Opinion: Changes in Higher Education Inevitable After COVID-19

By Cameron Mirza

When COVID-19 swept the world in March this year, universities scrambled to adapt as they turned to online learning within a few short weeks. Today, the hastily organised Zoom lectures and rapid overhaul of administrative work had led to deeper questions on what higher education should operate and look like after this pandemic.

What the higher education sector needs right now is simple: a plan. For centuries, universities have been running on autopilot, in the main, using pre-existing rules and conventions, which had served them well until COVID-19 turned the world upside down. For the first time since the advent of the internet, universities must have a strategy to restructure its operation around the digital world.

As we speak, the world is entering the worst job market in three centuries. Fresh graduates are entering a bleak environment which their training had not prepared them for, while those who used to have a job but not anymore are struggling to rejoin the labour force. The demand to reskill and retrain workers would be high, yet our education systems might not be ready to rise to the task at this crucial moment.

It is not a surprise that we find it hard to reimagine big structural changes to universities. After all, these highly structured institutions have produced some of the best talents in the world. But today, we may find their rigid structures to be a double edged sword, where the legacy system of one student going to one university doing one course for four years would exclude many people who need to access knowledge and training right now. In this time of crisis, the legacy system has to be challenged.

In the post-pandemic economy, a higher education system that embraces distance learning should tackle several issues: Firstly, institutions need a clearly thought out vision of their teaching and learning strategy, with a sharp focus on effective and appropriate pedagogy that will meet the needs of students in a distance learning environment. Teachers will need a deep understanding of shaping curriculum plans to meet a digital environment that is very different to teaching face to face. Teachers will need to have a better understanding and skill set to use various technologies to the benefit of students, and that actually enhances the learning experience that is measured and tested before deployment, production value is increasingly important. Secondly, universities should consider normalising cross-institution research, where cloud computing could be used to share data among researchers and allow large experiments to be conducted in parallel at greater speed and lower cost. Thirdly, universities should consider making their knowledge and programmes more accessible, where online courses are offered freely to the workforce and wider society, and people may acquire credentials, issued and verified using blockchain technology, for specific skills they need to return to the workforce.

Change would not come without resistance. The traditional higher education model was built to be exclusive, and online learning challenges that paradigm. But in the post-pandemic economy, higher education stands to benefit the public much more when they allow knowledge, talents and resources to flow freely amongst an online network, rather than remaining as the elite, isolated institutions that they used to be. This requires a new vision, a  new paradigm, a new culture. 

Looking back at the universities themselves, it is worth mentioning that online learning does not always come with calls for revolutionary changes, as online learning has been around for many years. As teachers and students move classes into the virtual world, some might discover a lot of administrative work could have been optimised with technologies long before the pandemic. Tasks such as preparing class materials, setting timetables, and marking simple tests could all be easily optimised with artificial intelligence. Yet, many institutions still do it manually today. Teachers can collect data about students’ learning patterns online and adjust the curriculum accordingly. Students might even find the teaching assistants they talk to throughout the semesters are, in fact, chatbots led by AI. Technology can support teachers in their work rather than replace them, however, it is undeniable that we must embrace technology systemically. 

One clear shortcoming of online learning is the lack of physical group socialisation among students, as it plays a crucial part in helping students develop the soft skills they need to thrive when they enter the workforce and create friendships. While there is no replacement for genuine face-to-face learning experiences during the pandemic, teachers may compensate by adopting a blended learning approach, which would divide a student’s learning time between synchronous (real time interaction) and asynchronous (self-study) teachings.

No one knows what the future of higher education looks like, but when the dust settles and the pandemic is over, we may look at this point of history and see the glaring issues that prompted universities to change, and wonder why it took a global crisis for legacy institutions to rethink how they do things.

COVID-19 is the seismic shock needed to transform the higher education sector, and it will need a new type of transformative leadership to take us through this period. It needs to be forward-thinking, it needs to embrace innovation, it needs to create a new culture, and it needs to put both teachers and students at the heart of this transformation.

About the author:

Cameron Mirza has over 20 years of international experience in the education sector. Previously, he served several years in the Department for Education in the United Kingdom, the Director of Strategy for Higher Education Council in the Kingdom of Bahrain, Director of Strategy at the University of Bahrain, and the Director of Middle East and North African for Nottingham Trent University.

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