With more than 400 million students disrupted due to the spread of COVID-19, we are experiencing a watershed moment for education systems around the world. It tragically illustrates the need for higher ed institutions to build a technological backbone and digital competency to weather this crisis and to enter a new era of teaching and learning in a digital world.
While most educational institutions have not traditionally invested in online education as a core aspect of their learner experience, the tide began to change a few years ago with top universities committing to build fully digital academic experiences. The current crisis will accelerate this trend. Though challenging, it is going to be a period of forced experimentation for universities around the world — akin to what we witnessed during the Y2K crisis that compelled institutions to upgrade their technical infrastructure.
The current state of technology and platform choices will make it easier for universities to deliver a high-quality online learning experience. Had the crisis occurred a decade ago, it would have crippled the system. But we now have extensive broadband access, reliable communications tools, user-friendly videoconferencing and widespread smartphone adoption. And over the past eight years, leading professors from top universities have authored thousands of highly rated online courses that are now available to both individuals and institutions, including other higher ed institutions. Any college or university can use these online courses as a new type of digital, interactive textbook.
The pandemic requires universities to rapidly offer online learning. But many are encountering the difficulty of developing high-quality online learning from scratch. Fortunately, they don’t need to. Administrators and faculty from any college or university can immediately integrate ready-made, high-quality online courseware from other trusted institutions into their curricula even as they build their internal online capabilities over time. This “buy-build” strategy enables timely response as well as the development of long-term online capability. Once the response has stabilized, universities can start authoring digital content using widely available, cost-effective tools. They can combine that with live lectures or custom assessments to keep students on track.
The higher education ecosystem has historically been seen as slow to adapt. But educators, faced with unprecedented urgency, now have the ability to deliver high-quality teaching and learning online. Virtually every institution in the world is now exploring how they will offer online learning as a stop-gap measure. Fortunately, technology and content are available to help them do this quickly and with quality. And as universities develop their own digital competencies, what has started as a short-term response to a crisis will likely become an enduring digital transformation of higher education.
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