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Rethinking Higher Education for a post-pandemic world

23 Jun 2020 | Dr Kay Hack (PFHEA) The rapid switch to online teaching and assessment in March exposed the strengths and weaknesses of the global higher education sector. In this week’s LTHE tweetchat Dr Kay Hack, Principal Adviser (Learning and Teaching) considers whether the global pandemic has provided the impetus to rethink higher education provision for the better and asks what changes can we enact to ensure that HE emerges stronger from the crisis?

Cambridge University’s decision last month to deliver all lectures online during the whole of the next academic year was branded in the media as the end of the university experience as we know it; but whilst large lecture halls filled with 100-plus students may be a great way to transmit COVID, it was never the best way to transmit knowledge or develop understanding.

Social distancing requirements led to concern regarding the ability to access the physical course delivery locations – the laboratories, art and design studios and theatres, the libraries, computer suites and maker spaces that are critical to the student experience. Course teams that already made effective use of virtual learning environments to support learning, teaching and assessment found it easier to make the transition. The use of VLEs or other platforms as a broadcast medium, merely replacing face-to-face didactic lectures with virtual didactic lectures misses the opportunity to use the 4IR technologies, such as the internet of things, augmented and virtual reality, to provide engaging student-centred learning and develop the skills students will require for the 21st Century workplace.

Cancellation of the traditional three-hour summative examination assessments also triggered a rapid rethink in how to change assessment instruments whilst ensuring they remained valid, verifiable and equitable. But the ‘learn-assess-forget’ approach to learning ‘encouraged’ by closed book examinations never provided authentic assessment of skills, competencies and behaviours that students need for lifelong employability.

The skills required to survive and thrive during and after the pandemic will be based on uniquely human qualities - emotional intelligence, compassion and empathy, and the creativity and metacognitive skills that will allow us to innovate and solve the complex challenges that we face.

The interdisciplinary student-centred, project-based learning required can, and is, being delivered online with students showcasing their learning through online assessment – podcasts, blogs, videos, screencasts and websites. Authentic experiential learning pedagogies that foster social interaction and collaboration online will not only motivate and engage students but also develop the competencies for virtual working and develop the habits of mind required for life-long learning. 

For many students the residential model of HE has always been more about the rite of passage than the courses and curriculum on offer. If ‘going to uni’ means moving away from friends and family to live and learn independently to form new social networks then it is access to the social spaces, the cafes, bars, halls of residence and the sports facilities that add value to the student experience; if access to the location dependent aspects of university life is restricted what is the value of an on campus residential degree?  

Professor Mary Beard has also reflected on the value of the on-campus experience and asked why students need to ‘so extravagantly celebrate’ the start of their degree. Freshers week is as important a ritual of university life as the lectures and the library; leaving home and long-standing friendship groups behind; the fears of missing out or not fitting in are real.

How good do I need to be to get into the rugby team? Do you have to be an aspiring Olympian to join the rowing club? How active is the D&D club? These are the questions forefront in many student’s minds as they browse the clubs and society stands. During fresher’s week the old cliché still applies: you make friends for life or meet people you spend the next 3 years trying to avoid - can online induction really replicate these interactions?

Rethinking models of Higher Education

So, is the three year on-campus residential degree still fit for purpose? The rising cost to students of higher education and the proliferation of alternative opportunities including degree apprenticeships and more flexible modes of delivery is encouraging students to question the value of the predominant model of higher education.

Whilst predictions of the ‘death of universities’ due to the growth in MOOCS have not transpired; MOOCs continue to proliferate with over 100 million students enrolled on a MOOC in 2018 and over 12000 courses on offer. However, to take advantage of this new landscape, students need to be self-motivated, active agents prepared to take responsibility for their own learning and skill development. They need to be able to identify what they need to learn and how to learn it.

The reliance of the global higher education sector on transnational education and international student mobility has been exposed by the current crisis; but the global demand for higher education cannot be met through on campus provision alone and there is speculation on ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘for whom’ higher education is offered and how the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and provide life-long opportunities for all” can be met.

Prior to the current crisis the HE sector had begun to recognise the growing need for agile and responsive education and training systems to regularly up-skill and re-skill the workforce. Changes to the ways of working and living already being wrought by the fourth industrial revolution and artificial intelligence were driving changes in how and where we will work and continue to learn across our careers, but also upon how higher education would provide those on-going learning opportunities.

The pandemic has highlighted that most higher education institutions need to enhance their capacity to deliver flexible and resilient education systems that would meet student expectations and the accelerating social and economic transformations that wider society anticipates.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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