Will learning be virtual? Uberized? What do we know and what the future holds for higher education?
In 2020, many things changed. The Covid-19 pandemic has virtually challenged every aspect of our lives in an unprecedented manner. The scale of its social, economic, and human impact was diverse and not yet fully understood. This past year, strange things happened. For example, some words’ connotation has changed, including the word “positive” that today not many want to hear, and ironically, the more one stays away from his loved ones, the more and the better they are protected and safe. However, in 2020, it was not just the pandemic that presented a set of direct and indirect challenges to the global community with repercussions to higher education. There was also the aftermath of Brexit with the UK as a key global player in education and lifelong learning, the trade rivalry between the United States and China and its multifaceted implications on other countries caught in the crossfire, the changing dynamics of globalization, and most recently, the role and impact of diplomacy, nationalism and the unequal international distribution of the vaccine to middle and low-income economies which will prolong the pandemic until coverage is widespread globally and means that the recovery will be unpredictable and uneven among different countries.
Starting last March, most universities and higher education institutions worldwide had to suspend their face-to-face interactions and revert to a remote learning environment. Besides, most commencements were canceled or conducted virtually, budgets were cut, hiring was frozen, traveling was suspended with implications on international student exchanges, study abroad programs, and diversity on campus, technology infrastructure was severely tested with immediate investments required for upgrades, and the most unfortunate of all, freshmen students who were very much looking forward to enjoying their first campus experience, started their university education at home. In general, today, almost a year later, most of these institutions still do not know when they will resume full-fledged regular face-to-face activities and when campuses will go back to their lively and socially interactive environments.
These developments have caused massive disruption to what we know and are used to in the higher education universe. However, it is important to consider that disruption might not necessarily mean something negative; on the contrary, it has the prospects to cause higher education to become more creative and unconventional and consequently improve and diversify its academic and community service offerings both on and off-campus, especially through capitalizing on the power and reach of innovative digital transformation. The question is, will universities and higher education institutions ever go back to a business-as-usual mode of operation when the impact of the virus subsides and whenever the rollout of vaccinations reaches an acceptable level that indicates that the pandemic is universally beaten? I firmly do not think so, and just in case that happens; this would mean that academic institutions would have missed an opportune moment to leverage the possibilities offered through innovative technologies.
It is worth noting that over the past few decades, the acceleration of the digital transformation in higher education has been taking place gradually. For starters, it has been years that universities recommended that all new computing devices to faculty and staff are notebooks to encourage mobility and connectivity 24/7. Besides, multiple learning management systems were installed with various functionalities; yet only a handful was utilized, and computer labs are becoming less popular and are being replaced by co-working spaces where everyone brings his/her device. Furthermore, the advancement of information and communication technologies has offered many the opportunity to study remotely from anywhere irrespective of time or distance barriers, which led to the emergence of mobile students and learners. Besides, in 2008, another disrupter –the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)– emerged offering a portfolio of services from students’ recruitment to enrollment to registration to tuition payment and a wide range of academic and non-academic degrees. As we move forward, the transformation to more digitization will accelerate further.
Unprecedented times require unprecedented strategies, actions, budgets, and doing things differently. During crises like this pandemic, creativity comes to the fore and offers alternatives and opportunities that often change the course of businesses, industries, and in many ways, life in general. However, to do that and to be able to navigate these challenging times, leadership matters. Accordingly, there is a need for academic leaders who are visionary, progressive, innovative, and forward-looking.
In my view, while the virus will hopefully be around for the short-term, its impact on higher education will be here for the long-haul and will reconfigure the future of learning. It will not be brick and mortar anymore, and some of the legacies we are used to will never be the same, including the mode of learning, the content covered, the mobility of students and learners, and the internationalization of campuses, among other elements. I am not saying that universities will completely go digital in academic teaching, research, and service because they will not, at least not in the foreseeable future. However, most probably, the future of learning will be based on a more innovative hybrid model of in-class and online teaching. Hybrid learning can provide various global alternatives including collaboration in research projects, virtual labs’ availability, opportunities for internships for different students and learners, hands-on-learning, and participation in co-op programs. However, given that the learning environment is by design social and based on a regular interaction and face-to-face communication, the key is to find the magic formula with the right balance between physical and virtual interfaces. All this should happen while having the health and safety of all the constituents in the higher education space, including students, faculty, and staff, as the utmost priority.
The transformation in the learning model will not only happen by investing in digital platforms and embracing remote learning as in replicating the face-to-face experience online. However, more significantly, it will materialize through the development of a holistic student-centered learning experience seamlessly on-campus and online coupled with the changing role of professors and instructors into becoming coaches and mentors, with more campus-wide openness and integration into society. The challenge with a hybrid model in place will be to manage to replicate online the vibrancy and dynamics of the campus experience and the social fabric the university environment offers, including the face-to-face students’ exposure and interaction with their different constituents including peers, professors, and others.
On this note, universities will transform themselves into learning hubs with more integration and collaboration with society. Besides, the digitization of learning will offer a unique opportunity for many students and learners who otherwise will be left behind provided that reliable and affordable access to infrastructure, including broadband –currently showing a significant discrepancy between high-income and low-income economies, especially in Africa– is in place which can help reduce inequality in higher education and along with it partially reduce the digital divide. This will also help realize the fourth UN sustainable development goal, which addresses the need to invest in inclusive and equitable lifelong learning and reinforce global cooperation in education.
For the future of learning, it is that simple, either we disrupt or get disrupted. Accordingly, higher education will undoubtedly witness changes right, left, and center, including the emergence of more innovative, personalized, and dynamic learning environments. Today, higher education is still at an early technology adoption stage, with no more than 3 percent of global education expenditure on technology. EdTech expenditure focusing on the fourth industrial revolution technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchains, and augmented reality is expected to exceed 12 billion US dollars by 2025, with concrete implications for creating, adapting, and expanding innovative approaches and new online and distance learning experiences. Besides, the tech-celeration and investment in mobile technologies will eventually lead to mobile-based virtual learning platforms that support the notion of learn-as-you-go.
Those who are digitally-savvy are the literates of the 21st century. Therefore, universities and higher education institutions should upskill and reskill their faculty, staff, and administrators to be able to operate efficiently and effectively in a more digitally transformed environment as well as prepare their students and learners, who are mostly digital natives, to unlock their potential as the future leaders, entrepreneurs, and change agents to make a difference and impact society.
Looking ahead, universities and higher education institutions should revisit what they teach. There should be significant changes in curricula design and content towards more interdisciplinary research, a global outlook while keeping an eye on national and regional issues, and a growing academic responsibility to collaborate to address economic, social, cultural, and environmental challenges. The curriculum should embrace a broader range of cognitive and emotional skills and human traits such as empathy, ethics, integrity, and address issues such as social innovation, civic engagement, and responsible business to help find solutions to make society more inclusive and sustainable.
While we re-imagine the future of higher education, emerging technology platforms, tools, and applications will represent integral elements of the new learning model. There are no boundaries to how the future of learning can be transformed. Who could have imagined a few years back that emerging tech-based non-financial institutions such as fintech will be contenders to be the primary providers of financial services? Can the same happen to higher education? Why not? Everything is possible with emerging technologies. Therefore, society should be ready that –in the not-too-distant future– universities and higher education institutions might not be the only venues offering academic and non-academic degrees. Today, I know it is a far-fetched idea, but who could have thought a few decades ago that Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others would have the power, reach, and opportunities these giants have created and the way and speed by which they transformed the way the world shops, gets informed and connected socially. Can the future of learning present them an appetite for a new endeavor?
Innovation, agility, and resilience will accelerate against existing old structures and outdated models using advanced technologies to help transform the future of learning using innovative business models that encourage personalization. Just as Uber, the disruptive learning models of the future will be better and cheaper, and much more relevant and useful. These new learning models will revolutionize the higher education field through choice, technology, communication, and empowerment, and just like the role of the chief academic officer in universities, there will be a need for a chief innovation officer mandated with leading the transformation journey for the future of learning.
Universities and higher education institutions will continue to transform themselves as vibrant, dynamic, and diverse environments through a series of re-imagined, evolving, and adaptive hybrid learning models by moving into a constant state of assessing risks and leveraging prospects, from disruption to adoption, from local to global, from risk avoidance to innovation, and from one-way education platforms to interactive and interconnected learning ecosystems. The future of learning will be about more experimentation, collaboration, adaptability, inclusivity, and community development. We still have a lot to learn within a dynamic and changing environment, and rest assured that one thing will keep happening, the future will continue to surprise us, so stay tuned!
About the author: Sherif Kamel is a Professor of Management, Dean of the School of Business at The American University in Cairo, and President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.
31 January 2021