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Silver Linings and a Golden Opportunity: Higher Ed Responds to COVID-19

It’s been a long year full of transitions, major changes, flexibility, and uncertainty in education. There has been an especially large number of changes in international education. Schools all over the world have had to make decisions on how they would continue offering their students quality international experiences in a time of strict travel restrictions.

Through professional uncertainty as well as personal hardships, the pandemic prompted many a pessimistic prognosis for higher education and internationalization programs. Yet others focus on how challenges associated with COVID-19 also spawned unique opportunities for innovation. The disruptions since March 2020 have had several silver linings.

Roger Chao Jr. recently wrote about the urgency of the present moment for University World News. Don't wait for the next crisis! The time to make change and get creative is now! COVID-19 has, perhaps unexpectedly, offered us a golden opportunity. He argues that “proactive innovation in internationalisation of higher education, such as exploring new curriculum development, partnerships and the internationalisation potential of micro-credentialing in higher education should be explored in relation to potential future models of internationalisation of higher education.”

So let’s scan last year’s innovations and future possibilities! Higher ed's agile if seemingly chaotic response to the severe disruptions of the pandemic have created three intertwined silver linings, each impacting the other in intricate ways: efforts to improve access to and quicker uptake of technology, opportunities to redesign curricula and educational systems in a more equitable way, and stronger and more balanced international partnerships.

Lining up nicely with these three silver linings, we’ve seen a number of encouraging trends in learning and collaborating from student, faculty, and institutional perspectives emerging from our trainings and assessments, cornerstones of Gazelle International's higher education work. Students and faculty members adapted more quickly and easily to a number of technological tools and showed great enthusiasm for the social bonding and strong partnerships made overseas. Our recent collaboration with Waukesha County Technical College demonstrated a campus’s willingness to fill the gap in their paused study abroad and mobility programs with CLICK virtual exchange and institutionalize VE/CLICK+mobility in the overall global program to reach more students than ever while growing stronger international networks in the long run.

Research, including our own, has revealed a fourth silver lining of the pandemic regarding delivery of instruction. Many of the adaptations made in pedagogies and practices have been received well by students, who are pleased with a number of aspects of their remote learning. Students have made unique gains in their CLICK modules since the COVID-19 outbreak. Many of the services we offer to teachers before, during, and after the implementation of the CLICK component in their course align with practices that have been proven to work.

During this time of flexibility and transformation, how do these virtual exchange modules and teaching collaborations benefit individual classrooms and campus-wide curriculum reform?

So what do virtual exchange and CLICK bring to the internationalization table? During this time of flexibility and transformation, how do these virtual exchange modules and teaching collaborations benefit individual classrooms and campus-wide curriculum reform?

Pick-up Rate of Technology and New Tools

One silver lining of the pandemic is that issues of technological accessibility are being ameliorated due to investment and quick implementation of virtual infrastructure. The pick-up rate of technology during the COVID-19 era has been unprecedented. Han Aarts explains, “[T]here are already indications that instead of being excluded by the new developments, formerly disadvantaged groups and individuals may get easier and greater access to university programmes, international cooperation, virtual networks and the like.” With this improved access and implementation of technology comes the potential to reduce long-standing inequities in international education. Here we review two powerful examples of technological problem-solving from Sub-Saharan Africa.

In some ways, the pandemic seems to be lessening the technological and educational gap between the Global North and South. Bayusuf et al. explain that Sub-Saharan African universities were working on resolving pivotal technology access issues with virtual learning. The COVID-19 outbreak only accelerated that foundational work. In the face of power supply issues, outages, lack of internet access or computers in the home, “schools have broadcast lessons on radio and television and in some cases instructors have tried to connect with students via text messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. In South Africa, several universities partnered with the telecommunication and logistics sectors to distribute free computers and ensure network access for students at home” (Bayusuf et al.).

The legacy of COVID-19 will be better online capability around the globe.

Samuel Okocha agrees that the legacy of COVID-19 will be better online capability around the globe and especially in areas considered as part of the Global South. Okocha discusses the Centre for Distance Learning at Obafemi Awolowo University and other institutions in Nigeria. Their considerable efforts building a more robust virtual infrastructure will create long-lasting benefits. During the pandemic, creative patches proliferated. Lecturers used WhatsApp to deliver lectures through voice notes and attachments. Students received tablets with pre-installed lectures. Institutions were able to work with students with technical issues to plan make-up exams and to identify areas to work with better broadband connectivity. According to Okocha, “Now, with other universities in Nigeria having created virtual training systems because of COVID-19, they can build on these systems too, not just as a contingency for future crises, but to expand access to teaching materials and professors generally.” With careful evaluation of their situation and capacities and a great deal of creativity, these institutions and learning communities have designed solutions that work for them and their students.

The Educator's Equity Check

A second silver lining of COVID-19 is the opportunity to address social inequalities and reassess inequitable educational systems. "[T]he pandemic is our equity check," notes Dena Simmons. Institutions can look to their students for models of civil engagement, a commitment to equity, mobilization, and leadership. Brian Murphy highlights the agency, initiative, and community engagement of students, especially from community colleges. Throughout the pandemic, students pushed their campuses to better support the student body through funding and school policy, advocating especially for students of color and low-income and first-generation students. Murphy claims, “[T]he pandemic and the demands for racial justice have thrown into sharp relief that young people across the country, including our students, are providing political and community leadership.” The models of political efficacy and the “capacity to forge enduring relationships across differences of race and ethnicity and class” (Murphy), set by students, can orient institutions in their own recommitment to equity.

"[T]he pandemic is our equity check." (Simmons)

Strides can be made toward a more equitable global engagement by international education programs thanks to the increase in virtual infrastructure mentioned previously. For example, unequal access to technology has too often stymied those who wish to start virtual exchange programs with campuses in, for example, Southeast Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not easy to design and implement an international virtual exchange module with both countries’ teams on equal footing, especially when one country’s students do not have the devices or reliable, cost-effective internet access to make virtual exchange easy and accessible. The aforementioned improvement in the pick-up rate of technology and tools can help us begin to break through the US/Eurocentric model of virtual exchange and truly connect and collaborate with marginalized colleagues and students around the globe.

In addition to that increased access, the pandemic has afforded institutions a valuable opportunity for re-evaluation and redesign. Bayusuf et al. are optimistic about higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa: “The current transition to virtual learning presents a prime opportunity to intentionally design systems to reduce social inequalities. It is a social justice imperative that higher education systems serve to reduce social inequities, including expanding opportunity to women, low-income and rural populations and minority groups.” These innovations are being echoed across the globe. Aarts claims that changes in capacity building and access to higher ed needed to be made before the pandemic, so the innovative initiatives that have sprung up this year are “likely to remain on the menu” even as things return to a more normal state.

With faster circulation of knowledge and accelerated curricular innovation, there is ample opportunity for initiatives to reduce inequity in education.

The increase in virtual meetings saves time and allows instructors to have multiple meetings with partners around the world in the same day. Closer and more balanced partnerships created between the Global North and South allow for massive strides toward the accomplishment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and has made international education greener with less global travel. With faster circulation of knowledge and accelerated curricular innovation, there is ample opportunity for initiatives to reduce inequity in education. As Aarts summarizes: “At best, the lasting result of this unprecedented crisis might be that [it] has brought long-needed changes in educational capacity building for the Global South: rapid innovation, outreach, increased access, more inclusion and greater diversity. And, globally, it has brought greater balance in relationships too.”

Stronger Networks and Partnerships

The third silver lining, interwoven with the improvements in worldwide educational equity and virtual infrastructure, is the strengthening of international networks and partnerships. In many ways, the pandemic and ensuing travel restrictions have made networking more challenging. Conferences, workshops, research visits, study abroad programs, and more all look different after a year of no travel. For these indispensable connections and the relationships that come from them to survive, people have had to adapt in major ways. Peter Lennie notes the benefits of international university networks and organizations that intentionally bring together international partners--in Gazelle Intl’s case, assembling teaching teams and supporting the classroom-to-classroom collaborations. He says, “Global networks . . ., drawing on the diverse perspectives that arise from the different geographies and cultures of member universities, provide an unusually rich source of comparative information about how universities can best contend with these varied challenges.” Lennie remarks on the new tools that are available to those who wish to launch collaborative initiatives due to the rapid progression in tech use during the COVID-19 era.

Travel will return and continue to be imperative for successful research and teaching relationships, but the skills we have developed for virtual collaboration will add another rich facet to these relationships.

Instructors and students around the world are more comfortable with the use of these new tools along with older tools in large part thanks to the pandemic and remote learning. This has augmented our capabilities for virtual networking. Travel will return and continue to be imperative for successful research and teaching relationships, but the skills we have developed for virtual collaboration will add another rich facet to these networks of relationships.

Positive Student Perspectives

So what do the students have to say about all of this?

COVID-19 has brought about higher comfortability with tech, improvements in access and accommodations to education and technology, an increase in the potential to network and collaborate, as well as changes in delivery of instruction. Regarding the latter, a recent survey by Jisc of 27,069 higher and further education students in the UK has shown that, overall, remote learning has gone well for students in ways we might not have expected or imagined.

According to the survey, students appreciated the virtual learning opportunities of the last year. Gazelle Intl’s research has also shown how valuable virtual exchange modules have been to students experiencing higher levels of isolation and issues with their well-being and mental health. Our recent presentation at CCID called “CLICK Virtual Exchange During COVID-19 and Before: Student Perspectives”detailed ways that both faculty and students benefited significantly from social bonding made possible through the virtual exchange in our CLICK modules.

Other educational qualities that the Jisc survey discovered as important to learners are also incorporated in Gazelle Intl's CLICK system, including:

  • Interactive sessions

  • Training for teachers in use of online tools “in a pedagogically sound and inclusive way”

  • Timely individual and group support

  • Careful planning and organization of schedules and tech use

  • Clear communication about course requirements and expectations

Gazelle Intl takes great pleasure and pride in our teacher trainings so that instructors are prepared to facilitate effective international collaboration. Through the Explore, Connect, and Design workshop series, participants use backward design practices to construct a CLICK syllabus with shared learning goals, decide on technologies, create detailed assignment descriptions and rubrics, and plan to move forward with Gazelle Intl's help.

Where Will You Go?

Higher education will never be the same. COVID-19 has irrevocably changed our ways of working, learning, and collaborating. Hopefully, as the world takes time to collectively heal, educational institutions will turn their backs on outdated, inequitable systems and embrace better access to technology, robust virtual infrastructure, more balanced partnerships between the Global North and South, and stronger networking worldwide.

The Council of Europe recently published their thoughts on what they hope higher ed's response will be moving forward. In “Higher Education's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Building a More Sustainable and Democratic Future,” authors imagine the role educational institutions will play to “shape the post-Covid-19 world.” The publication includes meditations on race and inequity, local community engagement, the Black Lives Matter movement, sustainability, and other presumed social responsibilities of universities and colleges. Everyone is asking themselves: Moving forward, where will higher ed go? And where will I go?

We’d love to know your reaction to this! What do you think will continue and become common practice? What are you most excited about? How has your institution responded to the events of the last year?

In our opinion, virtual exchange and CLICK modules will be benefited by the improved access to technology and can make valuable contributions to efforts in the expansion of global university networking, curricular innovation, diversity in higher ed, and more.

Are you ready to seize this golden opportunity?? Contact us so we can help you and your institution take advantage of these unexpected but exciting silver linings.

March 30, 2021

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