Here’s how HE will survive in the post-COVID era

Foundational steps that bricks and mortar academic institutions must implement now to ensure their online learning practices are fit for purpose in the new world

I have some experience in the online learning arena having developed online learning platforms for the past 25 years, since the early days of Web 1.0 in the 90s, right through to the modern day.

Over this time the level of research, development and innovation undertaken, means the organisations I have established continue to operate successfully within the evolving tech space. As with all companies or organisations that exist in the online realm, it really is a case of evolve or perish.

But for those organisations that exist outside the tech sphere, this is not always the case. In the case of higher education (HE), the pandemic has exposed the systemic failures to optimise its use of technology – something it has long been criticised for.

And while big strides have been made to maintain ‘business as usual’ over the last year, it has very much been an emergency sticking plaster when it comes to the tech used to teach and engage with students, rather than the beginning of sustainable long-term reform of how the sector utilises technology.

In the case of higher education, the pandemic has exposed the systemic failures to optimise its use of technology, something it has long been criticised for

But as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic, how can the HE sector as a whole look to begin reimagining their traditional models of education? What are the foundational steps they need to implement now to ensure their online learning provision is fit for purpose in the modern era?

Using old pedagogies with new technologies doesn’t work

Over the past year, HE institutions have learned that the pedagogical approach to learning, as exemplified by the ‘sage on the stage’, is not the ideal online learning model, which is why effective online learning developers have fully embraced andragogical teaching practices in the development of their programmes.

Keystones of this approach include a focus on process rather than content, avoiding spoon feeding students but instead encouraging them to explore, research, discuss and collaborate. In this context, tutors act more as facilitators helping to analyse and resolve issues. Such an approach is particularly relevant for postgraduate students where learning is largely self-directed.

To cultivate such an environment, at my own company, Learna, we have developed online communities among our students, known as ‘communities of practice’, utilising discussion fora where students and tutors interact in the analysis of course content. Activities like this would go a long way to complement in-person teaching, or webinars, conducted by universities.

Combine this with online experiential techniques designed to enhance the andragogical learning environment, such as role-play simulations, and this lays the groundwork for continued academic development.

Engagement and interactivity

Two of the biggest problems all in-person educators experienced when learning transferred to the online environment during the pandemic were engagement and interactivity. Essentially, if one’s teaching model is based simply around putting out videos and webinars – the ‘sage on the screen’ – how do you maintain students’ focus? How do you monitor engagement and how can you make it interactive?

Fortunately, the technology already exists to achieve this and all successful online learning providers have built this into their platforms in one way or another. From software that can provide bespoke live polls, surveys, quizzes, gamification etc., to enabling students to respond from their smartphones, tablets or desktops, either in a live or recorded learning situation. These interactive tools are vital to keeping an online audience engaged and actively participating in their learning journey.

The virtual operating table?

Building on the above, whilst the delivery of practical sessions for courses like medicine is considered by many to be a stumbling block in the transference of education to the online sphere, the staggering advancements in virtual reality (VR) means that some of the in-person, practical requirements of certain courses could be conducted virtually. The truth is that we are not far off VR providing a means to complement clinical (bed-side) learning. The technology exists if universities are willing to explore the opportunity. 

Nobel Laureates as super tutors?

Now is the time for universities to think creatively about ways to provide learners with opportunities that may not be available to them in the physical world. One interesting avenue here could be the rise of the ‘super tutor’, enabled by the coalescence of ‘remote faculties’ within a consortium of universities. TED talks reveal how inspirational and engaging certain lecturers can be. Such an approach could mean that universities could collaboratively work together to arrange online lectures by the most able lecturers, or even Nobel Laureates. The barriers to the creation of such super tutors are low if the universities are prepared to work more collaboratively.

Now is the time for universities to think creatively about ways to provide learners with opportunities that may not be available to them in the physical world

Willingness to evolve

Education reform has been discussed for decades, particularly in relation to how the sector adopts technology. It’s widely understood that the sector has not maintained pace with technological advancements and students, from primary through to postgrad, are often not equipped with the digital tools that are available.

But there is no doubt that we are currently experiencing a sea change moment in history – not just in the history of education, but in the history of the world. The pandemic has turned everything on its head. So how will the HE sector choose to respond? Will they use this opportunity to transform the system from the inside out?

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