When we return to our campuses, we should not forget the lessons that saved us during the pandemic, Khoo Ying Hooi writes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caught us all by surprise and it has forced universities to move their lessons and activities to online platforms.
The pandemic now adds a whole new layer of complexity to the existing structures of higher education that is constantly in debates. Faculty members and students have had to leave their usual offices, meeting rooms, classrooms and laboratories and switch entirely from face-to-face to online learning by sudden mandatory campus closures.
While history shows us universities to some extent managed to survive different challenges ranging from wars, genocides to political crises, this sudden pandemic has made it all the more urgent for us to reconsider the present reality of universities all over the world.
The impact is dramatic, yet through a more positive lens, it is also transformative as educators are forced to put in place workable short-term solutions in to ensure education continues.
The question is how well the campus-based universities in general adjust to this current situation by choosing the right technologies and approaches for educating and continue to engage their students?
We can learn four main things from Covid-19:
- the changing perspective of online learning
- the building of trust between universities and their staff
- the need to amplify student voices
- the revival of the values of universities for the public good
Most universities around the globe have already suspended face-to-face classes for most of 2020 and opted for online teaching. Similarly, in Malaysia, the Ministry of Higher Education in a recent guideline announced that all university lectures must be conducted purely online, with no face-to-face lessons allowed, until 31 December.
However, exceptions are given to five categories of students including those who are required to attend physical laboratories, clinical work and laboratory work to carry out their research. Exceptions are also given to students who do not have a conducive environment for online learning.
A follow-up report appeared in Malay Mail (30 May) entitled, “Reality for Malaysia’s university students: Online learning challenges, stress, workload; possible solutions for fully digital future until Dec”. The report noted that although universities in Malaysia may already have practised online learning for students before the pandemic, the plan to completely do away with face-to-face classes and go fully online may not go as smoothly as envisioned.
Online learning is not new for some universities. What makes it distinctive now is the scale of it. For instance, the concept of massive open online courses (MOOC) is already popular in some parts of the world.
Prior to the pandemic, the value of online learning was viewed differently. It was viewed mainly as how universities could market their distance learning programmes and how they were seen as a more sophisticated approach.
Online teaching has never been as popular and widespread as it is today. It is not commonly seen as a core and substantial strategy in how universities deliver knowledge, as the face-to-face approach remains crucial and arguably more effective.
There has been a critical discourse about the effectiveness of online education, and some traditional institutions even viewed it as a “threat”, but in times like this, whichever side we are on, for now it has come to our rescue.
Nevertheless, I have reservations about online learning. We should carefully look at this alternative with consideration for those who might not have the same accessibility as us.
When I wrote in April (“Covid-19 proves technology has its limit in teaching and learning”), I concluded that although universities have no option but to adapt quickly to the circumstances by depending on technology for online learning, what is certain is that this pandemic has shown to us that while technology is powerful, it is not able to replace face-to-face learning.
Then there is the concept of working from home and its link to building trust. Working from home has become a fact of life for many of us in various sectors. The concept is not new as some organisations have long adopted such an approach, but for some in times like this, it has provided a practical alternative to ensure our work continues. This opens up a door for the universities to build and retain the trust of their stakeholders, especially students and educators.
Trust matters in all sectors and in the relationship between the employers and the employees. It is the same for the universities. From the perspective of an educator, the university needs to trust one another to collaborate and share ideas. Ideally, higher education should consider having a culture that depends heavily on trust, as distrust lowers performance.
We are already witnessing elements of this in the midst of the pandemic, and how it can promote productivity. For instance, educators despite different academic backgrounds responded with dedication by getting involved in much-needed research from different disciplines for the greater good of society. Such a form of civic sense and social solidarity is much appreciated as research is intended to contribute to society through policymaking and advocacy. This should be higher education’s defining characteristic, which some universities have forgotten in their pursuit of higher rankings. Covid-19 reminds us of the true value at the foundation of a university.
A recent report produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit “New schools of thought: Innovative models for delivering higher education” outlined how higher education institutions must adapt to survive as they face challenges in public funding, questions over their value, and the challenges that technology poses. What was interesting about this report was it highlighted how students have the power to “bankrupt” universities that do not meet their expectations in a post-Covid-19 world.
This is precisely the other lesson I would like to highlight. For the first time, the students’ role was emphasised more than before, and they are now playing the role as the “determinant partner”, as how the report described it. Their voices now are greater than before as they get to determine what universities should be doing and which ones should have the right to serve them in the future. This is especially so for universities that are heavily reliant on international student intakes. This should have been the practice before the pandemic, yet it was forgotten when the nature of universities changed in a globalised world.
The final lesson is that I hope Covid-19 leads us to re-conceptualise these challenges, of how we should renew our commitment to the core values of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and engagement by students, faculty and staff. We need to re-emphasise the role of the university for the public good based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law as well as social justice, inclusion and equity.
As stressful as it is for many of us in the education sector, all other stakeholders, especially students, policymakers and society at large equally feel uncomfortable. This pandemic warns us of our current education systems’ vulnerabilities and shortcomings. It also reminds us of the long overdue reform of our education system.
Covid-19 offers perhaps the best opportunity for us to review the role and the value of the university, especially how it can remain relevant and maintain its connection with society.
There is no better time for rethinking the future of higher education than today. Several positive steps have been taken, but they are not sufficient. When we return to our campuses, we should not forget these lessons that saved us during the pandemic.