Higher education after COVID: going virtual

There will definitely a before and after once the global pandemic gets under control. These changes will be seen across different societal spheres: public health policies, economics, workforce, and no doubt, in the way that education is offered today.

The abrupt change that the schools had to go through once COVID hit was almost a traumatic experience for everyone involved. It required moving the classroom to a virtual world in a short period, putting extra weight on the families that all of the sudden had one or more kids at home depending on the screen to learn for several hours a day, among other things. Teachers, on the other side, independent of their comfort level with technology, had to quickly adapt the material made for an in-person experience, which created a new set of challenges. This is also true for higher education, with some added problems on their own. The question, once this is over, what would be left behind from this experience?

By doing a quick search on Google about the future of higher education from now own, several articles highlight different aspects of the aftermath, with one being the most common across all of them: the definite establishment of online education.

Technology, more than ever, moves quickly, and over time we all have had to catch up in some way. At the same time, part of the downsides is the excessive time spent looking at the screen, while affecting social interactions, especially important in the formational stages of life.

In times of COVID, however, technology has been the true lifeline of education. The online classroom reaches beyond geographic boundaries, which presents an opportunity for the schools to globalize their contents and impact. This has been happening for a while with several websites that offer online courses, to be done at your own pace for free, while offering paid certification from a large number of universities that have accommodated their contents to cater to the online student (Coursera, Udemy, edX, Khan Academy, among others).

The tipping point of the undergoing global pandemic forced these changes across all actors. As the enrollment in higher education institutions keeps dropping, at both national and international levels (16% in total; 43% for international students[1] in Fall 2020), online education seems like a good alternative, while cutting costs for those students that cannot afford living expenses and higher tuitions.

Since the infrastructure to ramp up online learning is now there, it will be a matter of time to develop it into a more permanent system. However, this will greatly impact other areas related to higher education, such as jobs and the economic aspects.

Other perspectives (not as positive or technology-focused) mentioned the following[2]:

  • After COVID, institutions that were financially weak before the pandemic hit, will come out even more affected economically. If the government does not step up in the nearby future, universities may search for economic support elsewhere, like international private holdings.
  • There be less money per student, and that can affect other areas like student services, campus maintenance, community engagements, which in turn, would cause job losses.
  • The students might prefer some of the aspects of online learning, even if they can eventually be on campus. Maybe some of them will still prefer having the classes recorded so they can access them at any time and go at their own pace. How is the school going to respond to that?
  • The -post-pandemic economic scenario will likely bring attention to certain areas of research to detriment of others. Or worse, some of the research funds can be moved somewhere else. As an example, Chile[3] closed their scholarship program to study abroad for two years to “use those funds to support the health crisis”, creating a gap that will likely have consequences in their plan to bring a more qualified workforce into their economy.

What will be then the role of the universities in the next five, ten years? Will be the people prefer to get an online law degree from Harvard while working in Korea, instead of going to any other less-well-known school back home? I do not believe that the online model works in every case, and at the same time, the experience of being in school, casual (and meaningful) interactions with peers and mentors cannot erase the college experience in favor of online learning. But some things are here to stay.

[1] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/11/16/survey-new-international-enrollments-drop-43-percent-fall

[2] https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/10/16/the-future-of-higher-education-after-covid/

[3] https://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/opinion/2020/06/28/becas-chile-del-recorte-como-caridad-a-la-incertidumbre-total/ (in Spanish)

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