Higher Education in the Time of COVID-19

Desperate attempts to curtail the spread of the Corona Virus are turning many localities in different parts of the world into phantom cities. Universities and other higher education institutions have not been immune to this process. They are closed institutions, with academics urged, if not compelled, irrespective of their training for this purpose, to place their courses and carry out their teaching online. This has led many to herald the ‘brave new world’ of online learning as the panacea for the crisis. There are those who would consider the present period as the potential watershed in establishing this already widely practiced mode of delivery as the dominant form of teaching in Higher Education. This reaction, couched in phrases such as “every cloud has a silver lining”, is to be expected and falls in line with the neoliberal tenets that have been underlying most common sense thinking about mass-oriented Higher Education. I argue for caution in this regard.

The history of education is full of episodes whereby necessity, through crises in the form of occupation, led to ingenuity. Under Nazi occupation, Polish universities went underground and operated as distance learning (DL) institutions; material flew from one place to another. This became known as the ‘flying university’. It was innovative and attested to the resilience of the Polish academic community (students and professors) involved. The good thing about the present crises is that it makes those who are resistant to modern digitally mediated technology take the plunge, whether adequately trained for this purpose or not. Many academics from Greece, Italy, Cyprus and the UK revealed that online learning is a new experience foisted on unprepared academics. It might enable them to transcend archaic ways. Most universities throughout the world have placed their courses and are delivering their teaching online. Some universities already have had adequate preparation for this as a good percentage of their students are DL students. It is likely that the teachers involved have had adequate training, in one case of a year’s duration. A former tutor at the UK’s Open University, which backs distance learning with a variety of other approaches, including tutorials carried out by academics ensconced in different parts of the country, spent a year’s preparation period before joining the university staff. The present crisis however recalls, in certain cases, the situation during the immediate post revolution literacy campaigns in Latin America and elsewhere when young literacy workers were rushed to the field without adequate preparation.

This mass scale online learning approach can have the same effect. It can extend beyond a crisis response as the institution begins to see the lucrative side of it, a means of spreading one’s net far and wide. Now it would be foolish to overlook online learning’s positive aspects reaching communities at the furthest remove from universities and centres. It reaches communities with problems of physical access and time. However once the dust settles, will there be space for critical reflection as to how technologically mediated delivery complements what is good about ‘face to face’ delivery and adequate teacher student human interaction? Online learning can address mass students anywhere and at any time throughout the world. All academic staff really need to think about the appropriate pedagogical approach to take and how to use most modern technology in appropriate ways. Development of good learning environments requires specialist skills and is a team effort that requires collaboration between academics and learning designers. And by appropriate ways I mean avoiding the use of this technology as another surveillance mechanism. Recorded sessions, ostensibly for the benefit of those who could not tune into the live session, can inhibit student participation in the discussions.

To what extent is it part of the blended approach to learning which reserves space for different forms of interaction including human to human and human to earth interaction? The push for a lucrative share of the global education market can easily make institutions forget the second aspect of the blended learning approach. Meanwhile elite schools continue to enjoy a monopoly in the latter type of University learning.

How do we strike a happy medium between online and face to face teaching? Will online learning continue to drag higher education along the business route or will it play its part in an overall conception of education as a public good? To end on an optimistic note, as hope springs eternal, I reproduce the words of one of the US’s most prominent educators, Ira Shor who wrote to me on this matter, stating “Critical teachers who question the unequal, toxic status quo will deliver critical education no matter the delivery system”.


Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).