Back when higher learning institutions first started experimenting with online learning and teaching, nobody could predict that it will one day become global. All higher learning institutions in the world were deeply and immediately affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. With rapid virus’ spread, universities and colleges had to act promptly to protect their students, campuses and communities. Sudden closure of facilities, ceasing physical interaction and almost universal move to distance learning in lieu of on-campus teaching and research had a considerable impact on higher education institutions.
With the hit of the pandemic, universities encountered a challenge of moving from classroom instruction to online teaching and learning. One of the immediate needs was shifting instruction to online mode as well as keeping students engaged and focused. Although higher learning institutions were relatively better prepared for this change in comparison to schools, it is still evident that this shift was merely a replication of physical classes delivered online.
Since global health emergency allowed no time to incorporate virtual teaching methodologies, institutions reproduced regular in-class instructions on digital platforms. Synchronous online classes revealed a number of shortcomings such as lack of tutorial support and virtual learning resources as well as assessment and evaluation strategies not being suitable for new environment. Needless to say, there is a vast difference between courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster and well-planned online learning instruction. Therefore, these teaching and learning activities cannot be defined as “digital education”.
As a result of this shift, a new landscape is emerging in higher education. This new form should not be confused with a “new normal” since it is a global movement towards an educational experience not bounded by time limitation, rigid calendar and timetable, bricks and mortar as well as traditional classroom setting. Students should be empowered to choose their own pathways, curriculum and assessment to suit their needs rather than being asked to fit a standardised model. Likewise, learning outcomes should meet the demand of rapidly changing economy.
With online education taking the lead, there is a need for higher learning institutions to adopt this new mode of study by training the academic staff, redesigning the curriculum, investing in technology and incorporating digital resources. This calls for greater flexibility and responsiveness that can be achieved by utilising digital platforms. Taking into account the fact that instructors use a wide diversity of tools and platforms (i.e. Facebook Live, Google Classroom, Zoom, Webex etc.) for teaching and interaction, it will eventually make the access to online education for students even more complicated. One of the possible solutions is to mainstream the surge to digital platforms and online provision. Collaboration with external educational portals will enable institutions to overcome challenges of engaging additional manpower, reskilling existing workforce, redesigning the curriculum as well as creating high-quality digital content.
One of the key factors that will drive change in higher education landscape is the right leadership. While is it certain that institutions will be asked to play a bigger role in social and economic recovery, leaders should re-think the current model of education provision. With possible evolution of the pandemic, there is a need for a more sustainable digital education system that will foster innovation and improve the quality of teaching and learning. By implementing blended approach, students who encounter difficulties in coming back to campus will have the opportunity to continue their education and, at the same time, it will enable the institution to manage its operations more efficiently. Leaders’ priority should be helping university community to overcome the challenges created by uncertainty, identifying new opportunities and mobilising all available resources to achieve higher goals.
Today’s changing social and economic environment requires a radically different response from higher education. To evolve and be better prepared to meet the needs of society, institutions should view this as a game-changing moment in history and an opportunity to change. Digital transformation will revolutionise teaching and learning process in all institutions with a new hybrid mode becoming the norm. There should not be any attempts by higher education leaders to return to old ways of thinking as it may deem irresponsible and no longer relevant to the needs of society. The future of education cannot remain unchanged; therefore, leaders need to become proactive in seizing the opportunity for development. Universities have potential to shape the future by shifting from traditional education setting to innovative pathways for lifelong learning as well as offering knowledge and skills required in this rapidly changing world.