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ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19


In early May 2020, EAIE held a webinar called “Community moments” with the title “Online learning, yes we can”. I had the pleasure of being the invited guest. One of the most poignant responses after the webinar was a personal communication I received from one of the participants, who complemented the discussion and then stated: “(…) I found it was just what was needed after these long months of adapting and reflecting.” I mention this because it gives a glimpse into the hard work and engagement happening right across higher education to ensure that students remain well- served in these tricky times. We could contrast this with the voice of an international student we interviewed in a recent episode of “Kiron talks…”, who described the lack of information and guidance he was receiving, his insecurity and that of his fellow students. For sure, Covid-19 and the need for the “online pivot” due to campus closures has led to a lot of turbulence.

In a recent UNESCO presentation on adapting education systems during the Covid-19 crisis, the chief of section for ICT in Education, Fengchun Miao, differentiated between three consecutive phases of transition. The first phase is about rapid response. In higher education some are already calling this phase “emergency online learning” or more cynically the “Zoom University”. In this phase, the focus has been on ensuring students’ access to content and offering socio-psychological support. While  this has been solved individually by higher education institutions, online content from other providers has also been gaining traction.

Indeed, there has been an immense run on massive online courses (MOOCs) on all the well-known platforms, which Dhawal Shah from Class Central, a search engine for MOOC courses, says reminds him of the year of the MOOC nearly a decade ago. Shah and his team stated in a recent analysis that by the end of April, nine million learners had visited Class Central, compared to just 500,000 by the end of February, the MOOC platform Coursera received over ten million course enrolments in a 30- day period, up 644% from last year, and edX, another MOOC platform, became one of the world’s top 1,000 websites. In China, this development was enforced through government, with the Chinese ministry of education issuing instructions for remote higher education provision to be facilitated through online learning platforms like XuetangX. The trouble with this phase is that it is evidently re-living many of the disappointments associated with the first generation of MOOCs, for instance, they are not accessible to everyone and often have a very transactional view of learning: content, tests, then certificate.

So, it is important to have a reflective phase following on from the first solutions. In this phase a “new normal” of types has been established, i.e. courses continue to some extent, and workarounds for examinations and to ensure progress have been found. In this phase, stock should be taken to  see what is being achieved well with these solutions, and what is missing, and particularly which learner groups are not coping well with these solutions. The real concern here is that underserved groups will be struggling even more under this ‘new normal’, which will only amplify inequalities in higher education provision. So, the second phase, the new normal, should be accompanied by evaluations and monitoring. In this phase, it makes sense to take inspiration from studies on the place of online learning and MOOCs in higher education teaching and learning. A very recent systematic review by Sarah Lambert of Deakin University provides some insights into how online learning can be made more inclusive through careful guidance and didactics built around it. This meta-study identified, classified, and reviewed the equity and inclusion purposes and outcomes of MOOCS and open education programmes between 2014 and 2018 in 46 studies. The insights showed that those programmes that were successful combined elements of learning and community  support, of online and offline delivery and carefully redesigned the learning programme for this extended learning environment. This picks up on the rather elementary insight that MOOCs can be integrated into learning programmes in different ways, but also on the insight that instructional design requires careful didactical design that considers how to integrate support, guidance and interaction into the new learning space – and with this, it can achieve more and at scale than purely on-campus lessons.

But perhaps there is more potential for change and improvement within this transitional process? Miao suggests using the momentum and the lessons from the evaluation and monitoring phase; policy makers and institutional leaders should move into a third phase, which is about planning for the future.

This is echoed in an article from a student talking about the “Zoom University”. The student author, Nicholas Chrapliwy from Duke University, states on reflection: “And in some ways, the secondary characteristics of remote learning have deconstructed elements of our pedagogy. The opt-out pass/fail system, dropped final exams, reduced workloads, extended deadlines, and lectures recorded to watch when it’s convenient are all revelatory actions for how arbitrary these structures were to begin with.” This may act as a reminder to us all that we started out the year discussing the future of higher education and how it should change, and perhaps now we have the opportunity to strategically plan for some of this change.

One of the strands of debate was one I was involved in as project leader for a study into the future  of higher education called “AHEAD”. This study looked at digital trends but argued that it was more helpful to conceive of the future of the higher education landscape as different pathways. We hypothesised: “Flexibility of provision of learning which is not based on a common path of linearity (like climbing a ladder), but spiral shaped (interchanging spheres of depth) and  which is not based  on fixed content (‘knowledge canons’) is a challenge for higher education. However, openness of provision, unbundling of higher education programmes and closer, more individualised support of learners by educators, are all being facilitated through digital solutions.” This view chimes neatly  with a vision for education, which was formulated by Josie Fraser in 2010, as part of a campaign to reenvisage education in the United Kingdom initiated by Doug Belshaw and others called “Purpos/ed”. In her statement, Josie Fraser said: “We cannot expect education built upon, and educators who model, a fixation with certainty and inflexibility to meet the urgent and ongoing needs of pressing social, economic and political change.” So, to end this essay, I would like to encourage us all to think creatively and imaginatively about how we can use new forms of teaching and learning to help higher education contribute more effectively to the challenges of inclusivity and creating a sustainable world for us all.

Dominic Orr

Dominic Orr is the Research Lead at Kiron Open Higher Education GmbH. He is also a Professor for Education Management at the University of Nova Gorica.

The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which ACA is publishing every Tuesday since early May. The pieces are authored by well-known experts in the field of international higher education. The basic question posed to them all is if and how the post-COVID-19 world will differ from the one we have until recently been used to.