How to Retain Quality in Higher Education in the Shift to Virtual Learning

With online learning set to remain a key part of higher education after the pandemic subsides, how can institutions retain quality and credibility in their offering? 

As a result of the coronavirus crisis, by April 2020, “schools and higher education institutions were closed in 185 countries, affecting more than 1.5 billion learners, constituting 89% of total enrolled learners worldwide.” 

In response, higher education institutions across the world accelerated their shift to virtual learninga necessary step in securing both short and long-term success.  

In the short term, online learning enabled universities to continue to provide an education to their students and to keep as many staff in employment as possible. 

In the long term, continuing to function during thcoronavirus crisis was a critical factor in reducing the overall impact on finances and reputation for many institutions.  

However, experts believe online learning is not set to disappear from higher education after the pandemic subsides and that, as a result, the sector must “embrace the technology.  

According to the World Economic Forum, this shift to online learning in higher education is an example of disruptive innovation. 

Disruptive innovation, as explained by the Forum for the Future of Higher Education, is “an innovation that makes a complicated and expensive product simpler and cheaper and thereby attracts a new set of customers.” 

In other words, the move to online learning in response to the pandemic has exposed potential opportunities for higher education institutions. 

According to Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, a non-profit, online, competency-based universityonline learning provides another avenue for students and creates new markets for institutions to access. 

Writing for Forbes, Pulsipher says: The place-based model of learning is highly enrollment-sensitive, meaning that enrollment shortfalls result in big losses to the bottom line. Institutions that provide lower-cost, higher-value offerings to students are most likely to survive. 

Equally, online learning has the power to change the way we approach higher education, “from a degree-based talent pipeline to a skills-based talent pipeline.” 

The value of a degree may soon rest in its ability to equip students with valuable skills for a range of working environments, as opposed to it setting a graduate on one chosen career path.  

Again, this opens a new market for higher education institutions to explore, as seen in the growth of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) during lockdown 

However, experts are also cautioning institutions on the potential risks of shifting so rapidly to virtual learning, especially when abandoning in-person teaching models entirely. 

As explained by Nadia Elaref, President of ESLSCA University, Egypt: The main measures of success of higher education institutions were helping students worldwide to fulfill their goals and prepare them for employment; and to stimulate research and innovation; in addition to meeting the needs of employers.” 

Higher education institutions have a responsibility to retain the quality of education they provide and to continue to support their staff and students throughout the shift to online learning.  

Additionally, the pandemic has exposed existing inequalities, with many marginalized students unable to access the technology or internet connections necessary for online education. 

If the transition to online learning is to be a success, the higher education sector must first address the digital divide seen amongst students.   

In fact, if the digital divide is addressed, the flexibility of online learning would help universities reach prospective students that may not have otherwise had the opportunity to learn via tradition means, thus helping to address educational inequalities.  

According to UNESCO, “the acceleration of change also brings an opportunity to reimagine the future of education and chart a path that is inclusive for all students around the world.” 

Maintaining the quality of education received through online learning, including the “credibility of entry exams and academic assessments,” should also remain a priority for higher education institutions.  

It’s clear that while online learning is an exciting opportunity for higher education, there is a lot to consider if the transition is to be a success.  

For a more in-depth exploration of the topic, Digital transformation in learning, please listen to episode five of the QS In Conversation podcast, where we speak to Ian Curran, Vice Dean, Education and Co-Director, Academic Medicine Education Institute, Duke-NUS Medical School. 

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