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

PD: Three metal cutouts of cartoon-like clouds layered on top of one another on a grayish-silver background.

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.”

PD: Thousands of brass and silver keys in a pile with one large golden key laying on top, in focus.

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 provid