Almost overnight we’ve slipped into doing virtually everything online since the lockdown

While it has been relatively simple to go online for those with suitable laptops and adequate internet access, it’s not been so easy for many in the world.

Francisco Marmolejo

Francisco Marmolejo, education advisor to the Qatar Foundation (QF), reckons that worldwide only 60% of students have been able to transfer to remote teaching and learning systems and there’s an urgent need to address “the other 40% not able to access their teaching”.

He was speaking at the launch of a report titled New Schools of Thought: Innovative models for delivering higher education, which was unveiled witha virtual panel discussion between four experts from contrasting sections of the higher education community.

I wrote a feature article about the webinar for University World News, which focused on some of the more newsy lines from Ben Nelson, chair and CEO of Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute.

Dire warning

This included Nelson’s dire warning that if students are not convinced that all will be well with higher education next year they could “skip out on college” in 2020-21 and that could bankrupt some institutions.

His Minerva Schools operate with cohorts of a few hundred on each programme and allow students to live and study in seven different countries during a four-year degree course, with online learning through live video lectures and small group tutorials. The model was virtually bomb-proof during the coronavirus campus shutdowns. Apart from some students being stranded in various parts of the world their learning was largely unaffected by the pandemic.

But others have faced large scale disruption to their education and it is not just those in developing countries, where lack of bandwidth, unreliable supply of electricity and unaffordable wi-fi makes it impossible for students to simply flip from face-to-face classroom to online learning.

Even in the United States, less privileged students have struggled!

Pandemic laid bare inequalities

Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College, who was also on the QF and EIU webinar panel, said the sudden closure of campuses and residence halls due to the COVID-19 pandemic “laid bare all the inequalities that completely undermine a student’s ability to be a healthy, productive, present and engaged student”.

Mary Schmidt Campbell

Her college is part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium in the United States and is “a global leader in the education of women of African descent”.

Campbell said: “We switched from in-person to online education within a week and learned that 80% of our students had never taken an online course and that a significant number didn’t have adequate laptops or laptops at all.”

With so many students not having adequate access to the internet, she said: “We had to really rethink our pedagogy and our faculty was pretty extraordinary. It showed me that when we needed to, we could be really innovative.”

But plenty of students don’t think they are getting value for money, with Inside Higher Ed reporting that some American students are demanding at least partial tuition fee refunds and saying they are feeling short-changed with courses going online.

And many teachers have found the transition to online “traumatic”, with many universities poorly prepared for virtual learning and some teaching unions around the world blocking online teaching “because they fear that eventually they might be substituted”, according to Francisco Marmolejo.

Radical rethink

The New Schools of thought report is one of a growing number of studies calling for a radical rethink about the future direction of global higher education – a process already underway but which has been given extra urgency because of the changes forced on the world due to the pandemic

Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani

As Her Excellency Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani, vice-chair and CEO of the Qatar Foundation, pointed out at the opening of the webinar while their report was written before the world was hit by the coronavirus: “COVID-19 had done the impossible. It has changed the way we teach and learn almost overnight.”

She believes there is much merit in questioning the current “well-oiled machine” that global higher education has become and asks why “We talk about self-motivated learners, but we don’t let them choose. We talk about nurturing citizens of the world but we fail to teach them to love and care.”

New world order

Her words seem to resonate with the new world order, where care workers, delivery drivers and refuge collectors have suddenly become heroes while tax-avoiding millionaire businessmen are the new villains for asking governments to bail them out while pubs are closed and air travel is reduced to a bare minimum.

The message was taken up by several of the expert panel, with Campbell saying we need new forms of academic partnerships between public and private providers. “We have to get rid of the old marketing and competitive mode. That is not going to get us anywhere,” she said.

Marmolejo added that it wasn’t going to be enough for colleges simply to cooperate more. New forms of collaboration were required. Was he talking about mergers? If so, that’s going to be controversial.

Whether the impact of COVID-19 really does change international higher education for ever or whether it simply accelerates the move to greater online learning – or does so at least until world travel returns to some kind of normality – serious questions can now expect to get a fair hearing.

Rethink core values

Among them is the need is rethink the core value of education. “In the age of the internet the dissemination of knowledge is no longer paramount,” said Ben Nelson, adding: “Key is how to apply knowledge, how to use cognitive tools to new scenarios you have never accounted before.”

Minerva CEO Ben Nelson

Call it “wisdom”, he said, as he urged higher education to focus on application instead of tasks and memorization or what Sheikha Hind described as seeking knowledge. “It doesn’t come to you. You go to it,” she said, quoting the Arabic proverb.

Fund research separately

With an eye to the sky-high tuition fees charged, particularly to international students attending universities in countries like the United States, UK and Australia, Ben Nelson also called for an end to taking money received for teaching and giving it to researchers.

“Research is incredibly important in itself, but the vast majority of undergraduates and professional master’s (students) will never go into research,” he said.

“Make the argument to government that research is critical to society and the world at large and get it funded separately. Don’t have cross pollination between funding teaching and research. It creates all sorts of moral hazards!”

Just one more thing to ponder on as we try to make sense of what kind of ‘new normal’ we may discover when we finally emerge from the corona crisis.

  • See more in my University World News feature article and the New Schools of Thought: Innovative models for delivering higher education report.