The Double-Edged Sword of COVID-19 and the New World of Work in Academic Institutions

Is Covid-19 leading academic institutions into a new world of work? Will this global lockdown cause significant long-term disruptions to students’ learning and teaching and transform the ways that our future generations will be educated?

From the beginning of the twenty first century, information and communications technologies have proliferated in our daily lives, but despite this, academia had continued to focus on face to face teaching and learning. However, the present COVID-19 pandemic and global lockdown has belatedly forced a shift in focus to digital education.

The shift online

Higher education institutions are racing ahead to digitally connect to students. This live, global experiment is forcing us to learn new digital skills, and leaves the fundamental question of whether we are going to sustain this new world of work after the pandemic is controlled. Is the world now heading towards redefining educational institutions teaching and learning such that there will be a transition from face-to-face learning to digital pedagogy teaching? Are we unravelling the potential of novel internet-based technologies to transform and deliver education?

Along with this transformation, unanswered questions about the experiences of the applications of novel technologies are also emerging. Situations of linguistic and dialectal, cultural insights, social fondness, kindness and empathy, and emotional intricacy are all very present in the current discourse around pedagogy. Such instances make it difficult to envision how digitalisation or robotics can be a substitute for the real human touch. In the previous few years in the runup to the pandemic, technological advances in the form of robotics and artificial intelligence were being emphasised and celebrated as solutions for many social problems. Cases of robots impressively imitating human facial expressions and speeches or being able to offer a feeling of touch that human beings crave, are some archetypal specimens. However, the pandemic has revealed that there is still a long way to go for these technologies to help develop emotional connections and sympathetically respond to the needs of individual learners.

The role of educators

Many further questions surrounding a wholly online delivery model remain unanswered. The speed and scale of the onset of the pandemic means many millions of learners and potential students are still waiting for a workable solution to their academic predicaments. It is pertinent, therefore, to determine the role educators must play in this. There is one group of academics that have been using digital technologies to enable blended and online teaching modes; therefore, are techno savvy and can easily switch to digital teaching and learning. Contrarily, there are those who do not use IT to this extent and provide face-to-face teaching and learning. It is the latter group that perhaps has more pressure to embed IT in their teaching modus operandi.

Since the advent of broadband, global universities, public or private, have been contemplating ways of using online pedagogy to the greatest possible extent, which has led to several institutions offering successful, fully online courses. Nevertheless, this pandemic has forced educational institutions to take immediate and conclusive actions to mitigate their full closure, and by extension the closure of the entire higher education sector. The humanitarian aspect in particular has compelled policymakers to implement and make some difficult decisions; for instance, whether they should close the educational institutions to save the student population (reducing contact and saving lives) or keep the institutes open (thereby allowing the effective operation of the university system and supporting the economy). This is perhaps is one of the most challenging decisions for policy makers higher in the universities’ hierarchy.

The impact on developing countries

Although by no means the case for all institutions, in the developed world the response from several academic institutions to the challenge of rapidly digitising their pedagogy and workloads has been phenomenal; for example, holding daily team meetings, tea or lunch working meetings, or physical and/or mental exercises with the extended features offered by platforms such as, Skype, Teams or Zoom.

By comparison, developing countries are lagging in moving the entire provision of their curriculum online. Many universities in developing countries struggle with limited access and high costs associated with comparatively poor national online infrastructure, making online teaching and learning a very distant ambition. Many also lack weaker individual infrastructure; e.g. not having a large external server for the entire student population and the work force, or the provision of printers and/or cloud storage space, or an infrastructure that can reach staff members and students working from rural areas, which has led to choices being made for academic communities as to who should be catered for. As an example, in an East African academic institution, higher level individuals are visiting their campuses and using the facilities for printing, data saving and such. For students in the rural areas, students are encouraged to access the internet cafes in their vicinities and print the freely available massive open online courses (MOOCs).

In some other countries, those students and staff members who cannot entirely be served due to an inaccessible internet infrastructure are taking steps to ensure that they can otherwise make a valuable contribution to society. For example, in a large Indonesian city, some management and higher level staff members are making face shields by referring to platforms such as, YouTube and providing them free of charge to members of the population or medical personnel needing personal protective equipment (PPE). Conversations held with our peers in South Asian and Middle Eastern regions have also highlighted this kind of activity.

Therefore, as each day passes, the transformations (including daily updates on the pandemic) are gradually presenting glimpses of a novel future for the higher education sector. This future may be better or worse, but will surely rely upon the expectations being formed by the forthcoming policies and strategies of politicians rather than the academic institutions developing and implementing decisions. The question that remains to be determined is whether the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a new world of working and the provision of teaching and learning globally. Will these changes be sustained or are they temporary? Given diverse developing countries’ infrastructures, will they be able to face and provide a world of online teaching and learning? What also remains to be seen is how the consumers of the teaching and learning world - the students - accept and sustain this new way of working in both developed and developing countries.

By Associate Professor Muhammad Mustafa Kamal, Coventry University School of Strategy and Leadership, and Professor Jyoti Choudrie, University of Hertfordshire Business School