Agility or Collapse? Higher Education Post Covid-19

Empty university lecture theatre

Covid-19 has drastically changed the way Higher Education Institutions operate. Seemingly overnight, buzzing campuses and overflowing lecture theatres have been replaced by online presentations and cancelled exams. SOAS academic Dr. Awino Okech shares the most important lessons she has taken from the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on teaching and learning.

Teaching and learning platforms 

We have learnt how effective teaching online can be. However, we have also been confronted with the fact that we are now catering to students who need to acquire services which they were previously going to acquire face to face. The contingency planning for slow, missing and poor internet connectivity has not been accounted for by either parties (students and universities) and neither has the absence of some platforms such as Google in certain jurisdictions due to regime restrictions. 

We have also been forced to confront the reality that remote learning and teaching for students and academics is complicated by the environment they live in. Coming to university is a reprieve from care responsibilities, crowded and sometimes difficult living conditions and relationships. Taking the classroom online does not create less work for such students or academics, it complicates their learning and teaching capabilities –  “working from home” is not always a welcome choice. 

Whether this pandemic continues for much longer than we anticipate or not, we now have to invest in learning platforms that account for these differences and therefore demonstrate our attentiveness to engaging with and providing education to international students. Resolving the access challenges noted above requires the mobilisation of social enterprise that can think through managing the demands of interactive teaching platforms, bandwidths, equipment (laptops) and the diversity of governance arrangements across the globe. 

Blended programmes and outward mobility

I have spent a lot of time in the last three months thinking about the opportunity that technology offers to strengthen partnerships with African universities as part of contributing to SOAS’s strategic engagement with the African continent. I am interested in finding ways for students and academics from the UK and Africa to equally benefit from the intellectual resources that exist in both contexts. This interest is also shaped by the need to confront high university fees and accompanying cost of living and the subsequent brain drain that is linked to people leaving the continent in droves for higher education opportunities elsewhere. 

While technology is not the panacea, we know that study abroad programmes have been viewed as part of the answer to increased exclusion. Unless the costs of studying abroad for a term or semester are built into the degree programme, the beneficiaries are likely to be students from privileged backgrounds or students from countries that offer scholarships who take advantage of these opportunities. Left out are the large majority of students from working class backgrounds who make choices about a study abroad programme and a part-time job to make ends meet. The result is greater academic tourism rather than mutual exchange, learning and flattening of global knowledge. 

The era of blended programmes as the norm is here. Blended programmes that allow online modules to be taken at either university as part of fulfilling your degree equalises access issues, addresses the absence of regional scholars and expertise in European institutions and strengthens opportunities for mutual university engagement.

Assessments, Technology and Pedagogy

That degree programmes that rely on exams as a key measure of assessment have been thrown into some panic due to Covid-19 cannot be overstated. The key concerns are linked to three issues in my estimation. 

    1.  Is our technology fit for purpose? Can exams be delivered at the same time and submitted without our systems crashing? Can all students access the platforms we have in place at the same time in different parts of the world? 
    2. Can technology deal with trust issues which lie at the heart of invigilated exams. After all, exams are designed to test students’ ability to restate material from memory as an indicator that they have “learnt”. How do you manage administering exams remotely and ensure that the exam has not been sat by someone else or class notes used liberally? 
    3. Finally, do we need exams?

There is a mid-point here where those who have been involved in widening participation work have sat for a long time. People learn differently and assessments need to account for how different people take in information and communicate it back to the world. Intelligence is not determined by how well one does in an exam, what it does, is say something about their capacity to work within a specific framework. The lesson here is the need for a broad-based rethink of the role, nature and number of assessments in the education process. These are conversations that have been happening already but need greater engagement, particularly in undergraduate teaching.

Adaptive and agile

Institutions that emerge out of this crisis relatively stable are those who can make a case that it is still worthwhile to acquire a degree from our universities because we are agile. This agility is not only a consideration for management, it is also one that academics need to think about in relation to what we are teaching. 

Can we, do we need to demonstrate that our teaching programmes are responsive to the global challenges of our time? For those of us in the humanities and social sciences, what is our big offer to the world? The neoliberal concerns about the “value” of a degree will be heightened by our ability to illustrate the usefulness of knowledge acquired in degree programmes during global crises. Can people see the value of a humanities and social science degree in what appears to be an apocalyptic moment? This is something we must reflect on as we anticipate indecision and a drop in admissions for the next academic year.

Dr Awino Okech teaches at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS.

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