Global Higher Education: Paradoxes of the Pandemic
16.06.2020

In our previous post, I explained why it is so important for us to follow the global experience of overcoming the consequences of the pandemic in the context of higher education. The public discourse on the issue is constantly developing. It gradually accumulates new information, discussions and statistics, which helps to navigate in difficult situations, to find better solutions, and to forecast possible scenarios. Especially since most of the issues are common to all universities despite their location.2.jpg For example, the issue of the paradoxical influence of the pandemic on the system of higher education. In other words, as time goes by, representatives of universities’ management, professors, and students themselves come to realization that the pandemic has brought not only negative things, but positive ones as well. 

Let’s talk about negative effects first. According to some data, presented in a special issue of the international online journal University World News, in the beginning of April 2020, more than 3.4 billion people, representing 43 percent of the world population, were in lockdown in more than 80 countries. Universities and other education institutions were closed in 170 countries and communities. 1.7 billion students and learners around the world were unable to go to school or university. This figure accounts for 90 percent of the world’s student population. Tertiary education around the world was affected in a way not seen since World War II.

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The pandemic found a flaw in the educational system that was founded on the concept of direct education that required educators and learners to be in the same place at the same time. Naturally, the only possible solution for most universities was switching to distance teaching. However, this solution led to another problem, which was digital inequality among universities, professor, and students. It turned out that most universities, especially the third world ones, were not even equipped in terms of hardware and methodological materials. Professors’ and students’ digital skills also left much to be desired. As a result, it took way too much time for them to restart their educational process, which made all people involved very unhappy. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the American $600 billion-plus higher education industry has 1.5 million faculty members and had a previous experience with mass emergency education after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Nevertheless, 70 percent of educators had never taught a virtual course before!

The global higher educational ecosystem based on the principles of academic mobility and internationalization was disrupted too. Even the most attractive 4.pnguniversities, not mentioning the ones that were less popular among international students, lost a huge part of their revenue.

Professors, administrators, and technical staff faced financial disadvantages. Some of them simply lost their jobs. The situation is not going to improve soon, as the main donors such as students, their parents and sponsors have lost a significant part of their income.

There was another challenge for universities and schools. The lack of possibility to conduct the final exams in a regular (direct) format. That has put in question the whole enrolment campaign in 2020. Experts argue that enrollees will have less knowledge and lower motivation for studying than their forerunners. It is still unclear how to indicate the level of knowledge more or less objectively.

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This year, not only enrollees, but graduates as well, have become victims of the pandemic. It especially concerned those students who majored in something that must have direct (offline) formats of practical training and final examination. Among them are future doctors, chemists, geologists, metallurgical engineers, and other “offline” specialists.  

A question occurs: what good might there be about the pandemic if everything is so bad? However, there are some advantages. Tal Frankfurt, a Forbes Councils Member, believes that “crisis can be viewed as a sort of "bypass" button for the application of technological processes and thought patterns that would have taken many more years to adopt in a time of relative peace. One could say that a positive takeaway from disaster is its recurring ability to turn something once viewed as impossible into an accepted aspect of a new reality.”

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From this prospective the Covid-19 crisis may be seen as an instant trigger for new technological processes and thinking patterns to be launched. In other circumstance, it would have taken years and years. According to the publication by Dawn Lerman and Falguni Sen for THE World University Rankings, “There is nothing like a good crisis to shake up an industry. The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 transformed the energy sector and the financial crisis of 2008 had a huge impact on banking. The coronavirus is now doing the same for higher education.” Dr. Mansur Khamitov, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behavior at Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University, says higher education has been experimenting with distance learning for a while, but adoption has been slow. “However, COVID-19 has certainly been a major disruptor wherein a vast majority of leading universities worldwide made a rather abrupt shift,” Khamitov added, “transitioning to a full-scale remote and distance learning.”  How can it be explained?

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One of the biggest problems on the way to great changes is something that we call an organizational structure that sets invisible boundaries between departments. Those boundaries have specific purposes but they also stay on the way of exchanging skills and creating a necessary synergetic effect. In order to overcome these structural barriers, it is necessary for all parties to unite and focus on one distinctive goal. During the pandemic, universities set this goal pretty fast. It was to help to fight against spreading the virus around campuses and to provide uninterrupted educational process.   

But there is one more very serious obstacle, which is the human factor. It makes the academic community very stagnant. At “peaceful” times, when only a small part of this community had an experience in online teaching and a desire to continue doing that, the general transition to online was impossible.

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Why is the majority of teaching staff so stagnant? Even though everybody must renew and update their courses from time to time, this updating usually concerns only the context, not the media that are to deliver the final product to students. It occurred that turning offline courses into online ones requires a lot of effort. New digital skills need to be mastered. Besides, some educators feel like online teaching is a thread that may deprive them of work or limit their capacity of direct offline communication with students. A single thought of a tiny possibility that any student may take a screenshot at any time and have a picture of an unfortunate facial expression and then put it on some social network makes some professors furious.

The pandemic made it an objective necessity for everyone to go online and forget about the risks and fears for a while. Moreover, despite all problems (technical, methodological, and many other issues), those educators who used to be against going online, started enjoying mastering new skills. They found out that they could use online technology creatively and realized that they would use them even when the pandemic is over. All that proves that it is necessary and possible to change our thinking of a regular educational process as of only a direct and offline one. We need to develop a new philosophy of education. In other words, we need not only to implement new formats and technologies, but also to change the core axiological content of education. What it will be like is a subject for discussions that must take place, first and foremost, at a classical university.

We may say that it is a good side of a catastrophe: to turn something that used to be seen as impossible into an aspect of a new reality. This is exactly what happened 10.pngwith universities and schools. Disputes about the viability of universities and schools in the online environment had been going on for a long time - more than ten years. When Covid-19 started spreading around the world, it took just a week for many countries to put various controversial results of that discourse into practice. There was simply no time to postpone it.

China gave us one of the best examples of how that could be done. It took just several day for the Chinese to create a cloud platform with all teaching materials and all national educatinal broadcast products. Large Chinese telecommunication companies along with IT giants such as Baidu, Alibaba and Huawei supported the school system with 7,000 servers with a total throughput of 90 terabytes per second. Collaboration between schools, universities, and companies led to developing a common educational model for college and university students.

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Thinking patterns and motivation that we see in this experience may influence the whole world of higher education. Meanwhile, we should remember that only 60 percent of global population have an Internet access. This digital gap between countries should change, if we want to make online education truly viable. In crises negative consequences of this gap become worse, which deprives those who do not have an Internet access of information and educational opportunities. Today, more than ever, we must make technologies accessible.

The pandemic supported the idea that online education cannot be replaced with anything in times of crisis. All educational organizations should spend time and money in order to prepare for similar situations in the future. As Tal Frankfurt wrote, “Opening our minds while our doors remain closed just might put us all in a better position to succeed and educate once normalcy returns.” The pandemic will make freshmen better at digital technologies than the previous generations of students used to be. 

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Learning materials developers, IT specialists, and learning designers need to work together in order to turn distance learning from being an “inevitable evil” into a smart and flexible tool for high quality education. Such a collaboration will allow to create technologies that measure the level of knowledge online. It is well known that online exams is a big challenge for universities as the risks of cheating are very high, especially when tests are involved. The weakest spot here is authentication. Students may ask somebody who is better prepared to pass exams for them. Universities in some Arabian countries have designed systems that can verify the identity of a student by face, voice, and iris recognition. Artificial intelligence checks whether the style of using the keyboard corresponds to what was taken as a sample during pretests.

New standards of social distancing and disinfection also influence how evaluation will be organized when the pandemic is over. In June 2020, large universities in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany) organized writing tests for 13.500 students in huge places where public events such as sports competitions and concerts are usually hosted.

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New standards require students to seat not closer than 3 meters from each other. That is why even the biggest lecture hall Audimax at Dortmund University that has 800 seats cannot provide necessary conditions for writing tests. That is why the decision was made to conduct exams at the Westfalenhallen exhibition area. The same happened in Cologne where the largest international trade fair area Koelnmesse rented out its halls to University of Cologne that had 48,000 students to test.

All levels of university activity has been reconsidered, including commencements. Ceremonies needed to be organized online and some universities did it especially creatively. For example, Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management rented four avatar robots to represent their graduates.

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Robots with graduates’ faces were coming up stage to receive diplomas and real students were watching the ceremony online from homes. Obviously, this format could not replace live participation but graduates appreciated the effort to make this day memorable. 17.jpeg

In conclusion, I would like to say that any global crisis is scary for people who live in it. When thinking about surviving, people do not have time to reflect on possible outcomes in the future. That is how it was for those who lived and struggled in the 14th century, when the Bubonic plague was peaking in Europe. Only a hundred years later, it became clear that the epidemic was a trigger that turned the whole worldview from being based on religious beliefs to the one based on science.

It is possible that we are the first generation of people that having all the technologies in our disposal can overcome global crises  comperetively fast and painlessly and see positive outcomes ourselves. At least, the sphere of higher education has already proposed some new trends that give us hope for a new worldview to occur, the worldview free of social and digital inequality, and racism. And we must keep up with this trend and the culture of big changes for universities. Because, if not now, then when?