Learning after lockdown: why now is the time to reassess how we work together

1 May 2020
Work station including laptop, notebook, coffee, and phone

Just three weeks ago, I sat on a panel at the International Higher Education Forum alongside some key players in the field of higher education, and we debated the question 'What will international education look like in 20 years?'


The panel itself wasn't quite how I pictured it, via a virtual call from my home office, negotiating with my teenage children to get them off their devices for a few hours so that my wifi wouldn't break down, and revealing the dubious decor of our spare room to the watching luminaries. But then, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing is how any of us pictured it.

Despite the hurdles faced, I'd like to congratulate UUK and UUKi on running a brilliant online event. Since the early days of FutureLearn seven years ago, I've spoken at countless conferences and on numerous panels regularly envisioning how learning will evolve in years to come. However it struck me during this event, just a couple of days into the UK lockdown, that this was a pivotal moment. That we were on the precipice of the very change we were discussing, a change that had until then seemed so far away, and never had it been more timely, or urgent, for us to put those predictions into practice.

Such is the incredible pace of things currently, that even in those three weeks, we've seen significant changes throughout the higher education sector. The immediate challenge was one of crisis, testing the resilience of so many in the sector, as physical campuses shut and educators rapidly moved to remote teaching to support their student cohorts. But as we gradually move away from the testing of business resilience, it remains to be seen who will seize the opportunities slowly presenting themselves during this crisis, and emerge not just having endured the hardship, but stronger than ever.

For some sectors, the return will be reasonably straight forward, but for education it feels this crisis has turbocharged us, upping the speed on that trajectory towards a higher use of online and distance learning tools. Once physical campuses reopen their doors, the students entering those classrooms will do so with a totally different set of expectations than they had in January 2020. They won't settle for 100% face-to-face learning. And after extended periods of online teaching, following what may have been an initially tough transition, many educators may not feel comfortable returning to solely face-to-face either.

Though this outbreak could mean that online learning becomes the new normal for many, that in no way means the end of the campus. There will always be a crucial role for campus-based education and universities' brands are powerfully shaped by the towns and cities they attract people to. But universities now have to establish themselves as digital brands, transcending their physical locations and reaching out to provide more education in international students' own countries. The reality is that not everyone can get to a campus, perhaps because of their economic circumstances, their jobs, where they live, their responsibility as parents or carers – this is where the flexibility of online learning comes to the fore. But the fact remains that many students should not have to choose between physical and distance learning. With collaboration between physical campuses and online learning providers, they should be able to reap the enormous benefits of both.

Additionally, now feels like the time to encourage greater collaboration between universities. The sharing or co-development of content can enable universities to move at greater speed to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the pandemic. There seems little point in multiple HEIs spending valuable time and resources making similar courses when pooling ideas and efforts could lead to better outcomes. We need to work together to migrate more programmes online as quickly as possible, and ensure that these programmes attract and teach existing students and new international students.

Right now at FutureLearn, our priority is to support students, universities and governments all over the world at this difficult time. I would encourage universities to ask for support from edtech companies about delivering continued learning for their students, to see how they can help. We've all been ploughing this furrow for a long time – we can help and we want to help. This is the moment to reinvent the sector partnership, to find those gems of opportunity and work together to reimagine how to create the best learning experiences for people around the world. We need to share and learn from one another as we navigate this new territory. We're all in this together, and only together can we all emerge from this crisis stronger.

Like many of you, I've found this lockdown challenging. Yet since this first post-COVID conference with UUK and UUKi, I've had numerous virtual coffees, beers and even a virtual dinner. I've been so galvanised by the way people have flipped the script on normality and actively sought out new ways to not only continue with business as usual, but improve it. I'm inspired, and hopeful, for what this will mean for the future of our profession.

Simon Nelson is CEO at Futurelearn. He delivered a session on 'The future of international education: digital technologies' at the International Higher Education Forum online

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