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Almost 90% of European higher education institutions moved online in April and May due to the Covid-19 crisis. This would not have been possible some ten years ago. EUA expert Michael Gaebel gives a brief history of digitally enhanced learning and teaching and explains the opportunities and challenges brought by universities’ speed and flexibility during the lockdown.

Digitally enhanced learning and teaching in higher education was once a controversial topic. On one side there was an alleged superiority as many expected better education for more learners at lower cost. On the other side there were concerns about its possibly destructive impact on students’ minds and academic quality. This is now far from where we are today as most universities in Europe are operating online in the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

A brief background
The history leading to the current situation was marked by a winning battle for digital learning and teaching that took place between 2012 and 2015 in the wake of MOOCs. That is when the hands-on experience of academics and fairly well-functioning institutional practices replaced suppositions about digitally enhanced education. Already by 2013, an EUA survey (see figure below) showed that practically all higher education institutions offered some kind of digitally enhanced learning, and more than half offered, or at least had planned, online degree programmes.

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Source: EUA publication “E-learning in European Higher Education Institutions” (data 2013)

Comparative data from TRENDS 2015 and 2018, and a few other reports, suggest that since 2013 digitally enhanced learning and teaching in higher education has grown even more, with blended learning as a common formula, though it still needs to be better defined. As is often the case in emerging transformation, implementing it is easier than producing the immediate proof of advantages and benefits. Today, problem-based learning is unlikely to be contested, and has been around for some years. But the flipped classroom and other digital learning approaches seem to lack definition and still need to prove how they can enhance learning, and what the actual gains are in daily practice. This might also be one of the reasons most higher education institutions have developed strategies and reports, and are experimenting with different approaches, formats and methods, whereas the actual roll-out and mainstreaming are yet to take place.

Then came Covid-19
While still partial and patchy overall, European institutional digitalisation approaches enabled an almost immediate response to the Covid-19 crisis: campuses had to close, but universities remained open. Taking the temperature through an ongoing survey on digitally enhanced learning and teaching, EUA found that in April and May of this year almost 90% of institutions had gone online, for all or most subjects. This would not have been possible some ten years ago, simply because there would not have been enough capacity or resources. Even national ministries and the European Commission were surprised by the sector’s speed and flexibility.

But beyond praise and pride, colleagues from universities are self-critical and candid about the fragilities and shortcomings. A statement frequently heard in the sector is, “This is not online learning, but emergency remote teaching.” This points to the fact that changes took place very quickly, with little time for planning and preparation, and with insufficient organisational and technical resources. Prior experience in digital approaches made the transition easier, and national networks, fora and platforms, where existent, were of help. In addition, in many systems universities were granted subsidiary powers to deal with the challenge. While some may have been in a comparatively better position, there continues to be a steep learning curve for most higher education institutions and their staff and students. In a survey conducted in 2019 by the Irish National Forum, 70% of the academics indicated that they have no online teaching experience – and in most other systems this may not be much different. Therefore, it is remarkable how quickly they adapted. “Colleagues do things that they would have declared impossible a few weeks ago”, an EUA member said. Another commented, “We achieved more in terms of transforming learning and teaching in five weeks, than we did in five years.”

The crisis may entail some genuinely new challenges, but mostly it just magnifies and amplifies  existing gaps and weaknesses: While assessment is currently hotly debated, it is not a secret that its alignment with learning outcomes is a challenge beyond remote provision. Not all issues can be dealt with by higher education institutions alone: For example, legal restrictions, that blended learning had found a way to work around, become an unsurmountable obstacle the moment the campus is closed. In some systems, national regulation requires the physical presence of students – even after European ministers signed two subsequent Bologna Communiqués calling for more digitally enhanced and flexible learning. This shows the development backlog, but also reflects the deep-rooted reservations towards online and digital learning. Another example lies with the technology and external services with examples such as the picture and voice of speakers being badly synchronised, conference and meetings tools allowing for too few faces, proctoring services not being geared to the thousands of students that an average institution has to provide with exams.

But the biggest challenge is clearly the social and psychological situation of students and staff. Many of them may have experienced frustration with what might have been their first online learning and teaching experience. In addition, the Covid-19 crisis aggravates any pre-existing difficulty and disadvantage. While students from weak economic backgrounds are hardest hit, it has also become evident that many students may be particularly vulnerable in this crisis, such as those with low income, temporary employment, and those often outside of the social security system. They may live alone, without family support, or due to the crisis they may have had to move back to their families, who might be in difficulty themselves. We should not forget the international students, who found themselves in a particularly challenging situation, abroad, at home, and often somewhere between. These are all factors that can hinder learning, in particular when students are isolated from peers. The social experience on and around campuses is an in important aspect of the student experience. Just being physically on campus is for many students a motivation to learn.

While student support is not an easy task in normal circumstances, it is more challenging remotely, and not many universities have been able to build up the virtual support structures that some of the distance learning universities have in place.

Summing up the challenges and opportunities
No one would have accepted voluntarily the offer of a six-month trial shift of whole systems to online learning and teaching, but the crisis has given us the opportunity to step out of our usual ways. We now know how this works and – importantly – what it feels like. There are new lessons learnt and food for thought to make learning and teaching more resilient, but also to pave the way for the future.

The key question, which poses itself not only to higher education, but also other sectors, societies, citizens and policy makers, is: Can we afford to look at this as if it will be over in a few weeks or months, and then go back to normal? Or should we take the occasion to jumpstart transformations, some of which might be overdue?

For universities, part of the answer might reveal that this is the time to abandon the belief that “digital” is a cheap way for innovating higher education, resulting automatically in better quality and more social inclusion. If education is to be of good quality, it needs dedicated skills and resources, teachers and students, supported by the entire institution.

Also as physical distancing is likely to continue into the autumn, and probably even much longer than we may expect now, an immediate question is how to ensure a shift from emergency remote learning and teaching to quality online and hybrid or blended provision – including adequate support for students and staff. 

The discussion has to go beyond technological feasibility, touching on social desirability and acceptance: While online learning is an option in many situations, including physical distancing in a pandemic, we must keep in mind that it is not the desired permanent option for most students and teachers, but rather an additional opportunity to complement, supplement and in some case replace.

In this regard, greening and sustainability are also a crucial part of the post Covid-19 higher education outlook. We now know that many things can be done online and reduction of travel can have environmental, but also financial and health benefits, as well as improve quality of life.

Finally, these challenges and opportunities have reminded us that national and European networks can support universities, facilitating the sharing of  experiences and good practice. This is actually one of the strengths of Europe. It would benefit from more support from policy makers, and discussions with industries, also to ensure that higher education has also the internet access and the technology that is needed, now, and not in ten years.

It is true, we knew most of these things before the crisis, but we may not have acted upon them, for various reasons. Looking ahead, it seems that the pandemic grants us a few more months to reflect and act. Both the European Commission and the Bologna Process will come forward with their visions on the future of higher education this autumn. EUA will make sure that the perspective of the university sector will be heard, and that digital enhanced learning and teaching are adequately addressed.


Michael Gaebel
European University Association

Michael Gaebel is Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association.

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