Universities, like any other social institutions, have had to face devastating epidemics that have impacted their daily functioning. And they have survived and continued their mission even with their doors closed.
In 1665, Cambridge University closed due to a black plague epidemic that struck England and Isaac Newton had to return to his home, Woolsthorpe Mano. One day, sitting in the garden, he saw an apple fall that inspired him to formulate his theory of universal gravitation.
The moral of this story is that, inasmuch as the doors of higher education institutions had to be closed, academic activities have continued where there are spirits committed to science and training, and, sometimes, with surprising results. Our universities have been particularly spectacular in partnering with different levels of government to produce PPEs, sanitisers and ventilators.
Kenya’s shuttered universities have confronted the twin challenge of rolling out online learning for thousands of students and finding money to pay salaries and meet their financial obligations at a time when major revenue streams were shut. Like private institutions, public universities rely heavily on tuition fees to fund their operations since any subsidies they receive from the government are inadequate to meet their financial needs.
The current impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on higher education are easily documented, but it is debatable which ones will leave their mark on the different actors in the medium and long term. Lack of references to similar crises in the past makes it difficult to predict what may happen in the immediate future.
How will the Covid-19 pandemic alter the future of teaching and learning? Answering that question requires that we first acknowledge some difficult truths.
At this point, we don't know the extent to which Covid-19 might cause some universities to close down or merge. The most vulnerable of tuition-dependent institutions, will be the hardest hit by the pandemic.
For the vast majority of universities that will survive Covid-19, most will likely see declines in revenue and increases in costs. Hopefully, they will prioritise faculty as budgets are reduced. Experience elsewhere shows that relying on layoffs to balance university budgets is the fastest way to kill innovation, risk taking and morale.
The higher education future that Covid-19 will give us, however, is not entirely bleak. If we look far and hard enough into our university post-pandemic landscape, we can savour some reasons for optimism. Nowhere is the higher education post-Covid-19 future as positive or as interesting as in the realm of teaching and learning. There are three permutations for how our post-pandemic pedagogy will be altered across the higher education ecosystem.
First, the remote teaching and learning efforts that our faculty and students have been engaged in do not resemble what we think of as traditional online education. Quality online learning programmes are high-input operations, requiring both time to develop and significant investments to run. Many sector players are worried that the rapid shift to remote learning could tarnish the reputation of online education.
This does not mean, however, that the Covid-19-necessitated move to universal remote teaching will be all bad for student learning. The biggest future benefits of virtual instruction will come after our professors and students return to their physical classrooms.
Second, the necessity of teaching and learning with synchronous (Zoom) platforms will yield significant benefits when these methods are layered into face-to-face instruction. Universities will come back from Covid-19 with a much more widely shared understanding that digital tools are complements, not substitutes, for the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face learning. Residential courses will be better for the practice that professors have received in moving content online, as precious classroom time will be more productively utilised for discussion, debate and guided practice.
Third, teaching and learning are core capabilities of every single institution of higher education. Universities that invested in their learning design resources, by both hiring instructional designers and by reorganising campus learning organisations into integrated units, were able to manage relatively efficiently the transition to Covid-19 required remote teaching and learning.
On the other hand, universities that are dependent on online programme management providers to run online programmes or that did not have an online presence to speak of had a harder time in making this transition.
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Resilient communities are the bedrock of prosperous, stable societies. So what makes for resilient communities? First and foremost, it’s knowledge: The insight to recognise disruptive change, face challenges and seize emerging opportunities. By working together, communities and universities have terrific power to generate and leverage that knowledge together.
Finally, although the pandemic and quarantine arrived without warning and universities had to adapt quickly to ensure academic continuity, universities must take advantage of this crisis to pause, analyse, and reflect, and then rethink education that we have known until now.
Dr Wanjawa teaches in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Pwani University