Mounting Barriers to Higher Education Online
Higher Education, at any level, is vital for a growing and developing country and its economy. When our youth cannot access the knowledge they need to move their lives and that of their nations forward, it can create unrest and possible instability. Be it intellectual, vocational, or philosophical knowledge- the institutions of higher learning are an intricate part of youth development and our future.
Now that our campuses have been closed for up to six months in some cases; how do we minimize the impact at all levels? We know that some closures are temporary, while others will be permanent. The distance learning industry exists in some developing nations but only minimally. The pandemic has placed all educational systems on the path to some level of online offering for continuation, and mere survival.
While many universities are attempting to implement online learning as a way to ensure academic continuity, we know that permanent closure will occur for schools that financially cannot afford to transform the academics to digital platforms. For the schools that took the leap, the manageability became too great. On the other hand, many universities are attempting to implement online learning as a way to ensure academic continuity to save or begin the academic year.
On the other hand, not all countries and their universities are equipped to handle online learning. In the developing region of the world, they are far more burdened in trying to reopen. Many campuses are doing their best by seeking options for their students, such as massive open online course (MOOC) formats, that provide unlimited participation and open access via the web. Institutions are also creating hybrid opportunities for academics and exploring online platforms that they build or can purchase at a low cost. But in some cases, the idea of even low-cost solutions can be a burden for a single institution.
Academic continuity is especially important in countries seeking continual growth. However, as we can see, the pandemic has exposed the inequalities that persist across the higher education system as a whole, globally, and also within countries themselves.
In some emerging and developing regions, students have refused to accept the move to an online format due to inequity inaccessibility to the technological infrastructure needed by all students. While in other locations, the level of preparedness by individual institutions for online teaching and learning varies drastically. In addition to the infrastructural needs, the core of the institution- its students, faculty, and staff - are also facing or creating challenges. There is a struggle for faculty to transform their in-person teaching format or materials to a digital platform. Given the current circumstances, online education is the best alternative for educational delivery, but implementation will come with challenges.
So, an unspoken challenge might be even political as the country’s internal forces may battle each other for the heart and mind of its youth. The move to continue education via e-learning could be caught in a web of politics. However, it would be beneficial for nations to disperse with politics at all levels for the sake of their future. Whether it is the government or educational leaders in South America, some parts of Asia and Africa, they need to prioritize their youth who feel bored and idle at home and are yearning to return to their studies.
A revolutionary concept would be for universities to partner with each other to purchase a system. Another thought perhaps is the oversight council/commission in the nation funds the systems for its public universities and some private one which could use the assistance. It may be the time to go from competitors to collaborators as a path for survival.
The change that higher education might need in developing countries is partnership internally and externally, creating a branch campus or merging programs instead of full closures where possible. This virus has provided an opportunity to put aside institutional pride and, in some cases, identity for the greater good of educating the future of one’s nation. As we are learning, this health issue is not going to disappear quickly, and it might be compounded with the regular phenomena of your region, such as cyclones, floods, earthquakes, or other diseases.
All institutions of higher learning teach “team” and espouse the values of togetherness for accomplishing more or the improbability. Is this not an opportune time to practice what we preach? Joining forces is needed more now than ever for the greater good of our future. These partnerships and collaborations should not stop at the institution. They need to include telecommunication companies for broadband; online platform providers for accessibility; and even consulting for faculty and staff training.
The drastic concepts and changes suggested in this article are meant for the survival of as many campuses as possible. However, these thoughts can be derailed by institutional politics and governmental nuances. Thus the partnerships between institutions might be as dangerous and complicated as the virus causing the problem.
Even with the inequalities, we know that e-learning is and will continue to be embedded into the fabric of higher education. Now, is the time to find ways to create systems through local research and innovation that fit your country and will move it forward. These are incredibly challenging times and situations with little or no precedent, but universities have little option but to do their best. They are the halls of research, teaching, and learning, and it is time to put the knowledge they have been sharing into practice.
I know you are actively converting your academics online. If you would like to learn about transitioning your student-facing services and student life programs, connect with me.
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-- Karla A. Fraser, Educational Continuity: Challenges Facing Universities/Colleges in Developing Nations, Roseapple Global, LLC
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