that to engage most effectively with students, higher-education institutions can focus on eight dimensions of the learning experience. In this article, we describe the findings of a study of the learning technologies that can enable aspects of several of those eight dimensions (see sidebar “Eight dimensions of the online learning experience”).

In November 2021, McKinsey surveyed 600 faculty members and 800 students from public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States, including minority-serving institutions, about the use and impact of eight different classroom learning technologies (Exhibit 1). (For more on the learning technologies analyzed in this research, see sidebar “Descriptions of the eight learning technologies.”) To supplement the survey, we interviewed industry experts and higher-education professionals who make decisions about classroom technology use. We discovered which learning tools and approaches have seen the highest uptake, how students and educators view them, the barriers to higher adoption, how institutions have successfully adopted innovative technologies, and the notable impacts on learning (for details about our methodology, see sidebar “About the research”).

Double-digit growth in adoption and positive perceptions

Survey respondents reported a 19 percent average increase in overall use of these learning technologies since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Technologies that enable connectivity and community building, such as social media–inspired discussion platforms and virtual study groups, saw the biggest uptick in use—49 percent—followed by group work tools, which grew by 29 percent (Exhibit 2).

These technologies likely fill the void left by the lack of in-person experiences more effectively than individual-focused learning tools such as augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR). Classroom interaction technologies such as real-time chatting, polling, and breakout room discussions were the most widely used tools before the pandemic and remain so; 67 percent of survey respondents said they currently use these tools in the classroom.

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