Higher Education's New Reality
Updated: Sep 13, 2020
We all recognize that the world has changed because of the impacts of the pandemic. Some of the changes were long overdue, and many have yet to be realized. Understanding the new environment within which we will all need to prosper may be hard to accept, but eventually, the inevitable rules, restrictions, and required behaviours will integrate themselves into our new reality whether we like it or not. Those who resist adopting adjusted personal responses and actions, risk public backlash, government intervention, or worse, the consequences of ignoring the dangers of not protecting oneself and others from the effects of the spread of deadly viruses. I say “viruses”, because COVID-19 may be the current virus of concern, but what will follow?
One of the populations that has seen significant disruption is the higher education sector. Past resistance to the adoption of remote learning technologies and methodologies by some educational sectors seems to be a moot point now. Primary and secondary systems along with most, if not all colleges and universities around the globe have been forced into remote deliveries to survive. Some have made the transition more effectively than others.
Universities like Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada have built their brand, ‘Flexible and Open’, and their academic delivery on remote learning. Up until recently, Athabasca University’s fate was uncertain given their slowly fading financial situation. The recent pandemic has brought new attention to their academic model and has breathed new life into their presence among academic options for prospective students.
Moving to a remote delivery model is not as simple as just throwing all of the content on a website or a learning platform like Blackboard, D2L, or Canvas. Remote learning requires carefully thought-out curriculum, instructional approaches, integrated technologies, significant support systems, knowledge of learning styles, insights to group learning dynamics, the psychology and sociology of learning environments, and how they may differ for various learner types and demographics. The adoption of Zoom, Teams, and Skype, to name a few conferencing platforms, have seen a wide variety of successes and failures within the educational sector globally. Improper preparation, lack of training, and the state of student readiness for the leap from in-person to remote learning environments contributed to many of the recent failed attempts and student dissatisfaction.
At a time when many colleges and universities are facing significant financial challenges, they are also forced to look at investing in supportive technologies to further their ability to provide quality remote academic programming that is representative of the required academic rigour and quality assurances to protect their academic credibility. The IT department in every educational institution is now the academic’s best friend. Issues around choosing the right learning platforms, firewalls, cyber-security, bandwidth and online capacities, appropriate hardware, and tech support for staff and students are all important aspects of remote delivery preparedness.
The recruitment of prospective students, domestically and internationally, has seen a significant increase in the number of competitors each school now needs to consider within what is now a globally competitive marketplace. Colleges that have been able to use their geographic location as a marketing tool now find that aspect of their pitch to prospective students to be less effective than it has been in the past. Competitors are now enticing students with financial incentives, more advanced technologies, and teaching approaches that make the competitive environment significantly more challenging as more programming moves to remote delivery.
Some components of programs are difficult if not impossible to deliver online and require some hands-on components to assure performance outcomes and the student’s proficiency with real-world applications. Schools now need to be very creative in identifying those components that are able to move to remote delivery, and those components that need to be in-person for appropriate demonstration of skills, instructional oversight, immediate feedback, quality assessment, and preparing students for ‘on the job’ confidence. Schools also need to assure prospective employers that their graduates are adequately prepared to enter into real world employment situations with required skills and knowledge to effectively meet employer expectations and to maintain the market value of their graduates.
Investment in professional development for teachers and support staff will also be a factor to build the confidence and proficiency of all academic stakeholders within a robust remote learning environment. Making sure that every student receives appropriate orientation on succeeding academically, and socially within their studies and remote student life, will contribute to student satisfaction with their educational experience.
The aspect of student life and managing expectations of the remote learner will be a challenge for institutions. Social interaction is a huge part of the development of an individual during their college years. Focusing just on quality academic deliveries will only be part of the puzzle for achieving overall student satisfaction for schools. Providing opportunities for students to interact within creative virtual social settings, or small group in-person situations, will need to be part of the student services planning for those institutions that will attract the student of the future. As demonstrated recently, the college-aged individuals are less likely to follow government guidelines and institutional rules around pandemic restrictions. Providing opportunities that address their need for social interaction will assist in the institution’s ability to manage their population’s compliance more effectively.
The declining demographics of the prospective domestic post-secondary student population for Canada has seen a focus on the recruitment of international students seeking to study in western countries. The international student has become a required foundation of financial support for many college and university budgets. Countries like India, Brazil, and China are providing millions of dollars to the educational economies of Canada, the USA, Australia, and the UK. The pandemic has placed a huge complication on many financial plans due to the travel and immigration restrictions as a result of the pandemic status within those countries. Looking to engage international students with an academic plan that starts their program online, schools in Canada need to navigate one of the many international student’s motivators… access to the Post Graduate Work Permit (PGWP), and hopes of immigration. Typically, Canadian immigration rules required international students to be present in the country for their studies to receive credit toward their PGWP application. In Canada students can apply for a work permit after successful completion of two years of study within a recognized post-secondary program. In an attempt to respond to the calls from the education sector on their financial crisis caused by the pandemic and related travel restrictions, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) made some concessions for international students to allow for the commencement of studies online and the granting of credit towards the application for the PGWP. This is a fine line, since the IRCC also needs to consider the safety and well-being of the Canadian population in any changes to immigration and travel restrictions for international students and visitors. Even with the concessions, many international students seem hesitant to register, and a large number are waiting it out to see what transpires over the coming months, much to the detriment of the enrolment forecasts and budgets of colleges and universities across the country.
International students also need to consider what delivery format potential schools are planning. Is the remote delivery largely synchronous or asynchronous? If synchronous, then time zones and potentially learning online at 3:00am local time may not be desirable. Of course, many international students also struggle with access to reliable Internet services in their home country, which may make starting online with their overseas program not an option.
The impact of the changing education environment is a global issue, and education is a critical component in the sustainability and economic improvement plans for many developing countries. Lack of access to in-person education and insufficient systems for remote delivery poses significant issues for the progression of many underdeveloped populations. As reported by UNESCO, almost 70% of the world’s students are not attending school in-person this fall 2020. To bring supportive learning resources to the global educational community, organizations like the Commonwealth of Learning have provided access to a number of tools to assist in the adoption, promotion, and success of the transition to remote learning for institutions with limited resources.
While there are uncertain times ahead, as education navigates its way through the challenges and emerging realities, a new environment will evolve within academia that will address the promotion and effective delivery of higher learning. Educational leadership will require a keen awareness of the diverse needs of all stakeholders, and an ability to utilize scarce resources effectively, as these will be key factors in the success of the institutions that will be prospering in the coming years.