As COVID-19 tears through Europe and North America and starts making inroads in other parts of the world, China and countries like Singapore and Hong Kong are beginning to relax their restrictions. So, as we brace ourselves for the worst of it, what can we take from the Higher Education sector in those countries who have been through their peaks and are adapting to a new normal?
We spoke to our colleagues in our APAC offices to get a sense of how universities have adapted to the crisis, and what pitfalls they’ve faced in going through the process. Like here, Asian universities were quick to shut their campuses and move all teaching online. With the benefit of six weeks’ more experience operating in this capacity, we set out below four major learnings the UK HE sector can benefit from.
Quality of online education
As we recently heard from NUS representatives, quality of online education is a critical issue concerning almost all students, and warrants attention here and elsewhere.
Online teaching and learning is nothing new – but for many institutions there has been a disparity in uptake and enthusiasm amongst academic staff for the medium. In order to develop all faculty members to be equally adept at utilising virtual technology and managing virtual classrooms, Zhejiang University in Zhejiang Province organised a series of training sessions for its 3,670 faculty members, emphasising how to adapt pedagogy to online tuition and forge a strong sense of community. They have since moved more than 5,000 undergraduate and graduate courses online thanks to its teacher training in online delivery and digital learning platforms, and plans are in place for 2,500 graduate students to defend their theses this spring as originally scheduled.
Commenting to a reporter on the need to adapt and prioritise quickly, Jeff Lehman, Vice-Chancellor at NYU Shanghai, says there has been one silver lining to the current crisis: "We have, as a faculty, been thinking more seriously about pedagogy in the last month than we have in the prior eight years."
Many students rely on free university WIFI for their internet access. Suddenly, without a campus infrastructure in place, students who can’t afford broadband deals, or rely solely on smartphone packages, find themselves at a disadvantage or locked out of the virtual classroom. In order to bridge the digital divide some universities have funded access to online learning with bursaries for those students at risk of falling between the cracks. Going a step further, universities have also negotiated deals with network providers to subsidize the data plans of its faculty and students. For those students in remote areas where signal is an issue, universities will provide lecture playbacks and courseware packages.
In South Korea there has been a distressing increase in anti-Chinese sentiments exacerbated by COVID-19 and the spread of the virus. In universities, Korean undergraduates have started expressing anti-Chinese sentiments, a sharp reversal from a few years ago. With more than 120,000 Chinese students studying at UK universities – either physically, or more likely now, virtually, UK universities must be vigilant to ensure a tide of anti-Chinese student sentiment cannot take root. This will require universities to work closely with their student populations to ensure social barriers between domestic and international students, frankly an issue in normal times, are actively dismantled in this current period.
Social distancing is here for awhile
Right now, on university campuses across Singapore you’d never guess there was an outbreak of the coronavirus just a couple of months ago. The country, which had been preparing for the next major global pandemic since 2003, benefited from timing and quick government action in order to control the spread of the virus through broad public communication, enforced isolation and strict social distancing measures. As restrictions are now being lifted and some freedom of movement is restored, spikes in cases will continue to appear until the population is effectively inoculated through either herd immunity, or preferably, a vaccine.
In order to control the spikes, universities are working to implement physical reminders as students return to campuses, such as removing every other chair from use in lecture halls, and limiting head counts in communal and informal spaces.
Professor Wu Zhaohui, President of Zhejiang University wrote recently in an article posted on the World Economic Forum website: “Universities need to adapt to this new environment by advocating for human-machine symbiosis, teacher-student interaction, life-long learning and ubiquitous learning. A mix of online and face-to-face teaching is one example of how universities can diversify their provision beyond bricks and mortar. The priorities may include general education, which aims at the well-rounded development of students; and open-loop education, featuring co-creation and resource convergence.”
This pandemic has stress-tested university systems and infrastructures around the world. Those institutions which are most likely to survive, and may even thrive, are those which will rise to future challenges through innovation, quick decision-making processes, and flexibility encoded in their DNA.
For more information, please contact Alex Albone, a Consultant in Berwick Partners Higher Education practice.
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