Education and Skills

Online learning: What next for higher education after COVID-19?

Online learning could be used to revolutionize education for the good. Pictured here: Student at laptop holding a book.

Online learning could be used to revolutionize education for the good. Image: Unsplash/Emmanuel Ikwuegbu

Muhammad Sohail
Senior Lecturer at Vilnius University of Applied Sciences, Lithuania , Co-founder of Social Innovation Enterprise SE4All, Spain
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  • Higher education institutions worldwide faced challenges when switching to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • However, the experience highlighted how online learning could make education more engaging and accessible for many students.
  • Lecturers and teachers should embrace the opportunities offered by digital distance learning to revolutionize education for the better.

Prior to the pandemic, very few students had the chance to study online. As a digital dreamer for Education 4.0, my dream for the future of higher education had long involved a shift from the university being a physical location to a digital one – meaning you can study whenever and wherever you were.

Then COVID-19 forced higher education institutions (HEI) to move to digital distance learning all over the world. According to UNESCO, 194 countries and regions temporarily closed their educational institutions due to the pandemic, affecting more than 1.5 billion students worldwide.

But the process wasn't easy due to a range of issues including IT problems, internet access and lack of knowledge around digital teaching resources. However, with careful planning and implementation, online learning can make university education more affordable, accessible, interactive, and student-centered.

COVID-19 a 'steep learning curve' for lecturers

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Higher Education Institution study highlighted how lecturers faced a steep learning curve when adapting to new teaching technologies at the start of the pandemic.

They suddenly had to record lectures, create learning resources, organize online classrooms and hold live sessions. For some it was easy, but not for others; they learned to teach online by actively doing so due to circumstance.

Inside Higher Ed's annual report found that half of the professors surveyed agree that online learning is an "effective method of teaching" and many instructors are concerned that their engagement with students has diminished thanks to the shift to online learning.

Academic staff also reported more stress and work-related pressure, more out-of-hours work and too much bluescreen engagement.

Even so, this compassionate teaching style and the sense of solidarity between lecturers and students should be valued and nurtured throughout university teaching, online or off.

From a student's point of view, remote learning often works well, especially if we consider students’ financial and maintenance costs.

But it can also prove to be a loss, if students need face-to-face learning, to complete laboratory work, or even just have social contact on the campus.

Online learning can be more productive

During the pandemic, many academic staff realized that dividing teaching into multiple small learning activities – such as mini-lectures, group discussions, class polls and pop-up quizzes – could be more productive.

New digital skills and technology played key roles in transforming traditional classrooms into hybrid ones. However, it must be remembered that such blended teaching methods increased both working hours and stress levels in teaching staff.

As such, teaching staff should have their own autonomy to design their courses. Otherwise, universities could end up creating a blended education environment, but without the quality of education.

COVID disruption to education

Pandemic undoubtedly disrupted the whole education sector and prompted academic staff and students to change their working, learning and even living conditions.

In addition, there are concerns that the digital divide among university students has increased, due to varying access to online platforms and services.

The disruption has also had a potential financial impact. According to McKinsey & Company, global costs from pandemic-related learning delays could reach $1.6 trillion annually by 2040, or 0.9% of the world's GDP.

Helping students catch up on lost education through online learning could help avoid a global loss of $1.6 billion per year by 2040.
Helping students catch up on lost education through online learning could help avoid a global loss of $1.6 billion per year by 2040. Image: McKinsey & Company

Technology can revolutionize learning for good

As an Innovation and Digitalization Researcher, I have observed that there is massive potential for using technology to deepen and support learning outside the classroom.

The pandemic forced us to define what engagement really means in the classroom, showing us how students could be more creative and how a creative exam assessment can take the place of a traditional one.

Regardless of where the class takes place – in person, online, or through hybrid learning – the key priorities for HEIs should remain student engagement and the learning experience.

It is important for us to acknowledge what’s happening around us and what resources are available to support student learning. Technology isn’t just a disruptor, but an enabler.

Since COVID-19, I have been effectively using a number of such tools in my classes to make the best pedagogical practices, including Moodle, Microsoft, Google Education, Screencast-O-Matic, Miro, Zoom, and H5P.

According to the Online College Students 2022 report, 87% of undergraduate and graduate online students agreed or strongly agreed that online education was worth the cost. In 2020, most likely due to COVID-19, 73% of students were considered online or partially online, compared to 33% in 2017.

Why we should embrace online learning

Undoubtedly, HEIs have learned an invaluable lesson over the past few years. Some may think that COVID-19 learning was not good enough, but it would be a shame to go back to an absolute face-to-face learning environment at the higher education level.

For at least the next couple of years, universities will have to deal with some of the toughest circumstances they have ever encountered due to COVID-19.

Yet they can also embrace the changes brought by online learning and transform higher education for the better.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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