Generation COVID will embrace digital revolution with support

In a university sector used to gradual change, COVID-19 has brought an overnight revolution as numbers of overseas students fall and revenue suffers.

These pressures on universities also come at a time when many prospective students were already considering whether three years of full-time study was a worthwhile investment. When the government announced in June major changes to universities’ funding, including a 113 per cent price rise for humanities courses, Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie warned this could lead to “whole faculties gutted”.

University students need support to get the best out of remote learning. Credit:Bloomberg

With undergraduates taking all their courses online during lockdown, it is likely that COVID-19 will further expedite a move away from the “traditional university experience”. The class of COVID-19 – the first to grow up as “digital natives” – are well prepared for this change.

After months of online learning in their mainstream university courses during the pandemic, they may be reluctant to return to a full face-to-face model of teaching. A Dynata survey of 1145 American college students found that more than two-thirds of respondents (68 per cent) want to continue some form of online learning post-COVID. For many, flexibility is key.

At edtech company Chegg, our data shows the biggest demand for learning is after 9pm, with midnight being the most common time for tutoring sessions. Universities that respond to this thirst for convenience, relevance and affordability will make themselves attractive to a more questioning generation of students.

Despite an enthusiasm for online learning in general, 76 per cent of students in the Dynata survey thought that online courses should be better planned; only 35 per cent of those with no prior online learning experience thought their online courses were well designed.

Online learning requires intelligence and empathy to get it right. And when it is done right, the results can be truly transformative. As Dr Cathy Stone, of the University of Newcastle, said: “Instead of essentially trying to replicate the face-to-face learning experience at a distance, universities and the staff within them need to embrace the digital communication advances of the 21st century to deliver online education differently, in more creative ways.”

If done correctly, online education provides an additional huge advantage: it is a way for universities to meet demands from government and students to cut the soaring costs of tuition – demands that will only become louder as the economy shrinks.

A global pandemic that prevents students and teachers from being in physical proximity would, in any other time, have been catastrophic for higher education. It is fortuitous, perhaps, that it has coincided with the technology – as well as the desire among students – to reinvent how they learn.

Students are ready to embrace the rich possibilities of online learning. But in this brave new world, higher education will need to learn a new skill: creating a sense of community and belonging in a class that could do the majority of its learning virtually.

The reaction of universities to COVID-19 is providing them with a crash course that they cannot fail.

Nathan Schultz is president of learning services at edtech company Chegg.

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