Higher education must rise to the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19

One of the things we’ve all begun to appreciate since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic is the importance of scientists and those who support them. It is clear to the world that until a vaccine is available, there is no real chance of getting the situation under control. Governments have sought to address the need to minimize risks and deaths, and social distancing has become a key aspect of these efforts. Progress is being made, but it is often sporadic and erratic, and there is always a constant risk of further peaks in infection if we ease up too quickly, or simply resume life as it was before the arrival of COVID-19. The reality is that ways of behaving, interacting, and doing things need to change and there are already signs of a new normal emerging, one based on the need to be careful, vigilant, and aware of the fact that anyone can contract the disease, and that anyone can spread it. However, there is an urgent need to try to return to some form of normalcy, given the fact that disease continues to be a very real risk.

One sector that has found itself severely disrupted by the coronavirus is the higher education sector. Universities and colleges have closed, academics and support staff have been left fearing for their futures, students’ studies have been halted, and exams have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. It is as if the pause button has been pressed across the entire sector, and yet this is the same sector that provides for these scientists and others who will deal with the crises of the future. Looking at the higher education sector, it quickly becomes apparent that the current paralysis need not exist, with a little imagination, and some technical learning can continue. Granted, the traditional face-to-face education we are all accustomed to has been given away. We can’t get any further at the moment, but different technological platforms mean that academics and students can interact in a controlled and professional way. Hundreds of institutions around the world have already realized that they can justify their existence by conducting online teaching, in which employees have found the process something of a revelation. Naturally, there were a few technical glitches and teething issues, but once that’s been worked out, everyone involved seems to feel the process is useful and what’s more knowing that the learning is being kept up and ahead.

So, what are the challenges of such an operation in Bangladesh? Well, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the psychological one regarding resistance to change. Some academics and many members of leadership and management teams are not particularly tech-savvy and don’t fully understand how online learning platforms can work. There are understandable concerns about the need for training, and the development and availability of appropriate learning resources. Such processes require full commitment, meaning that staff think about what material is being provided and how to develop lessons or units along with learning objectives and assessment tasks. Many employees have little or no experience with such learning and so fear exposure to such a process. Everyone needs to engage in some heuristic learning—learning by doing, and the overtime ambivalence or hostility to such learning evaporates, and can often be found as a repetitive experience. What more institutions are finding that they can develop modules and courses that can be easily offered to students who, for whatever reason, prefer distance learning. With proper planning and monitoring, checks and balances, and of course safeguards around privacy etc., there is potential to benefit from a method of learning which is experiencing exponential growth in most parts of the world.

For such learning to be effective in Bangladesh, it is critical that all students have access to learning platforms, and this could very well mean that tablets and other devices become a standard learning tool, issued to all students and if necessary integrated into the fee structure. Rather than seeing this technology as a cost, it should be seen as an asset, one that helps facilitate and improve learning. It is very important to improve and enhance internet connectivity, which is an integral part of the national economy. So, with this in mind, there are a few questions to ask every institution of higher education:
1) What is online learning?
2) What plans are underway to develop online learning?
3) How often is staff trained to support the introduction of online teaching?
4) What funds have been allocated in the budget for the development of online learning? If not, why?
5) What is being done to ensure that all students can access the online learning platform?
6) What are the lessons learned from what is happening at the international level?
7) Who are the online learning change-makers in the organisation, and are they being adequately supported?
8) What are the main concerns related to online learning and how can they be addressed?
9) Are the various stakeholders consulted in order to ensure that the system operates efficiently and effectively?
10) What are the mechanisms in place to protect IT systems from viruses and hackers?
11) Can time and resources be saved by holding more meetings via online meeting platforms?
12) How is online learning recognized and celebrated?

There are very real opportunities nowadays to innovate, not just for the time of the pandemic, but for the future. The most forward-thinking organizations have already understood that this is a golden opportunity to seize the positive opportunity, to ensure that the sector is relevant and dynamic. Nobody says it’s easy, but it sure can be exciting. When people embrace change and are helped to adapt to it, amazing things happen. Now is the time to harness the country’s great IT talent to ensure that it becomes transient in the field of higher education and beyond. A revolution is quietly and relentlessly occurring, one that will broaden all our horizons of what learning and the world of work can actually become. Looking further, we’ll see that resistance is useless, change is already happening, it’s just that the situation created by the coronavirus has accelerated things. No one should have any doubts that there will be challenges, but the simple fact is that the opportunities far outweigh them.

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