The Challenges of Higher Education and Response to Covid-19

Joy Banik | 07 September 2021
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Covid-19 has vastly changed the way education is provided globally. Amid the ongoing pandemic, millions of students have been affected by the closure of educational institutions, resulting in the largest online movement in the history of education. 

With many parts of the world suddenly moving away from physical classrooms, universities had to quickly switch to virtual and digital strategies. Now, many people believe that online distance learning will continue even after the coronavirus crisis ends. 

To widen the equality gap, a new hybrid education model is expected to emerge and reshape the available methods in order to fix the digital divide. 

Even during the pre-pandemic era in 2019, educational technology was seeing rapid growth and adoption all over the world. 

Global investment in the sector stood at $18.66 billion that year while it is expected to reach $350 billion by 2025. 

Learning management systems are now commonplace in higher education for both on-campus and remote students. In 2015, the annual growth rate of online enrollment increased at an extremely rapid rate of more than 30 per cent annually. 

In 2019, the number of students who took at least one online course increased to 34.7 per cent of the world's population. This has led to a significant increase in distance learning, where teaching is conducted through digital platforms.

According to Hodges, carefully planned online learning is completely different from adopting online learning in response to a crisis since the speed of this change may shock faculty, staff and students. 

These survey results reflect some major changes in education policies by discussing how distance learning conducted during nationwide lockdowns has impacted academic practices.

Most of the pre-pandemic literature comparing face-to-face and online courses takes place in higher education institutions in developed countries, where information technology infrastructure, resources, and support are readily available and reliable. 

With many parts of the world suddenly moving away from the classroom, some people wonder whether the adoption of online learning will continue after the pandemic and how this shift will affect the global education market. 

There is a serious lack of similar comparative studies in developing countries. Among them, the weakness of the IT infrastructure, the lack of financial resources and technical support, and insufficient IT knowledge among teachers and students are the main challenges for the adoption of digital education.

In response to the huge demand, many online learning platforms provide free access to their services, including platforms such as BYJU`S, an online tutoring and education technology company based in Bangalore. 

Since the announcement of free live courses on the Think and Learn app, the number of new students using BYJU’s products has increased by 200 per cent. 

The Singapore Collaboration Suite, originally developed by ByteDance, was used as an internal tool to achieve its own exponential growth. It began providing teachers and students with unlimited video conferencing time, machine translation, collaborative real-time editing of project work, and calendar arrangements. 

To achieve this goal quickly in times of crisis, Lark Suite has strengthened its global server infrastructure and engineering capabilities for reliable connections.

But the scenario in Bangladesh is not some impressive thing to look at. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the government has introduced alternative learning programs such as online courses, teacher tracking, as well as radio and television broadcasts. 

However, due to accessibility issues, such measures have not been a viable alternative to physics courses. The Education Observation Report 2020 released by the Mass Education Campaign (CAMPE) found that 58 per cent of the students surveyed are not adequately equipped with electronic devices or smartphones to access distance education services. 

According to a study by Save the Children, 90 per cent of people who successfully participated in distance education activities said they did not remember what they studied since the teacher did not follow up the course. 

The campus is no exception as according to another report, a student spent only two minutes in virtual classes every day on average during the pandemic, which was six hours compared to physical classes. 

At the same time, the duration of self-study of each student also declined to 115 minutes from 185 minutes, according to a Brac study done in May 2020. 

Ever since the coronavirus outbreak first began in Bangladesh in March last year, the country's educational institutions have remained closed. As in the rest of the world, as the pandemic continues to spread, local authorities have been forced to repeatedly reschedule the reopening of schools, colleges and universities. 

And this one-year gap in institutional education has already left a negative impact on students -- both mental and physical -- that needs to be taken care of.

Ensuring that the social and emotional needs of students are met, and that the most vulnerable groups continue to receive additional services, are now challenges for the government and schools. 

During school closures, countries tried to cope with the welfare needs of different disadvantaged student groups. Students’ sense of belonging to the school community may be lost unless they can keep in touch through online resources such as Zoom for learning and social activities, such as virtual games and reading partners. 

For disadvantaged students, the lack of social contact is particularly shocking. This includes students from broken homes, those who face domestic abuse, live with foster families, endure food insecurity or are homeless. 

It can have a significant impact on the lives of students from lower socioeconomic levels and help prevent the education gap from widening. To support these students, many countries have taken initiatives, generally in cooperation with local associations, and using emergency funds.

Although most colleges and universities in the world integrate some form of online education into their courses, transferring all courses online can be challenging. 

Although some universities may already have powerful online systems, smaller universities may struggle under the pressure of demand. 

So, university course creators must work closely with their IT department to ensure that their courses can be supported online. With the popularity of online learning, universities must also ensure that students, faculty, and staff are protected on campus. 

Although Covid-19 is high risk for people over the age of 60, traditional college students face a relatively low risk of disease. 

However, in recent weeks, we have seen how fast the new variants are spreading in densely populated areas, with college campuses being no exception. 

Educators should also be aware of students who have travelled extensively during the spring break, and remind those who have been abroad in heavily affected regions to be mindful about returning to campus.

Joy Banik is an Executive, Innovation and Technology at CGS. 

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.