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The year 2020 is a year to remember in the 21st Century. Peoples’ lives have been disrupted by the Covid pandemic globally, with no regard to race, religion, creed, or such differentiators. According to the World Economic Forum, over 1.2 billion learners in 186 countries have been affected. How has the pandemic impacted the higher education sector, and what is going to be the future of higher education post-Covid pandemic?
An immediate response to the pandemic situation by many of the countries was to go into to lock down, and this meant that physical campuses of universities had to shut down too. This resulted in educational institutions and universities going completely online. Face-to-face classes were canceled or rather changed to online mode. Although many universities have been exploring blended learning and online learning over the years since the beginnings of Massive Open Online Courses and perhaps even before, the extent of massive disruption by Covid-19 is unimagined.
It is my opinion that most universities had not anticipated such a risk and prepared for complete closure for extended periods of time. Nevertheless, the institutions, including the students and faculty members, have taken to the use of technology during this pandemic time to redefine the ways of teaching and learning and have managed better than expected in comparison to not having any lessons at all. Some were more prepared than others. However, it is difficult to conclude the success of online teaching and learning during the pandemic when we compare it to regular lessons during the period of normalcy prior to that. Technology has allowed us to stay connected, be functional, and even explore new areas of teaching and learning during the pandemic.
However, the massive, sudden, and unexpected transition to online learning has meant that faculty members had very little time to go through proper curriculum planning for online learning- this certainly affects the quality of teaching and learning. As we know, not all teaching materials, teaching and learning activities, and learning outcomes are suitable for online learning. In general, student learning outcomes can be classified as knowledge-based, skills-based, and attitude/values-based outcomes.
Traditional lectures and didactic teaching tend to focus more on knowledge acquisition, and switching to online learning has been fairly straightforward with interactive and synchronous online lectures via conference technologies such as Zoom, or through asynchronous online videos posted in the traditional learning management system. Both faculty members and students have gotten used to using videos that are home-made, without the professional edge expected of online videos in the early days of online courses. Tech tools such as mobile phones and the commonly used Power Point, Microsoft, and Google applications have helped to make a smooth transition without cost investment and ease. The use of conference technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft TEAMS have become the norm, so much so that these companies have seen explosive growth due to the pandemic.
“Student-centric learning methods such as project-based and problem-based learning are not easy to implement in a completely online learning environment, and many faculty members have resorted to extending the project timelines or re-scoping the projects to focus on a simpler problem/ limiting the focus”
However, student-centric learning methods such as project-based and problem-based learning are not easy to implement in a completely online learning environment, and many faculty members have resorted to extending the project timelines or re-scoping the projects to focus on a simpler problem/ limiting the focus. Although technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft TEAMS, YouTube have been well used for online conferences and student presentations, which happen at the end of the projects, the support process during project-based learning can be challenging when it is done completely online. Since many universities have been encouraging and embracing the use of student-centric teaching methods, the current situation does affect the quality of teaching and learning.
Imagine that a student has to build a prototype of a product. But it is not possible or becomes limited due to lockdown and social distancing. In that case, the teams have to use virtual techniques or resort to stopping to discussions of proposed ideas. The practical aspect cannot be realized. Another aspect is the teaching and learning of practical skills. Typically, practical skills are in the field or experimental laboratory spaces where students can be physically engaged, especially in authentic, experiential settings, possibly in collaborative groups. However, the mode of online learning restricts the acquisition of practical skills.
In other words, it is certain that online learning is not equivalent to regular face-to-face or blended lessons, and it will have some gaps. This would mean that students could learn less in comparison to regular classes. A common cry from employers even before the pandemic is that graduates are not well prepared for work, especially in work-related skills such as collaborative skills, critical thinking, problem-solving etc. In most places around the world, there has been a disruption in our lives for almost 8- 10 months. This means that student preparation for higher studies and employment is likely to be impacted. An implication of this could be that lifelong and just-in-time learning is likely to become more emphasized and pronounced to fill this unavoidable gap.
The pandemic experience has also challenged universities and educational institutions to rethink their student recruitment strategies, review their curriculum, and pedagogy, and propelled them to embrace more blended learning or technology enhanced learning approaches. Higher education post-covid will be technology-driven.
This pandemic experience has also highlighted key areas of weakness/gaps in the current educational technology sector. While Learning Management Systems have been long established for over 25 years now, educational technology solutions for student-centric learning to support, monitor, assess, and provide feedback on collaborative learning, experiential and project/problem-based learning is still catching up. Technology firms have been pushed to innovate in areas like personalized learning and online assessment of essays using AI technology. The pandemic will certainly bring about positive changes and catalyze significant growth in the educational technology sector, which seems to have been taking a slower pace than other fields such as fintech.
Key areas for educational technology companies to focus on will be (1) learning analytics, (2) use of artificial intelligence for personalized and collaborative learning, (3) use of AI and analytics for assessment, (4) Use of the Internet of Things (IoT) for remote learning in making use of Maker Spaces/Labs, etc., (5) Use of Robotics in remote learning for monitoring and support, (6) Use of Augmented/Virtual Reality and Simulations to aid teaching and learning, especially in experiential/immersive learning and learning practical skills.
In addition to managing the core business of teaching and learning, universities need to also consider underpinning and peripheral services that influence this core business. For instance, in moving towards online learning/embracing more technology-driven teaching and learning, universities need to consider the IT infrastructure of the university, cloud security, Learning Management System and other integrated educational technology services, library services, student experiences support services (online queries, online counseling), digital divide, preparedness for students, faculty and staff in gearing towards technology-driven teaching and learning. Given that technology-driven teaching and learning is here to stay, universities need to invest more funding and resources in all aspects of fundamental, core, and peripheral services behind the technology-driven teaching and learning. The universities need to have a new blueprint for technology-driven teaching and learning. This can also be in terms of what they are teaching and researching.
On the other hand, this transition may not be easy given that the pandemic situation has not only created a gap in the learning path of students but also required universities to put a limit on international students. All these unavoidable measures have implications for the financial management of universities, and therefore national, government, and international organizations have to aid the post-covid technology-driven teaching and learning.
In sum, the future of teaching and learning will certainly be very different post-covid and will be technology-driven, pushing the boundaries to enhance the learning experience and change the scope of university learning to be in collaboration with workplace learning and development. We will likely see more work-based, just-in-time, lifelong learning, and a strong growth in educational technology services and tools/systems, and innovations. Overall, the post-covid period spells an opportunity for growth for the educational technology sector and technology-driven education. Caution must be taken that it will not be a smooth transition, and concerted effort has to be made to strategically address the challenges, seize the opportunities and redefine teaching and learning in higher education and this requires partnerships and collaborations between the various players; universities, educational technology companies, industries, and funding organizations. Perhaps the industrial partners can be funding organizations too.