COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of higher education

university 2020

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Samuel Martin-Barbero, Presidential Distinguished Fellow, University of Miami


  • Developing a virtual culture for universities will require both imaginative and creative implementation, as well as open leadership, and an innovative mentality.
  • Learning technology should not be envisioned as a mere utility, but as an academic opportunity. Instructional design, multimedia production and data analytics are vital.
  • Scholars from all disciplines will have to be motivated, guided and well-equipped, as their courses and programmes are reconfigured and adapted to a new and uncertain future.

Very few people would have predicted that universities would face such a paradigm shift – with predominant virtual teaching and remote working bursting onto the scene – as a consequence to a global pandemic.

Perhaps it might have been envisaged that the evolution of the digital world, or a new technological breakthrough, or even a drastic shift in education market demands – the “ed-tech phenomenon” – would have caused the gradual sea change we are witnessing. But not a virus.

We can now see that COVID-19 has redirected and amplified the concerns and actions of universities across the world, reshaping and challenging their interests into guaranteeing short-term operational continuity, while ensuring long-term institutional viability.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications – a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

At the start of 2020, right before COVID-19 struck, we observed that governments and civil society, across Europe as well as in the US, Canada, and Australia, were greatly concerned about the following five aspects pertaining to higher education:

  • Providing access and guaranteeing equal opportunity to lower-income students and to members of disadvantaged minorities.
  • Regulatory bodies were interested in finding a formula that would allow them to measure learning outcomes and attainment in relation to graduate employability and distribute public money in accordance with this criteria.
  • Universities were assuming a more stalwart and proactive commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, and additionally were taking a firmer stance on helping the economic development of their regional settings.
  • Some parties pushed for universities to clearly encourage competence training as well as to create education programmes for working adults.
  • Finally, within university campuses, there was a concern regarding the wellbeing of faculty and students (including their nutrition, physical and mental health).

COVID-19 changed everything, and this list was no exception. New, more pressing goals were added as priorities. Throughout this short but dizzying historical event, there was a first stage (March to April 2020) focused on a new sociology of work: teaching, research and working condition-related changes in universities.

Forced by the sudden shuttering of their physical campuses, universities had to take their classes online for the remainder of the 2019-20 year. In doing so, the universities ensured a degree of class continuity and normality in the eyes of both students and their families. This, of course, led to an immediate disruption in the lives of many. It also brought to the forefront the inequalities between those students with resources and technological means at their disposal, and those without access to these devices.

Following this initial upheaval, some less-than-encouraging predictions were made on the financial impact that a lack of physical activity might have on universities: pared-down fundraising estimates along with the corresponding losses of a potential decrease in the number of students enrolling and deferral of admission fees.

Educational officers believe fundraising goals are at risk in face of COVID-19.
Educational officers believe fundraising goals are at risk in face of COVID-19.
Image: Washburn & McGoldrick

However, some nations, the US among them, rapidly sprung into action in order to counteract the short-term losses the university system might suffer. In the UK, three former universities ministers, Lord David Willetts, Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore, insisted on the importance right now of safeguarding universities as public goods and national assets of knowledge and social cohesion.

At the same time, several Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms took advantage of the virtual transition and offered their online portfolio free of charge, as a temporary alternative to all students lacking university continuity. The overall number of courses taking in business, technology and data skills has grown considerably in a few months.

From May to June 2020, we reached a second stage, in which express, in-house training improved and consolidated the technological abilities needed to tele-commute and allow faculty to teach class in the best possible way.

By doing so, curricula, evaluation methods, support material, assessment systems, as well as technological tools to enable virtual interaction in class, were all adapted. There were those who, taking advantage of the blurry economic and health recovery horizon of COVID-19, talked about potential mergers between universities and tech companies, along with the disappearance of small and medium-sized institutions. At the time, others pondered what the consequences would be of a curbing of international students, given that issuance of visas would be frozen as well as trans-continental travelling.

Our current, third phase (July and August 2020) has been devoted, for the most part, to administrative and managerial tasks, since universities have been rearranging themselves internally.

Internal data are being compiled and centralized, everything is being handled on a case-by-case basis, and plans are being designed by task forces specializing in everything from campus testing, tracing, tracking and cleaning of common spaces for the health and safety of all; to the technological resources available in classrooms and labs. All this while communications with students, family, faculty, and staff have been open, ongoing, and fluent.

Many voices in the field of higher education have, in these last few weeks, seized Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen’s concept of “disruptive innovation” to explain the current situation and subtly prescribe turbulent times for the status quo of universities.

As the pair wrote in a Harvard Business Review article in 1995: “Companies must give managers of disruptive innovation free rein to realize the technology’s full potential – even if it means ultimately killing the mainstream business. For the corporation to live, it must be willing to see business units die.”

It would therefore be wise to be cautious when abandoning conventional, in-person and socializing model of universities, since blindly adopting “disruptive technology” will force many to question what they know and do, making this period of change even more challenging for higher education.

Experts reached a conclusion to this problem in a recent webinar held by Harvard Business Publishing: learning technology should not be envisioned as a mere utility, but as an academic opportunity. For innovation to actually take place, changing some of the processes of universities is key. Therefore, inspiring discourses for change are not enough unless they are followed by an internal culture of action and example.

What seems to have become a consensus view is that the first institutional component to be prioritized right now at any university is the teaching and learning. An optimum understanding and applicability of the “learning sciences” (neuroscience and cognitive psychology) are key as we shift face-to-face classes towards blended and hybrid ones: the visuality, the narrative, the socializing and the interaction, in each syllabus. Therefore, instructional design, multimedia production and data analytics seem vital at this stage.

Academic content does not become better just for being saved in a Learning Management System (LMS) and spread through a global Online Programme Management (OPM). Therefore, all universities now in a virtual learning transition should refocus, emphasize and generate a proactive and collaborative attitude and capacity for learning along with, and for the students. If we turn to Alvin Toffler, we will be embracing at that point a philosophy and organizational agility inspired by the principle of “unlearning to relearn what we once learned”, which entails almost overturning the natural order.

Scholars from all disciplines will have to be motivated, guided and well-equipped, as their courses and programmes are adapted and redesigned – which will entail a smart pedagogic overhaul – and we will have to assume that they are truly attracted by gaining the art of distance training and student engagement.

Taking advantage of the virus-induced virtual culture for universities will require both imaginative and creative implementation, as well as open leadership, and an innovative mentality, as we still have so much to learn about our disturbing and confusing short and mid-term future. However, we should bear in mind that being able to deliver teaching and research quality in a virtual or semi-virtual setting, respecting physical distancing, will not be the same as the previous complete, vivid college and residential campus life experience.

Universities will always be the founding pillar of higher education and the necessary lens for envisioning its future. Despite the impact of COVID-19 and the havoc it may wreak on their modus operandi; we cannot afford to underestimate or forget the resilience universities have shown throughout human history. However, in these coming months, we will witness new, strategic and tactical measures, as long as this pandemic continues on its unpredictable march, eroding peace, control and comfort.

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