The coronavirus crisis has reshaped the global higher education sector in a variety of ways, so which of these changes will remain post-pandemic and how will that impact the university campus experience?
When the coronavirus crisis escalated in early 2020, many higher education institutions closed their campuses and moved all teaching to online platforms.
As the year progressed, some institutions temporarily opened their campuses or established a blending learning model by combining online learning and in-person teaching with staggered class times, social distancing, and other measures to minimise the spread of the coronavirus.
In 2021, many institutions are still under strict lockdowns across the globe and campuses are still closed, though rapid vaccine rollouts are offering some hope.
Many higher education institutions are now considering their long-term strategies and exploring how education will be delivered in the future.
So, what changes could be retained from the coronavirus crisis and how will educational delivery be transformed in a post-pandemic period?
More blended learning
As mentioned, blending or hybrid learning models have rapidly risen in prominence during the pandemic as institutions seek to offer the benefits of online learning and in-person teaching.
In a recent QS report, Vaccines and virtual lectures: How international students are adapting to higher education in 2021, international students revealed a strong preference for in-person teaching with 58% of surveyed international students stating that they preferred in-person teaching, compared to 19% who preferred online teaching and 23% who had no preference.
When asked why they prefer in-person teaching to online, respondents referred to time zones, issues with Zoom, isolation, getting more out of a course and the value they place on face-to-face interactions with their professors and with their peers.
Conversely, for those that preferred online teaching to in-person teaching, respondents referred to convenience, accessibility, balancing work demands, flexibility and mental health benefits.
An interesting point that several respondents raised was that online learning allowed them to better manage their social anxiety with one student stating: “I get to be home and work at whatever time I feel like. For someone with social anxiety it is great that you don’t have to go to lectures with hundreds of other students”.
There’s clearly advantages and disadvantages to both educational delivery models, so many institutions are now considering adopting blended learning beyond the pandemic.
Nejat Anbarci and Angel Hernando-Veciana, professors of economics at Durham University, wrote in The Guardian that any shift to a blended learning model must incorporate interactivity. “We envision a future in which big lecture rooms with several hundred seats are progressively replaced by a more flexible educational system, which takes the best of online learning but focuses on interaction tailored to individual students’ needs rather than recorded lectures.”
“The current online educational experience will undoubtedly inform the future of our universities, but we must be careful that we do not simply replicate its weaker aspects online. Instead, the focus must be on interpersonal interaction and live communication and finding ways for technology to enhance those.”
Greater flexibility and inclusion for disabled students
Another area of change for the university campus is its accessibility, and the flexibility it demonstrates in accommodating the needs of disabled students.
Before the coronavirus crisis, many reasonable concessions to meet the demands of disabled people were ignored, dismissed or overlooked.
Kathleen Flaherty is Executive Director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc and wrote about her experience. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw many workplaces and schools pivot to remote learning and working, doing something that many of us had asked them to do for years as an accommodation, but been denied because it represented an unreasonable request, an undue burden, or a fundamental alteration. When we needed it, it couldn’t be done. But when it was needed for everyone, suddenly it was entirely possible.”
“So what happens next? When the world returns to “normal” – a before-times normal that wasn’t working for so many of us – will many of the services that provided an increased level of accessibility (for some) continue to exist?... Will students have the opportunity to attend school from home if they need to as an accommodation of their disabilities? Will disabled workers be able to work remotely?”
In a piece for The Mighty, a digital health community created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities, disabled people shared the lessons they hope COVID-19 has taught non-disabled people, including that flexibility, accessibility and disability accommodations should be part of the norm and that it’s a choice not to implement them.
“We are often told that disability accommodations aren’t fair or possible, or we are called lazy when we cannot access employment. Accommodations that disabled people have been advocating for were suddenly created for non–disabled people during the pandemic, many of which were retracted when restrictions lifted.”
In a recent QS report, survey findings revealed that 42% of students with a registered disability had not received any information on how their institution plans to support them during the crisis.
Additionally, 46% of students with a registered disability felt that their university had not done enough to protect students in their situation.
The survey also found that 22% of students with a registered disability did not have the technology they needed to take part in online learning, compared to 6% of students that were vulnerable or high risk to the coronavirus.
Higher education institutions must examine their disability policies and consider what concessions and accommodations they can introduce to ensure disabled students and their needs are not overlooked, both during the coronavirus crisis and post-pandemic.
It’s imperative that higher education institutions implement such policies and initiatives and ensure they are the norm, training staff on their adoption, ensuring these policies are reflected in the campus environment, promoting the support services to students and adequately funding their advancement.
Given the concessions that were quickly introduced during the pandemic, institutions have demonstrated that they can easily make reasonable accommodations that can provide disabled students with the flexibility and independence they need.
Institutions should maintain these concessions and support services, while examining how the campus environment and educational delivery can be improved to meet these standards.