Higher Education after COVID-19: a world of opportunities

“Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes.” Yuval Noah Harari

When COVID stroke in Europe, in late February 2020, raising more questions faster than we were able to answer them, one thing most experts agreed on was that, “the world would never be the same again” and that “this disruptive reality would radically change our habits and we would never go back to the way we were”.

Three months have now passed. Slowly we are returning to our old lives. Leaving our houses and reconnecting with other people without using “Zoom” or “Teams”. Slowly we are going back to the way we used to be, despite what most experts predicted.

However, when it comes to work (and I am now back in campus), a few small big things have changed. Even at face-to-face meetings, I am not going back to making presentation, or print information when it is so much easier to just share my PC screen using the connecting apps currently available and that were so useful during the time I was working from home. This is an example almost non-noticeable of how COVID fast-forwarded the digitization processes in our lives.

When it comes to education and specifically Higher Education, we all know that digitization is not a new topic. There has been a trend towards digitalization for several years now, in terms of online offering at the higher education level.

Since 2012, Universities like Harvard or MIT, have been offering “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOC’s), that is, academic programs that are accessible through the internet. Harvard and MIT came together to create a company (EDx) specific to offer MOOC’s. This company was created at a time where there were significant changes regarding the growth in social adoption of Internet technologies.

According to “Inside Higher Ed” (https://www.insidehighered.com/), the number and amount of higher education students who attended online classes grew consistently in 2017. However, and at the same time there was an overall drop in the number of students in secondary education. In 2018, a third of all students in the U.S. attended at least one online course.

However, when COVID stroke and most of Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) changed to online classes, and despite the fact that evidence has shown us that:

  • Almost al HEI’s in Europe has managed to finish the current academic year (including final assessments) resorting only to online means;
  • International Students were able to complete their Programs in the comfort of their houses located in their home countries

It also revealed two major challenges for online classrooms:

  • Well-planned online learning experiences are significantly different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster.
  • Not everyone has access to connecting to the Internet, on computers.

According to a survey conducted by Universidade Católica Portuguesa’s polling centre (CESOP) in April 2020:  In Portugal, almost every Higher Education student has IT equipment at home that allows him or her to follow classes online. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Secondary and Basic Education.

Additionally, this survey has revealed that most students believed that their school performance had dropped and online classes fell behind to face-to-face classes when it comes to learning experience.

So, how can we deliver a good teaching experience and reach students who cannot afford remote learning IT equipment? Partnerships could be the answer to both questions.

Well-planned online learning experiences are significantly different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster. At this time, technological advances require new ways of teaching and they can provide much more interesting experiences than we sometimes can imagine.

In this context, partnerships with companies that can design educational materials and adjusted platforms for the virtual classroom may be the key. The CEO of a start-up working on Micro learning platforms, speaking on the future of Education, has once said, “Sometimes, people ask me how they can use power point presentations on online platforms. – Why do you want to use power point presentations on online platforms?”

Additionally, if we can reach students in remote areas in countries with emerging economies, where the supply at the higher education level is not sufficient to respond to the increasing demand from local populations, online education can be an equalizer factor. Once again, partnerships with IT and infrastructure suppliers could be the key to make education available to anyone everywhere.

COVID 19 was a disruptive situation that has forced Universities to change the way they work and the way they delivered their services. By compelling Higher Education Institutions to change, it has brought an enormous opportunity for digital transformation on them. A transformation that has for long been announced, but that had never materialized.

At this point, the future of Higher Education Institutions after COVID is still uncertain. However, I strongly believe that one of the trends in Higher Education in the near future will not involve programs fully delivered face-to-face on campus and life on campuses will never be the same. By joining forces with technology, universities’ campuses will be anywhere and everywhere.

Magda Resende Ferro has been working with Internationalization of HEIs, for the last 10 years, setting up the International Office at Universidade Católica Portuguesa – Porto, where she currently works as an internationalization manager and strategy developer.
Currently, her main activities focus on managing internationalization. She has recently published a book on “internationalization of HEI’s: a managerial approach” where she develops a management model for internationalization. Her main topics of research are: Management of Internationalisation and Internationalisation at Home Processes.