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How COVID-19 Has Changed Higher Education

Posted on: September 24, 2021

With the success of vaccine rollouts and the pace of the pandemic slowing in many parts of the world, universities are preparing for a post-COVID world. But while international student numbers are rising, and classes are migrating back to campus, the new order is a far cry from how things were in the days before coronavirus. The pandemic has prompted questions about the traditional structure of education, while in some institutions, measures put in place to protect students and staff look to stay in place for the foreseeable future.

Take online classes for example. The pandemic saw lessons in most universities across the world move online to ‘virtual classrooms’, hosted over programs such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams. The end of lockdown and the re-opening of universities has made face-to-face lectures, classes and seminars a possibility once again. But not all universities are switching back to this approach.

In the U.K., most universities, including 20 out of the 24 prestigious Russell Group universities, have transitioned to a system of ‘blended learning’. This is a mixture of online and in-person classes, for which the precise balance will depend on the faculty and the subject. In this way, lectures will be in many cases more accessible for students, while still allowing students to ask questions and provide feedback through the ‘raise hand’ feature or the comments; smaller, more discussion-based classes will be conducted on site and in person. For universities with high student counts, this means more classroom space will be available more often, while students can benefit directly from experience of the increasingly digital workplace, smaller travel expenses and the convenience of studying wherever they want. Even for universities which have reverted completely to face-to-face learning, the period of online teaching has put the tools in place for it to remain a permanent option should other situations arise. For instance, the University of New Orleans has reverted to hybrid learning in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

If the past few years have shown anything, however, it is that universities can be highly flexible in their approach to education, and there is no guarantee that these measures will remain in place for ever, particularly given the backlash from many students who have expressed anger at being deprived of the ‘university experience’. If blended learning does hang on indefinitely, tuition fees may need to decrease to accommodate the drawbacks, particularly in countries such as the UK and US where fees are high – another, indirect, consequence of the pandemic.

One of the more positive consequences of the pandemic may be an increase in accessibility and inclusion. While online classes can be inconvenient to students, they can also often be more accessible. Many students suffer from disabilities which make physical attendance difficult. Visually or audibly impaired students may struggle to see the whiteboard or hear the speaker in a live lecture, while a televised lecture, complete with slides and a transcript, offers the potential for interaction through systems such as screen readers. The transition to online learning over the past two years has not only facilitated ease of access for many courses, with instructors adding features such as closed captions, alt texts and interactive font sizes to their course materials; but it has also highlighted how important accessibility is, and how simple it is to interweave it into courses, both online and in person. As a result, instructors across the globe are starting to bring these benefits to the physical classroom, while figures such as Susan McCahan, Vice-Provost at the University of Toronto, have suggested that the perks unique to face-to-face classes, including the sense of inclusivity fostered by the social environment of the classroom, ought to be put to their maximum potential as another accessibility feature .

Assessment is another aspect of higher education which is likely to change – and in many cases already has changed – in what one writer has dubbed the 'post-Coronial' era . The pandemic has revealed to many how alternative modes of assessment can often be just as valid as a formal memory test. While exams have not always been the only method of assessing a student’s knowledge, they may see their status as the prime indicator of ability diminish in favour of more practical forms of assessment, such as laboratory work, presentations and group projects. Online assessments have also proven favourable among instructors given their flexibility and the range of digital tools at hand, which allow for many more possibilities than the traditional pen and paper. As the Association of Business Executives has stated , ‘[g]athering students together in large halls for memory recall tests is now looking more like an out-dated concept and barely resembles the way that problems are solved in the information-rich real world of work.’

The next few years are likely to see further changes in the higher education landscape as universities experiment with blended learning, mixed methods of assessment and various cost-reducing measures. We may well see a ‘return to normal’, as is already the case in China , where the government’s clampdown on ed-tech has reaffirmed the country’s commitment to face-to-face tuition. Elsewhere, however, the next generation's university experience may closely resemble the distanced, more virtual experience brought about by the pandemic. But for the foreseeable future, we are likely to see a bit of both, and a lot of in-between, as different institutions strive to find the right balance between the advantages offered by the screen and the classroom, between social and remote learning, and between affordable and more profitable tuition.