Making digital higher education a reality for all

Person wearing headphones working on computer by Simon Abrams
Daniella Bo Ya Hu
Daniella Hu

ACU Impact and Insight Officer

Higher education transforms lives. The university is a powerful site for exchange and dialogue, where individuals find their passions and gain the tools and know-how to make vital contributions to their societies.  

In recent decades, the proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and open educational resources offers promising opportunities to expand access to higher education. However, socioeconomic factors continue to represent significant challenges in this digital landscape. As revealed by our recent digital engagement survey, a stark digital divide remains between low- and high-income countries, encapsulated by disparities in access to IT infrastructure, personal devices, and reliable bandwidth.  

COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated existing inequalities: students from marginalised and low-income groups have been hit hardest by disruptions to traditional classroom lectures, while universities that were unable to transition to online teaching are based exclusively in low and lower-middle income countries. All told, the World Bank estimates that over 220 million postsecondary students have had their studies stopped or significantly disrupted due to the pandemic. 

Amidst these unprecedented disruptions, World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) 2020 took on a profound sense of urgency. Serving as a powerful catalyst for action, WAHED convened global university leaders, practitioners, advocates and students across six international conferences to deliberate on the lessons from COVID-19 and re-imagine a fairer landscape for higher education in a post-pandemic world.  

“We now have a window of opportunity to realise the potential of online delivery for inclusive and equitable education,” urged ACU Secretary General Dr Joanna Newman. “Digital collaboration in higher education, including blended learning and virtual mobility, can provide access to higher education at scale, opening up new opportunities to more students.”   

Unlocking the potential of blended and virtual learning 

As we move towards a digital “new normal” in a post-pandemic world, the key challenge remains tackling the digital divide to make virtual learning accessible for greater numbers of students.   

The ACU’s Fiona Khandoker, Programme manager of the Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL)believes that the ultimate success of digital pedagogy begins with a strong foundation of infrastructural and human capital. “When properly implemented, a blended degree programmes can have the same weight as an in-person learning programme,” she explains. “But to ensure that universities transition to virtual learning in sustainable and inclusive ways, we must first build the requisite staff capacity to design, deliver and quality-assure online modules. Academic staff and educational developers must also be attuned, and respond to, evolving student needs.”   

Funded by the UK Aid Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) Programme, PEBL has supported 24 universities across east Africa to scale up blended learning through skills training - providing blended learning resources to over 10,000 students and pooling expertise from a number of universities to bolster capacity at struggling institutions. Under PEBL's strategic technical partnership with SEDA, the Commonwealth of Learning, Kenya's Commission for University Education and the University of Edinburgh, international collaboration has combined with local delivery to dramatically scale up access to quality blended and virtual content. 

Throughout COVID-19, PEBL universities have reported using tools gained through the programme to swiftly scale up their ICT operations and implement emergency online teaching. Many devised innovative ways to expand student access to digital classrooms, such as negotiating zero-rated access to educational content with technology companies or providing free dongles to students without internet access.  

While put in place under extreme circumstances, these measures have provided a testbed for more sustainable digital transformation in the future,” Fiona adds. The insights from PEBL universities form part of a growing pool of expertise across African institutions on reducing the digital divide. As the Association of African Universities (AAU) underlined in a recent letter to the African Ministers of Higher Education, the pandemic has presented institutions with the opportunity to strengthen virtual teaching and learning - and ensure that they are ‘future-ready and able to survive and thrive in a world of uncertainty.  

A roadmap to equity 

Building universities without walls is a complex process, and PEBL universities have demonstrated that institutional transformations often begin small and grow into sustained cultures of innovation and change. Capacity-building initiatives for digital learning are a crucial part of the equation, but if we are to reduce the digital divide on the road to achieving higher education for all by 2030, a truly global effort is needed to shape a common roadmap to equity. Going forward, we must also ensure the vitality of multi-stakeholder platforms which foster knowledge-sharing and enable effective international collaboration to address common challenges.  

Just as WAHED 2020 has served as a catalyst for action, it has also prompted us to reflect on how far we have come in the global conversation around equity, access and inclusion. We are now faced with a historic opportunity to reimagine higher education. At a time of great inequality, we must make every effort to ensure that higher education – a powerful agent for social mobility and sustainable development – remains at the top of the agenda in a post-pandemic world.