Beyond COVID-19: What's Next in International Higher Education?

5 min read

Ashlee-Maree Courtney-Eman

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2020 is a year that has changed the course of higher education and the world forever. When the pandemic struck universities around the world in March, most were unprepared for the scale of disruption the pandemic would bring. Yet, the way educators have reacted and transformed the delivery of learning over the past months is nothing short of miraculous, challenges aside.

Over the next weeks, we will focus on distinct trends that have emerged as a result of the pandemic and analyze their long and short-term impact on the industry. The first and most predominant trend is the uptake of online education in response to restrictions caused by the pandemic.

Watch Webinar On-Demand

To learn more about these current trends, watch a video recording of our recent webinar entitled "Beyond COVID-19: What's Next in International Higher Education?" hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education in association with Keystone Academic Solutions.

The rise of online education

Online education is not a new concept in higher education. Before the pandemic, an estimated 13% of the US undergraduate population were already enrolled in online-only programs. However, since March, the scale of adoption of full-time online learning exploded overnight as millions of students switched to the virtual classroom around the world. For many students and educators, this change has been marked by significant challenges. Little time for preparation, complaints from students regarding decreased quality of education, and lack of social communities are only some of the issues facing HigherEd this year.   

The majority of these challenges have been focused on the transition from physical to online teaching of classes, something educators nor students had little time to prepare for. In reality, the experience of studying a dedicated online program is markedly different, with programs carefully curated and designed specifically for online delivery from ideation. While physical learning is still held as the standard when it comes to learning within higher education, what long-term effects will the current global switch to online learning have towards perceptions of online education as a primary study choice? With millions of students currently studying online, will this period of change make future students more comfortable with choosing online education as a viable alternative to physical study in the years to come?

Changing perceptions of online education

Much can change in a year. While attending online classes were not a normal part of the day for students last September, neither were daily Zoom calls or web meetings for those in the workplace. Today, these are all part of ‘new normal’ everyday life.

In a poll conducted by Keystone Academic Solutions, over 56% of students surveyed were considering online education as an alternative to campus study since COVID-19. With so many students studying online and becoming used to this ‘new normal,’ it is highly unlikely that there is not going to be some effect on their perceptions and comfort towards the idea of online learning. Even when the world returns back to a state of ‘normalcy,’ many students may later prefer the flexibility offered by online learning programmes when compared to physical learning. Especially for those already working or requiring flexibility while pursuing their education.

This may be even more prevalent for Gen Z, the first living generation of digital natives. While many students today are used to the traditional model of in-class learning and many have demonstrated difficulty in making the initial shift online, this could change over time.

While obviously learning is not a one size fits all model, the more comfortable future students become with online learning and more they grow up immersed within digital environments, the more likely perceptions towards dedicated online education will change – however only time will only tell.

Within the industry, perceptions are also changing. According to a poll conducted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, over 80% of respondents from 33 countries agreed that the quality of online learning and teaching had improved as a result of the pandemic. With such a strong global societal shift towards online learning in 2020, the long-term benefits may be significant, even if currently unknown.

Online education as an extension of the proverbial pie

Virtual learning opportunities should not be viewed as taking part of the pie away from traditional activities, but rather as extending and diversifying it. Institutions who take note of these opportunities and find ways to innovate and extend their offerings stand to benefit the most. Finding new ways to create value for students will no doubt reward universities as younger generations of students increasingly find alternative pathways to higher education alluring. By challenging the idea of what a university offers to fit the future without being entrenched in the past may truly provide the best path towards long-term success.

For universities such as Washington State University (WSU), in a year where fall enrollment could have fallen dramatically, the actual decline was only 1.4%. Why is this? Since 1992, WSU has offered the Global Campus online programme which grew by a record-breaking 24.2% this fall. By having a long-term stake in online learning, the university has been able to minimize the impact of COVID-19 whether others have experienced declines as much as 8% or greater. For some, switching to an online learning program may not be the best way to go. However, for others, it may be an optimal solution, especially for those juggling full-time work or other responsibilities. In times of uncertainty, universities such as WSU are demonstrating how long-term benefits of the early development of online programming are far-reaching and have significantly helped mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

While still purely speculation, the potential for digital learning to rise is significant and universities considering how to integrate digital innovation into their strategy stand to do well in the years to come. The time for technology to disrupt higher education has well and truly arrived, and the pandemic will only accelerate it. While many universities are already reaping benefits from the mitigated impact on enrollment, adoption will only continue to grow in the future as more students look towards online education. Universities who aim to adopt a more digitally agile approach will stand to benefit the most long-term.

To find out how you can recruit more students to your online programs, get in touch here.


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