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How universities and colleges are reconsidering remote learning

 

A section of Egerton University Students queuing at the university's main entrance on October 6, 2020. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Just two years ago, universities around the world closed their campuses at the pandemic’s onset, and embarked on a never-before-tried experiment: delivering education 100 per cent remotely.

The results have been mixed, especially in low- and middle-income countries, but universities everywhere agree that online classes are a permanent feature.

The question is how to do it most effectively, yielding the best results for the students, the university, and local employers.

University leaders in emerging markets acknowledge that the role of the private sector in higher education has grown greatly in the last two years from both supply and demand perspectives: first, universities are providers of online options, and second, they are listening to employers seeking graduates with skills that match jobs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not only accelerated trends toward online learning, these leaders have said, but it also has broadened the types of people who want targeted skills training to prepare them for jobs of the future.

From the supply perspective, the biggest lessons from the pandemic were pretty basic, said Jackline Chibai, Director of Strategy and Quality Assurance Services at Strathmore University.

The university needed to make sure students had access to a laptop or a mobile device and had internet connectivity.

“Governments, donors, and universities need to realise that this is no longer optional, it is a basic requirement for all students,” she said.

Strathmore, an International Finance Corporation (IFC) client, has been providing laptops to all its students - starting before the pandemic - and also arranged for students to get subsidised internet bundles.

Of course, offering students laptops and internet connectivity is only the first step in creating an environment for successful digital learning, a field that didn’t even exist two decades ago. As more becomes known about why people want to pursue digital learning — and what approaches to digital learning yield the best results — the lessons are changing how private-sector education providers do business.

Some of those lessons are coming from students themselves.

Adjusting to hybrid learning

Collins Okoh, a Nigerian national, arrived in Kenya in 2018 to pursue an on-campus law degree at Strathmore University. The pandemic lockdown started right in the middle of his second-year exams.

Okoh was already equipped with a laptop from Strathmore and was using some e-learning platforms — for instance, for assignments and reading journal articles.

Switching to fully online mode, he continued his studies, sometimes from home, sometimes bringing his fully-charged laptop and phone to the park. Now, back on campus in his final year, Okoh said both models have costs and gains.

“What makes a university stand out are the people, the facilities, and the culture you are exposed to by interacting with others. When you move to fully online, you do not get this,” he said.

“If you are in a classroom, someone can crack a joke and the entire class laughs. You don’t get that when everyone’s microphone is muted. Also, in a classroom, I have flexibility and movement. Someone asks a question on my left, on my right, I can turn to face them.”

The alternative, he said, is difficult: especially “being in one room, facing one direction, always looking at a screen, from classes to assignments and group studies. At one point I started to develop a backache.”

Virtual learning can lend itself to distractions too.

“Your phone rings and you stay on the call for the class because you know you can watch the recording after. This has a ripple effect on time management. Instead of getting eight hours of sleep, you’re watching recordings.”

That said, Okoh is also positive about online learning. “I started writing my first journal article, which got published because I had more time to spare, not having to navigate through traffic and move between classrooms.”

Okoh used the time to undertake a project with the World Bank Group, African Development Bank, and African Legal Support Facility that involved managing an atlas of African mining legislation.

Asked what works better, in-person or online, Okoh said: “If you ask me, I say, ‘Make it hybrid.’ ”

Chibai noted that many African students today prefer to learn at their own pace, from their own sources.

“YouTube is their teacher,” she said, “and they want a quick turnaround on their assessment as everything is at the tip of their fingers. The big challenge for universities like Strathmore is how to remain relevant in that space.”

Chip Paucek, co-founder and CEO of 2U, parent company of edX, a leading online global education company, echoed Chibai’s point on students wanting more flexible modes of learning.

Paucek and his team partner with nonprofit colleges and universities around the world to create high-quality online executive education courses, boot camps, and degree programmes.

“The pandemic has not only accelerated the adoption of online learning, but it has also permanently shifted the power dynamics in higher education toward consumers. Consumers are becoming the dominant force in higher education,” Paucek said, in 2U’s most recent quarterly earnings call.

“They have more choice over what, when, where, and how they want to learn. They are seeking greater flexibility and personal relevance, placing a premium on convenience and affordability, and increasingly choosing online options.”

Jesus Lanza, CEO of Mexico-based Lottus Education, believes that results-focused analysis of outcomes is critical to creating a better digital learning product.

“We need timely and accurate data such as key performance indicators, engagement, and attrition levels to make decisions,” he said.

“For a company like Lottus, which has grown from 6,000 to 80,000 students in six years, it is essential to have a simplified, unitary database that tells us how happy our students are with the service we deliver.”

Delivering change

Across the sector, private universities and colleges are seeking outside assistance and advice from organizations such as IFC in ramping up online offerings.

IFC has invested about $600 million in higher education in emerging markets, a blend of direct investments in colleges and universities and indirect investments in the educational technology companies that support them.

To deepen the effectiveness of these efforts, IFC established the Digital for Tertiary Education Program (D4TEP) in 2020.

D4TEP helps universities make better-informed decisions as they proceed on their digitalisation journey.

IFC Principal Education Specialist Alejandro Caballero explained how it works: “Over the course of 12 weeks, we evaluate what each participating university already has in place and what plans are in their pipeline.

The goal is to expand the arc of the possible and discover ‘moments of truth’ together. Increasingly, this involves digitalisation and a change culture.”

A focus on jobs

Universities in Africa are putting a great emphasis on employable graduates, according to Snehar Shah, CEO of Moringa School, which specialiSes in providing intermediate digital skills training.

He pointed out that university graduates in Kenya have not fared well in getting jobs in the past.

“The average time it takes a bachelors graduate in Kenya to get a job is five years,” he said.

“This is mainly for two reasons: they lack practical experiences before they graduate, and employers are not receptive to them, which is why we need to give students access to better training opportunities.”

In developing the curriculum, Moringa has been reviewing credentials required by IT giants like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon to help students get trained in the most market-relevant digital skills.