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COVID-19: An Unexpected and Unusual Driver to Online Education

The EvoLLLution | COVID-19: An Unexpected and Unusual Driver to Online Education.
It is critical that upon returning to campus, institutions consider how to integrate the online modality into their curriculum, and how to do it well.

Based on statistics offered by UNESCO, 1.7 billion students and learners around the world are unable to attend school or university as of March 23rd, 2020. This number accounts for 90% of the word’s student population. In the wake of this situation created by the COVID-19 outbreak, most universities have asked their faculty to move courses online without gauging the challenges of teaching an entire curriculum online. And many university administrations are faced with the burden of moving online hundreds of courses at once. What message does this unexpected rush to teach online send out to higher education? What are the challenges often experienced in online higher education, and what are the short-term and long-term implications of this situation on integrating online courses in higher education?

Online education increases its legitimacy in higher education

The sudden and unexpected turn to online education is nevertheless a step further into online higher education worldwide. Since the Internet started playing a role in universities for course delivery in the late 1990s, higher education institutions have been gradually leveraging this innovation for a change in strategic direction. Convenience for working adults and the demand for such education from millennials forced universities to make use of online instruction to enrich course content to attract their clientele. As further needs emerge, online education increases in legitimacy and solidifies its irrevocable raison d’être in the higher education arena.

For instance, through flipped classroom, some university instructors realized that making course materials available online for students is the best pedagogical technique to teach some academic topics. The benefits are not only pedagogical but also include social and economic. For digital natives, online is the preferred medium for social interactions and their expectations are increasing for multimodality and online tools at university. For working adults, taking online instead of in-person courses has an economic benefit. Online content also fosters global knowledge, international partnerships, content sharing and regional collaboration among universities, and provides education to refugees and prisoners. All these elements expand universities’ service missions, and in other parts of the world, online education is used to solve issues caused by mass higher education. And now, online education is being used to circumvent in-person meetings to prevent a pandemic from further spreading. 

Common challenges faced by online international higher education

Delivering courses online is penetrating almost all universities around the world at different paces, ranging from the offline drop-and-go model to the highly intensive, well-structured and fully online programs. Yet, various challenges are still getting in the way of e-learning through universities around the world. Connectivity issues, the lack of infrastructure and cost of data are often cited as barriers to online education in African universities, while some Asian countries such as India and China refer to financial costs, regulations, the digital gap and the cultural change for professors as their main challenges.

In Europe, students’ self-motivation and self-organization skills in fully online education settings are often highlighted as challenges to universities’ online shift. And there is a common misperception that teaching or taking courses online might be less demanding than doing the same face-to-face. Hence, the challenge of designing courses online is expressed in academia across the world, including North America and Australia. Keeping up with the technology and getting faculty to adapt to the ensuing cultural change also challenge online education in North American and Australian universities. In Latin America, achieving a higher level of engagement with students and ensuring quality in online courses are highlighted as challenges. Without pretending to be exhaustive, these are only some of the diverse challenges to online higher education,  but it is moving forward faster and faster.

Short-term and long-term implications for higher education

With COVID-19, these challenges come upfront and impede universities’ efforts to shift online. Faculty are looking for tips to teach successfully online, and students self-organization skills are being tested. A panel discussion hosted on March 20th, 2020 by The Chronicle of Higher Education described the coronavirus forcing faculty online as a situation comparable to “drinking out of a fire hose.” This mandatory online move has, in fact, taken higher education by surprise.

In the midst of such an unexpected situation, the debate should not be focused on the opposition between optimists and skeptics. Optimists think that online education should become mainstream from now on in higher education. However, skeptics, in light of the challenges associated with online education, are rather doubtful that it would play any major role in the future of higher education.

The short-term question should rather be how to make online education as good and reliable as possible, so that while it is the only option for higher education to operate,  teaching and learning experiences could be satisfying and of the highest –quality possible. As a result, students and instructors would get the best of it.

In the long term, when the situation returns to normal again, higher education institutions might consider making online education an intrinsic part of their environment. Making it mandatory for students to take some courses entirely online can be a starting point, as a few conventional universities have already initiated it. For universities, taking this path is just in line with the prevailing digital culture in our society. Moreover, the growth in online education over the last decade indicates that an increasing shift to online direction is the way forward for higher education institutions, not a replacement for on-campus instruction.

Whether through blended learning for on-campus students or fully online learning for distant learners, efforts should be encouraged to identify best practices, integrate new and emerging technologies, train faculty to be more agile and willing to use these online tools, make conventional universities more bimodal, and to make access to online education more affordable, more convenient and more engaging to students and learners from all walks of life.

Recent events indicate that public safety and public health are strengthened if online education makes strides around the world. In this regard, making it affordable, having governments encourage and invest in universities’ online capacity building, would not only save formal education in times of social uncertainty and global crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will also save us from serious public health disasters.



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