Q&A: How COVID-19 can help reshape access to higher education

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Peace Corps volunteers demonstrate to students how to use the SolarSPELL libraries in Fiji. Photo by: SolarSPELL via Facebook

The COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated the most severe disruption to global education systems in history, forcing more than 1.6 billion students in over 190 countries out of school at the peak of the crisis, according to UNESCO. The closures of schools and other learning spaces impacted 94% of the world’s student population, up to 99% of those in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

While the pandemic has exacerbated already-existing inequalities in access to education for the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults, it has also presented new opportunities for improving online learning and innovative solutions to reaching students at the last mile. According to a United Nations policy brief, the crisis has also highlighted the accelerated changes in the modes of delivering quality education, which cannot be separated from the imperative of leaving no-one behind.

In South Sudan, mobile classes improve education access

When COVID-19 hit South Sudan last April and shuttered the school system, one faith-based organization used it as an opportunity to educate children that didn’t normally attend class.

“[COVID-19] has demonstrated an immediate need to distribute learning across geographic areas more broadly and across populations more broadly,” said professor Stefanie Lindquist, senior vice president of global academic initiatives at Arizona State University.

Devex spoke to Lindquist about the challenges and opportunities COVID-19 has posed to higher education across the globe.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The current pandemic has disrupted education across the globe, but has it also presented opportunities when it comes to scaling access to higher education?

It has revealed the importance of digital access to higher education. The distribution of learners across the world and across nations is quite varied — we have students who are in the traditional category of 18-22 year olds, but we also have students who are in the midst of working, who are raising families, and they are not always able to join faculty at campuses. I think what the coronavirus has demonstrated is that we can educate people no matter where they are if we are creative about how we do it.

It has demonstrated an immediate need to distribute learning across geographic areas more broadly and across populations more broadly. People are not always easily accessible on campus or can easily access a campus. I think that universities have pivoted very effectively in many cases, to reaching out to their students and life-long learners in ways that we hadn’t seen prior to the virus.

“There are so many countries where there has been consistent resistance to online education. The belief is that it’s not the same quality.”

— Professor Stefanie Lindquist, senior vice president of global academic initiatives, Arizona State University

While digital learning has the potential to make education more accessible, not everyone can access the necessary devices and connectivity. How can universities ensure the digital divide doesn’t widen by bringing new learning solutions to the last mile?

Most people do have cell phones even in remote parts of the world, so taking advantage of the internet and cell phone access is extremely important — and we have worked to develop our programs in a way that can be accessed via cell phones, because we appreciate that not everyone will have access to a laptop.

Even internet access can be challenging in some remote regions. One way we are working to address that is through a technology called “SolarSPELL” – a solar-powered library that comes in a box. As long as you have a cellphone, even if you don’t necessarily have internet, the technology generates a signal and allows you to access a library and curriculum materials with your phone.

Arizona State University’s solar-powered educational learning library SolarSPELL. Via YouTube.

Those kinds of creative solutions are critical because the coronavirus has the real potential to exacerbate income inequality if people are limited in their opportunities to pursue higher education. We think very much about that last mile of reaching students who are remote. We also have a program called “Education for Humanity” because one place where students can be very limited and isolated is in refugee camps — how do you reach those people? Anyone who is looking for higher education should be able to access it, so we have a whole unit at ASU focused on getting higher education into refugee camps in a digital environment.

There’s a lot of discussion about preparing our health care systems for future pandemics, but how can higher education be “future-proofed” to better withstand the challenges this type of crisis presents?

One of the things we do in my office is to say “OK, we now have the coronavirus, how are we going to use this opportunity to convince ministries and governments around the world of the value of digital education?”

There are so many countries where there has been consistent resistance to online education. The belief is that it’s not the same quality, that it is too easily compromised by academic integrity issues, but there are ways to address these issues: Simply make sure that you are using the very best faculty to teach the students and take advantage of and leverage the technological solutions that we have developed in collaboration with about 150 ed-tech firms to advance digital education in the most creative ways.

We really think about how we can reach out to ministries and say “Now you have seen that digital education is essential in the face of these kinds of crises, we are here to help you rethink your regular environment to enable and enhance greater acceptability and to embrace this new modality of learning.”

In what ways is ASU engaging in strategic partnerships with the private sector, funding agencies, and governments? What lessons can you share with other universities about this type of collaboration?

Every country has a unique environment, unique challenges, and unique needs, but the best strategy is one that does leverage all of your connections in the country and includes ministries, nongovernmental organizations, and for-profit organizations that can offer internships and jobs to students. Leveraging all of those and other universities are critical to this, and creating a real fabric of interconnectivity that can help bolster students’ opportunities.

To address situations in which students cannot otherwise access an ASU education, we have created a new partnership called “Cintana” together with Douglas Becker, former CEO of Laureate Education. Most universities, when they try to develop an international footprint, will set up branch campuses. But one of the challenges of that model is that it’s very difficult to set up a branch campus unless a government is willing to fund it. It usually doesn’t work in the more remote regions of the world where governments are not as flush with cash to bring in foreign universities.

What we did with Cintana was to develop a network of universities which, through their expertise, would help to grow the universities and expand their enrollments and access for students — and ASU would help with support for the curriculum.

In many regions in the world, students can’t afford an ASU online degree from ASU proper, but if we set up a collaboration with a university that has access to and can collaborate with our faculty and then offer that degree through a local university — online or on campus — then what we can bring to the table is the excellence of the ASU curriculum and our online programs at a price point that is going to be much more workable.

Devex World 2020: Innovation at Scale: Rethinking the Design of Higher Education. Via YouTube.

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