How the Pandemic Might Hack Higher Education


By Cameron Mirza, MENA Director, Nottingham Trent University, UAE

The global outbreak of Covid 19 has seen unprecedented measures taken by nations to protect human life, to keep economies afloat and to ensure that education systems are still able to function and students are able to learn, albeit in a distance learning environment.

Higher education has been significantly disrupted as millions of students around the world are now studying remotely as campuses shut down in an attempt to help contain the virus. Many overseas students are in self isolation away from family or have had to go back home. There is no clarity if overseas students will return next academic year or indeed how the situation will impact on overall university recruitment and retention for next year, for students and faculty alike.

It’s a potential funding crisis. The impact of the current situation will have a profound impact on universities around the world in many ways and will force institutions to rethink their operating models, strategies and fundamentally how higher education will be delivered. It will also create opportunities. Image if you are taught by the best subject matter faculty regardless of where they or you are in the world? Consider the fact that learning is no longer bound by traditional semesters or having to spend hours travelling to a class. Technology makes this all possible.

Whilst many sectors have been disrupted by technology over the last decade higher education has remained largely in its traditional format with a bricks and mortar infrastructure and face-to-face delivery. Interestingly, despite all the talk in recent years of disruptive technologies - AI, big data, machine learning, blockchain, VR and AR - the reality is that universities are typically using low tech applications or ones they already had to deliver remote learning.  As faculty around the world frantically work to transfer learning materials to online materials perhaps this is the time to pause and take a longer-term view of how higher education could innovate and transform.

In the short term operating like this is a necessity due to timescale and logistical challenges. Long term this is a unique opportunity to really transform the higher education sector and one which must be grasped.  I am a strong advocate of face-to-face learning and the broader experience of a campus-based higher education which supports the transition of young people into adulthood. That said, we face a great opportunity to hack higher education both at speed and scale to transform the sector beyond traditional outcomes and demographics. To move the sector to a more blended or fully digital experience.

Placing lecture slides onto a learning platform or converting documents into PDFs is digitalization not digital transformation.  Yet imagine the sort of inclusive and forward thinking model higher education could have if it really leveraged frontier technologies and shifted its outlook of traditional learning and partnerships?
Universities now more than ever have the opportunity to redesign service delivery and mobilise collective action to transform the university experience: an experience that transcends, age, demographics, socio-economic status, employment status or family situation by offering affordable exciting courses with rich content which are accessible to non-traditional students through leveraging technology.

Universities should be looking to AI to do the heavy lifting of faculty to free up time to allow them to focus on the actual job of teaching and doing research.  AI’s potential to change the way teachers teach and students learn, helping maximize student success and prepare them for the future.  ​Collective intelligence tools will be available to save teachers time with tasks like grading papers so teachers a can spend more time with students. AI can help identify struggling students through behavioral cues and give them a nudge in the right direction. Universities can even use AI to offer a truly personalized learning experience, overcoming one of the biggest limitations of our current education model. AI has the power to become a great equalizer in education and a key differentiator for institutions that embrace it.

There will be no physical graduation ceremonies this year: what a great opportunity to use blockchain to issue students their degrees and transcripts this year or even students portfolios on a distributed ledger which is secure, tamper proof and verified. Student credentials can be shared with employers in seconds rather than having to dig through piles of files and papers because the credentials are on your own phone.  This is digital transformation not digitalization.
 
 Now is the opportunity to think about the real challenges we face and how frontier technologies can help to solve them rather than the other way round. Whilst many universities will fundamentally operate in the same way as they did pre-Covid 19, those institutions with bold ambitions and forward thinking leadership can grasp this golden opportunity to create a seismic shift and effect change in an unprecedented manner by questioning what they do and how they do it. This crisis has taught us is what we have always known and perhaps forgotten, that there is no substitute for a good teacher. Technology can and should support teachers to allow them to focus on changing lives through their interactions with students, but the way those interactions occur in the future may well be very different from the past.
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