Quality of education must remain high if unis are to remain competitive, argues De Montfort lecturer Brett Koenig
As universities embark on their campus sabbaticals and on the preparation of virtual teaching environments, this crisis may serve to expose the degree to which some institutions have been dragging their heels in the inevitable move towards the growth of opportunities in the distance-learning/blended course sector.
For those with the foresight, this crisis could serve to shake-up the higher education industry.
Many institutions are frantically trying to provide a semblance of an organised, online offering ahead of a challenging year to come. Whilst short-term solutions will not be perfect, it is important for universities to react proficiently and strategically. The global pandemic can serve as an opportunity to expand access to a range of students in a more environmentally friendly manner.
Distance learning will not replace the campus experience, but it is important during this transition that the quality of teaching does not suffer, with students already demanding refunds for tuition fees.
It is often the case that institutional structures can be the biggest barrier to change. The emergence of COVID-19 now means that departments, faculties and administrators are working harmoniously to achieve a common goal. Colleagues in different faculties have rallied together to share resources and there is a collaborative approach to the problem. In my experience, colleagues have shared online teaching webinars and provided technical support to help improve the virtual classroom experience. This is crucial as educators must be able to integrate technology to provide engagement opportunities for students. There cannot be a drop in the quality of education being provided if universities are to remain competitive.
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Whilst the short-medium term may look bleak, UNESCO predicted that the demand for higher education would rise to 414 million by 2030 from just 99.4 million in the year 2000. The UK is a haven for international students, with only the US securing larger numbers globally. The net economic impact of international students from 2015-16 was around £20 billion. We therefore need to look beyond the short term and plan for the growth of international students who may look to distance learning and blended courses.
It must be stressed that online delivery does not come without its challenges. At present, technology such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom are providing a short-term solution, but the use of these platforms needs refining and time dedicating to further enrich the student experience.
There is a difficult balance between providing effective content in a time-sensitive manner, due to the fact that the coronavirus crisis has thrust these changes onto universities in the midst of the final term. In a sense, the great online experiment which is currently taking place cannot be fairly judged. At present, the delivery is emergency remote teaching and so there is a contrast between what has happened and what can happen. With the emergence of technology comes challenges for students and staff. For instance, educators will want to encourage online discussions through forums, but with this comes the added responsibility of monitoring and ensuring appropriate content is posted.
The most obvious challenge is relationships. The ability to build strong and meaningful relationships with students is a by product of face-to-face interaction and social exchange. It is unrealistic to think this can be artificially recreated but we have to take steps to address this. The wellbeing of staff and students will need to be carefully considered as we move forward.
As we progress from the great online experiment into a blended future, what needs to change? We need to ensure that the experience is student centred rather than entirely focused on the technology itself. The key to improving the space is to ensure engagement and collaboration by making the virtual classroom a social experience. We must provide contextually relevant and immersive content which engages students. We cannot let students press play and walk away, we must provide interactions and pathways to allow them to truly immerse themselves in deep learning.
The benefits of physical attendance and the campus experience are demonstrable. Many of my students during our virtual catch-ups have emphasised that they are not having issues with content or delivery, but rather, they miss the human interaction without the need to raise their virtual hands and hope that their Wi-Fi is feeling co-operative. I do not think that the future is entirely digital, but this pandemic has raised clear challenges as we move to a digital era. Universities now have the chance to change pedagogy to address these challenges. Whenever we do push past this crisis, it may leave higher education in a more accessible, scalable position to meet the needs of a digital era.
Brett Koenig is a lecturer in law at De Montfort Law School. He teaches on the LPC and undergraduate LLB. He is a former solicitor.