From Necessity to Strategy — Universities’ Online Challenge

by Juliana Guaqueta Ospina, Education Specialist, International Finance Corporation

As universities grapple with when and how to resume classes this fall, it is a good moment to take stock of how they have coped with, and adapted to, the new social distancing realities ushered in by the Covid-19 pandemic and how the wave of experimentation this has ushered in is reshaping higher education. A region worth studying is Latin America, one of the pandemic’s current epicenters where half of higher education students attend private universities and whose institutions moved quickly earlier this year to enable remote access to their programs.

Many universities had already been developing distance learning programs and online content but the pandemic pushed them to accelerate these efforts, while underscoring how difficult it is to develop high quality online learning experiences. It has led to more proactive planning to manage the medium- and long-term impacts on enrollments and revenues, and to profound discussions about the viability of academic, operating, and financial models.

Anima Educacao, for example, a university that is unique in Brazil for its blended education model combining in-person teaching with online learning for 140,000 students, tapped this expertise as it temporarily transitioned all students to a fully online format. To support students experiencing financial hardship as a result of the crisis, they created two new aid programs in partnership with Pravaler, the largest private student lending provider in Brazil. Anima assumes the student loan risk for the first year, after which Pravaler will take over the portfolio. They also acquired an insurance policy to mitigate the risk of potential delinquencies.

To facilitate online learning on a bigger scale, Anima — an IFC client — negotiated a special discount with a telecommunications service provider to allow their students to affordably upgrade their Internet plans. More than 8,000 of its teachers worked online, and the university created guides to teach and study remotely and reinforced content production and platform capabilities. Students also made effective use of social media platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram to provide feedback on their university’s efforts — and to show solidarity in this trying time.

University of Santo Tomas in Colombia, also an IFC client with 29,000 students, was teaching about 15 percent of its students through distance learning before the pandemic. Switching over the other 85 percent of students required improving video conferencing capabilities, strengthening its learning management system, and acquiring thousands of additional licenses so that classes could continue in a synchronous format. As many faculty and students lacked the necessary computer equipment for remote learning, the university created a lending system for those who needed it.

A challenge for Santo Tomas has been to replicate the lab work required for hands-on disciplines such as medicine and engineering. The university devised a strategy to redesign lab experiences in virtual environments using technologies such as simulation videos, but in some cases decided to postpone the labs until campuses re-open. Internships require a whole new structure to be effective when people cannot leave their homes to go to an office, and this is something that has not yet moved fully online.

Such adaptation efforts underscore how forced experimentation can advance discussions on how to incorporate more online components into higher education and how to ensure sustainable and resilient business models. The crisis has made it even more apparent that online education must do more than simply replicate what’s currently done in person. It has created an opportunity for universities to initiate structural changes that make online education a more interactive experience for the learner — one with individualized learning plans that leverage AI, stronger academic support systems, and more data-driven operations. Given deteriorating macroeconomic conditions, we will see an even stronger demand for a more skilled workforce and a greater push for affordability.

Universities had been reluctant to scale online learning as it has not always delivered strong outcomes compared to in-person programs. However, a growing body of research suggests that online models can in fact be designed to achieve on par or even superior outcomes. A randomized controlled trial in Russia found that an online e education platform in which classes were prepared by some of the country’s top-ranked departments had the potential to address the shortage of resources and qualified STEM instructors by bringing cost savings to institutions in economic distress while achieving similar outcomes for students. This crisis is incentivizing university leaders to move beyond making decisions based on necessity to developing long-term strategies.

Where online education may have a weakness compared to an on-campus equivalent — for example, on student engagement, networking, and community building — universities will need to find innovative solutions including blended models. And where online has a theoretical edge over on-campus — for example, more flexibility, continuous assessment, data and analytics — universities need to develop comprehensive academic innovation plans such as the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan. The Center concentrates specialized expertise in areas including instructional design, technology and research, supports faculty across the university, and develops partnerships with specialized external players.

Given the growing likelihood that social distancing requirements will remain in place for some time, higher education institutions must be able to operate and thrive in such a world, not just muddle through. In this new normal, what will their strategy be for attracting students to enroll? What type of online and blended learning experiences will emerge? And ultimately, what are the most effective approaches to upgrade skills across emerging markets in this new normal? There are many more questions. How they respond to the pandemic is giving us clues on how best to advance. Let’s listen to them.

This blog is adapted from an earlier version published on June 26, 2020 in Forbes Mexico.

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IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets.

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IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets.

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