Why COVID-19 is our best chance to change higher education for good

Shai Reshef, president and founder of University of the People, on how virtual courses, when designed to be taught remotely, can provide the same level of education and support for students all over the globe

As universities look set to continue their ongoing postponement due to COVID-19, and hundreds of staff remain likely to face redundancy, there has arguably never been a better time to talk about the future of higher education. With traditional universities being forced to move online just to remain operational, it seems only natural that an increased focus be placed on the role technology will play in overhauling the system.

The tide of change

The current pandemic, preceded by the lecturer strikes over the past few years, has meant that students will continue to miss out on months of valuable tuition. As a result, many have begun to lose trust in the system, as evidenced by the more than 250,000 students in the UK who have already signed a petition asking for both their tuition and accommodation fees to be waived this year in light of lectures being moved online or cancelled altogether. What’s more, with the news that some universities are already starting to plan how they will run the next academic year online, if indeed social distancing measures are extended into autumn, would-be students who have yet to enter higher education may well choose to defer their studies. In isolation, traditional institutions may well be able to ride out the storm that comes about as a result of these factors, but together they will be left facing a dangerous cut in income.

While most universities have continued to teach via distance learning, it has proved difficult for some to make the transition without compromising the quality and integrity of their teaching. The fact of the matter is, moving an entire institution online is no easy feat and a number of factors – such as back-end IT support, Learning Management System (LMS), training, motivation and culture – will play into its success.

The importance of CPD

As well as being trained in how to actually teach online, lecturers also need to become acquainted with the unique challenges faced by a remote student body. Motivation and self-discipline, for example, play a huge role in a learner’s ability to study alone. This is where things like Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs), tend to fall down; as reported in a recent study by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they have a completion rate of only around four percent.

Teachers must be able to integrate technology with their expertise to foster a learning environment that is both interactive and supportive. Students should also be encouraged to engage in collaborative peer-to-peer study outside of allotted class time as this not only helps students to gain a better understanding of course content through shared discourse, but also helps to create a university culture as students feel more easily able to interact with each other.

When designed to be taught remotely, online courses can help ensure that the same level of education and support is provided for students all over the globe and, if done correctly, this complete upheaval of universities could have profound effects on future access to higher education. UNESCO estimates that by 2025, 98 million qualified students worldwide will be excluded from higher education due to a shortage of university places.

The future is digital

Owing to their flexibility and setting, online courses can be liberating for those who would otherwise struggle to hold down the demands of everyday life while at the same time working towards a degree in traditional higher education. As a result, people who may have previously missed out on higher education due to financial, geographic, political or personal constraints can be given another chance to study online.

This unprecedented period should be used as a wake-up call for educators, institutions and students alike to place less importance on the physical attendance of brick-and-mortar universities as the sole way to gain accredited qualifications. Instead, viable alternatives should be held up as examples of how the future of education could develop. This, in turn, could go a long way to help address the inequalities that currently exist in the higher education system as access becomes more easily scaleable and is democratised as a result.

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