Higher Education Must Rise to the Challenges and Opportunities Presented by COVID-19

One thing we’ve all begun to appreciate since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic is the importance of scientists and those who support them. The world understands that until there is a vaccine, there is no real chance of bringing the situation under control. Governments have struggled to wrestle with the need to minimize risk and fatalities, and social distancing has become a key aspect of that effort. There is progress, but it is often bumpy and patchy, and there is always the risk of further spikes in infection if we slow down too quickly or simply resume life as it was before COVID-19 arrived. The reality is that behaviors, interactions and doing business must change and there are already signs that a new normal is emerging, one based on the need to be cautious, vigilant and aware of the fact that anyone can catch the disease and that anyone can spread it. Despite all of this, there is an urgent need to try to return to some form of normality, while recognizing that the disease remains a very real threat.

One sector that has been severely impacted by the Corona virus has been higher education. Universities and colleges have been closed, academic and support staff left in fear for their future, students’ studies suspended, and exams canceled or postponed indefinitely. It is as if the pause button has been pressed for the entire sector, and yet this is the very sector that is providing those scientists and others who will handle future crises. When looking at the higher education sector, it quickly becomes clear that the current paralysis does not have to exist, with a little imagination you can also acquire further technical know-how. Admittedly, the traditional face-to-face teaching that we are all used to cannot currently be carried out, but various technological platforms allow academics and students to interact in a controlled and professional manner. Already hundreds of institutions around the world have realized that they can justify their existence by conducting online classes, and staff are finding the process something of a revelation. Of course, there were a few technical glitches and teething problems, but when ironed out, everyone involved seems to find the process nurturing and, more importantly, know that learning is being sustained and encouraged.

So what are the challenges for such a process in Bangladesh? Well, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the psychological one in terms of resistance to change. Some academics and many members of leadership and management teams are not particularly tech-savvy and do not fully understand how online learning platforms might work. There are understandable concerns about training needs and the development and availability of appropriate learning resources. Such processes require full commitment and this means that staff consider what materials will be made available and how lessons or units and the learning objectives and assessment tasks will develop. Many employees have little or no experience of such learning and therefore fear being exposed by such a process. Everyone has to engage in heuristic learning – learning by doing, and over time the ambivalence or hostility towards such learning dissipates and it can often be found to be a repetitive experience. Additionally, institutions are finding that they can develop units and courses that can be easily offered to students who, for whatever reason, prefer distance learning. With planning and proper monitoring and controls, and of course privacy safeguards etc., there is potential to unlock a type of learning that is experiencing exponential growth across much of the world.

For such learning to be effective in Bangladesh it is paramount that all students have access to the learning platforms and this could well mean that tablets and other devices will become a standard learning tool given out to all students and as needed into which the fee structure is integrated. Rather than viewing this technology as a cost, it must be viewed as an asset that helps facilitate and enhance learning. It is vital that internet connectivity is improved and consolidated, which is an essential part of the national economy. Against this background, there are a few questions that must be asked of each individual university:

1) What learning is available online?

2) What are the plans for the development of online learning?

3) How often are staff trained to support the introduction of online teaching?

4) What funds have been budgeted for the development of online learning? If no, why not?

5) What is being done to ensure that all students can access the online learning platform?

6) What lessons do we learn from what is being done internationally?

7) Who are the online learning changers in the institution and are they adequately supported?

8) What are the main concerns of online learning and how could these be addressed?

9) Are different stakeholders consulted to ensure that the system is working efficiently and effectively?

10) What mechanisms are there to protect IT systems from viruses and hackers?

11) Could time and resources be saved by holding more meetings through online meeting platforms?

12) How is online learning recognized and celebrated?

There are very real opportunities for innovation right now, not only for the time of the pandemic but also for the future. The most forward-thinking institutions have already recognized that this is a golden opportunity to seize positive opportunities to ensure the sector is both relevant and dynamic. No one says it’s easy, but it certainly can be exciting. When people embrace change and are helped to adapt, remarkable things happen. Now is the time to tap into the country’s considerable IT talent to ensure it becomes transformative in higher education and beyond. Quietly and relentlessly, a revolution is taking place that will expand all of our horizons about what learning, and indeed the world of work, can become. If we look further into the distance we will see that resistance is futile, changes are already happening, only the situation resulting from the Corona virus has accelerated things. No one should doubt that there will be challenges, but the simple fact is that they far outweigh the opportunities.

Thanks to Dr. P. R. Datta | #Higher #Education #Rise #Challenges #Opportunities #Presented #COVID19

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