Shift to online means universities and governments must act now to ensure no one left behind, report

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The FINANCIAL — Governments and universities need to take swift action to ensure no one is left behind in the shift to online teaching, learning and research prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the results of a new survey on digital experience published by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

Significant gaps in digital engagement at different levels within universities as well as between high and low income countries point to a ‘double digital divide’ that undermines the drive for inclusive and equitable access to higher education by 2030 – a target of Sustainable Development Goal 4.

The continuing digital divide between high income countries (with generally high connectivity) and low income countries (with poor connectivity) poses a major threat to equitable access to higher education and lifelong learning globally: While 83% of respondents from high income countries reported having access to broadband, only 63% of respondents from upper-middle-income, 38% from lower-middle-income and 19% from low-income countries reported having access to broadband.

Gaps in digital engagement at different levels within universities highlight a ‘double digital divide’ in higher education: Senior leaders were most likely to have access to broadband (74%), followed by professional services (52%), academics (38%) and students (30%). Senior leaders and professional services staff (both 82%) were also more likely than students (45%) and academics (40%) to report institutional contributions toward devices or data to support remote working.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the challenges and disparities in accessing education online, but also presents a window of opportunity to build resilience and widen access: Both individuals and institutions face a number of significant challenges in delivering and receiving online teaching and learning, with the most frequently cited challenges across all respondents being accessibility for students (81%), staff training and confidence (79%), connectivity costs (76%) and student engagement (71%).

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Since the start of the pandemic, the shift online as a result of COVID-19 may have boosted perceptions of the quality of online teaching and learning and looks set to lead to lasting change: 81% of respondents agreed that the quality of online learning and teaching has improved since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, 90% of respondents agreed that a blended degree, involving a combination of online and face-to-face learning, is equivalent to a degree earned only through face-to-face learning.

‘Higher education during COVID-19: A snapshot of digital engagement in Commonwealth universities’ outlines recommendations for both governments and universities to use the lessons learned during the pandemic to build stronger, more resilient institutions as well as to widen access to higher education.

The recommendations for governments and policymakers include:

Prioritising funding for higher education, in recognition of its vital contribution to society and to post-COVID recovery worldwide
Investing in tackling the digital divide in higher education through funding, financing and public-private partnerships
Widening access to higher education and lifelong learning by supporting digital transformation initiatives in universities
Bringing university leaders, telecommunications companies, global employers, and students together to develop a common agenda for the future of digital higher education
Providing a platform for institutions to share knowledge at different stages of their digital transformation journeys and to discuss common challenges
The recommendations for universities include:

Providing financial and technical support to improve access to data, devices, and broadband
Identifying and developing targeted policies to address the digital divides within universities to ensure no one is left behind
Mainstreaming digital transformation across every element of institutional strategy and planning
Recognising that the ability to move research activities online varies considerably according to discipline, putting research in particular areas at risk
The ACU conducted a digital engagement survey earlier this year in order to capture the short-term impacts of COVID-19 on staff and students at Commonwealth universities.

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The results, taken from the answers of 258 respondents from 33 countries, provide a snapshot of digital connectivity and engagement in Commonwealth universities, as well as the pandemic’s impact on teaching, learning, and research..

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