By Nadia Elaref, Ph.D., President of ESLSCA University, Egypt
The sudden transformation from the traditional model of in-class education to online distance education due to the pandemic has radically changed the basic operating model of Higher Education (HE) worldwide. According to UNESCO, on April 1st, 2020, schools and higher education institutions were closed in 185 countries affecting more than 1.5 billion learners, constituting 89.4 percent of total enrolled learners worldwide. The pandemic is forcing a rethink and re-evaluation of universities’ classical business models which focused on the university as brick and mortar to a Click university as a result of technological disruption and online learning. Higher education institutions realized that a different pedagogy is required for online teaching and that they should focus on the disruptive implications of internet-enabled innovation and its role in distance teaching and learning.
Currently, academics at thousands of universities across the world are attempting to respond to the threats stemming from the sudden dawning of the pandemic while maintaining staff and students’ welfare, shutting down campuses and adapting to the virtual world of academia… online teaching and exams. Online education which was usually perceived as a niche with few universities incurring capital investments in the required facilities in order to extend their reach to a wider target market has become the new normal. Now it has become mandatory that HE institutions invest in digital capabilities in order to survive and thrive in such a challenging environment.
In emerging economies, such as Egypt, there are additional challenges due to a population exceeding 100 million divided almost equally between both genders; half of which reside in rural areas where the degree of poverty and illiteracy is quite high; and there is a marked lack of basic services such as health, utilities, education and technical infrastructure. In spite of those critical shortcomings, due to the lockdown imposed by the pandemic, Egyptian educational institutions- both public and private- had to undergo a sudden and abrupt digital transformation. This emergency transitioning to distance learning highlighted the fact that many students lack the required infrastructure needed to maintain continuity in their university education.
Nowadays universities need to delve more into their current positioning and their value propositions. Pre- pandemic the main measures of success of HE institutions was helping students worldwide to fulfill their goals and prepare them for employment; and to stimulate research and innovation; in addition to meeting the needs of employers. Will the technological disruption of digital technology and online learning reflect those success factors? Universities need to foster new capabilities and discover means of leveraging technology in the virtual setting.
A survey conducted by AACSB of 300 member business schools revealed that 99 percent of schools shifted some courses online; while 80 percent achieved 100 percent online delivery in a matter of weeks. The major challenges and critical concerns due to digital transformation of education that were repeatedly mentioned by the schools were as follows: implementing experiential learning alternatives ( 40.1% ); faculty lacking online skills ( 33.9%); technology challenges (33.6%); work-life balance (33.2%); and fluctuating engagement levels (27.7%) among others.
In Egypt the problems encountered were almost similar, according to the feedback received from some faculty members in public and private universities: “…some students face internet connection issues… many universities did not purchase program licenses, so lectures are using free trials which offers only 40 minutes …many instructors and students lack the skills needed for online… it took much more time to explain online than face-to-face… online lessons are a lot more tiring… students’ engagement and attendance is lesser than usual…” Developing support plans for instructors, students and administrators has become a priority.
Thus it is obvious that the sudden transition from face-to-face to online teaching has come with major challenges and raised many concerns regarding the future of HE, many of which were reported in a survey by the International Association of Universities (IAU) among other surveys; such as:
- Will online replace the traditional campus?
- Are students, faculty, and staff prepared for such a change?
- Is there a solid technical infrastructure to support the transition and fulfill the needs of various fields of study?
- How to ensure the quality and credibility of entry exams and academic assessments?
- Which benefits should be emphasized? Which should be put aside?
- Are there opportunities for growth?
- Is there an optimum level of operation for academic and financial appropriateness?
One of the problems associated with prolonged lockdowns of schools could be the negative impact on marginal students…students who are lagging behind academically. It is vital to note that there is a relationship between socioeconomic status and internet connectivity for lower-income students whether in developed or developing countries. Loss of access to campus buildings means that they have lost their only opportunity for using a computer and a study space. Having only one computer at home may not be helpful if students have to share it with a parent working remotely or other siblings. Another issue is learning loss due to the massive disruption of cancelled testing and assessments which might result in difficulties for borderline students to catch-up again. The pandemic is amplifying the socioeconomic divide in education worldwide.
Many disadvantaged students in Egypt do not have access to technology or fast and reliable internet which impacts negatively on their academic performance. Egypt’s private and public schools had to adapt their examinations due to the lockdown. The regulatory bodies issued new measures allowing schools to substitute sit-in exams by other assessment tools, such as assignments, projects, and online exams. Few universities in Egypt acquired and implemented a proctoring exam platform although the overall feedback was that “online assessments- exams, projects, assignments, etc- do not reflect academic competencies or differentiate between the academic performance of the learners”. Still one of the major problems facing some schools, such as medicine, engineering, nursing among others is the management of practical exams and assessments.
Before pandemic, HE institutions enjoyed disruption-free growth, where demand exceeded supply. Today they are facing unprecedented challenges due to the shift to fully remote instruction. Competition is emerging from sectors that were not taken into consideration before. Digitalization and innovation in information technology will offer greater student choice and tempt learners to massive open online courses (MOOCs). Another challenge can rise if top-tier universities decide to increase their student population – in order to overcome the drop in registration- by expanding their online programs. It is critically important to identify potential rivals and sources of competitive threats. Also, there is the potential of increased risk of faculty and staff burnout due to the pressure exerted in order to cope with the most rapid transformation of education service delivery in history. According to a number of professors in Egypt: “….everybody is suddenly talking about Zoom, Skype, and Google Classroom…what are the pros and cons? What will be the impact of this digital transformation on education and the quality of graduates who will join the job market?”
It seems obvious that Covid-19 could be driving a long-overdue revolution in education worldwide and probably there is no going back after this pandemic crisis is over. There is a pressing need to develop a robust business model built on students who might now stay at home and learn online. This raises a number of issues such as the financial implications of maintaining staff and faculty, campus facilities; and should universities start considering disposing of under-utilized lands and buildings especially as many are facing demands for fee reductions from students frustrated at the loss of face-to-face teaching and university experience.
Definitely, the whole world is stuck in limbo with the pandemic and HE will continue online with everybody suffering from the Zoom Gloom. The one big question for universities will be how far can they utilize online and hybrid teaching modules in order to get around lockdowns that are keeping millions of students out of lecture halls across the world. It is possible to provide some guidelines for HE institutions on leading such a large-scale transformation of virtual learning while maintaining an adequate quality level:
- Preparedness is crucial as long as uncertainty is reigning.
- Redesign course offerings and programs to align with job market demands.
- Rethink the face-to-face courses so that they are fully adaptable to the online mode.
- Train, support, and mentor faculty to teach more effectively online: how to engage students; lead good online discussions; make the most of the internet.
- Determine which experience must be done in- person and which can be done remotely.
- Design new programs.
- Develop flipped classrooms.
- Adjust and adapt the current evaluation policy whether for schools, programs, faculty, students or administrators.
- Leverage predictive data analytics in the classroom to gain a better understanding of students’ engagement and comprehension of content, course design, and to identify students at risk.
- Connect learners through social media.
- Make online learning challenging and engaging.
Last but not least, universities should explore white opportunity spaces in their attempt to survive such a crisis: reach new geographical areas especially low-touched economies; find new segments; leverage partnerships to create satellite campuses; and nurture a culture of innovation while mastering agility at a distance. Interestingly in the IAU survey, almost 60 percent of the HE institutions reported a positive effect of COVID-19 on the creation of new opportunities with partner institutions; and 40 percent reported that it strengthened existing partnerships.
This crisis will definitely change all societal institutions worldwide though the extent and exact nature of that change is still vague as the only decision-maker so far is the Coronavirus. Higher education institutions will certainly play a major role in shaping the post-COVID-19 world by reshaping the future of education. In spite of this radical digital disruption it has been most enlightening to witness the emerging flexibility and creativity of regulatory bodies in Egypt, and the strong collaboration among all stakeholders in order to cope with the digital transformation of higher education.
- AACSB Quick-Take Survey on COVID-19: B-schools together in the pandemic, AACSB Business Education Intelligence, 10 April 2020.
- Harkavy, Ira Sjur Bergan, Tony Gallagher & Hilligje van’t Land, Universities must help shape the post COVID-19 world, University World News, 18 April 2020.
- Jack, Andrew Coronavirus: universities face a harsh lesson, Financial Times, 21 April 2020.
- Kemp, Neil Higher education’s distance learning delivery dilemma, University World News, 28 September 2019.
- Marinoni, Giorgio & Hans de Wit, A severe risk of growing inequality between universities, University World News, 8 June 2020.
- Marinoni, Giorgio Hilligje van’t Land & Trine Jensen, The impact of COVID-19 on higher education around the world, IAU Global Survey Report, June 2020.
- Krumbholz, Gertje, University teaching in times of CIVID-19- an online experiment, DAAD- Egypt, April 2020.