With the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many higher education institutions in most countries, including in East Asia, have transitioned to online learning. However it has been challenging for students without access to the internet, and these digital inequalities persist across all countries. Only Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia have over 80 percent internet penetration. In Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia, less than 60 percent of the population has access to the internet, while only around 40 percent have access in Myanmar and Vietnam.
The digital divide is about more than internet access, however. It is also about the reliability, speed, and affordability of internet and data access, as well as having access to electronic devices conducive to learning. The most vulnerable often face more than one disadvantage, which magnifies the impact. Many institutions or governments have introduced a loan system to provide students in need with appropriate devices.
Another key issue is how prepared systems, students, and teachers are to adapt to online learning. Having infrastructure in place makes the transition to remote teaching and learning much easier. Some universities had an “online forward” approach to teaching and learning prior to the pandemic. For example, Taylor’s University in Malaysia states that each of its courses has its own virtual site, allowing online engagement for assessments, assignments, peer support, and communication with peers and lecturers.
Countries with significant internet infrastructure in place, such as the Republic of Korea, have important advantages when it comes to online education. However, even there, concerns have been raised whether students and teachers have adequate skills to engage successfully with software and learning technologies.
These concerns are magnified in countries with less infrastructure. In Indonesia, for example, students have given mixed reviews for the recent forced transition to online courses. Some of them find it difficult to stay focused, believe that online lectures are less effective, and struggle to interact online with lecturers and peers. This is not only because of internet access issues, but also because students (and staff) are not used to such environments or do not have the skills to make optimal use of such platforms. In a survey of 1,045 students conducted by the Indonesia University of Education, 48% of students appeared to need more time to get used to internet-based learning, despite the availability of teaching applications.
In the face of these challenges, countries using multiple avenues to ensure a continuation of learning; collaborations between institutions and between the private sector and institutions are expanding; and the initial uncertainty of international students seem to be moving towards a willingness to engage in different forms of international education. We are also seeing institutions getting their campuses and procedures ready for a “new normal” to welcome staff and students back.
Innovations and possibilities resulting from the pandemic might be overshadowed by the expected financial implications of COVID-19 that extend from immediate concerns about the welfare of students and staff to longer-term, sector-wide concerns about support for the recovery. Some institutions in Vietnam are providing scholarships to students whose families are most badly affected by the pandemic. In the Philippines, institutions are considering whether to refund student tuition fees, and in Thailand, 52 universities have pledged to reduce tuition fees to relieve pressure on students.
COVID-19 also poses a high risk for job losses and decreased tuition revenue, and there are likely to be long-term impacts from government budget constraints. International students not returning to their host institutions, or enrollment targets not being met because of administrative changes in school exit examinations, admission criteria, or travel and visa policies could have dire consequences, particularly where systems are already struggling or vulnerable.
These factors will determine whether institutions stay open and staff remain employed. Slow or even negative economic growth will also lower tax receipts available to finance government contributions to public universities, while sectors such as health are expected to consume higher-than-usual portions of government spending.
What can governments and institutions do to adapt? A new World Bank paper proposes options for higher education players and governments so that tertiary education systems can emerge stronger from this crisis.
- Diversify funding. Work with private sector partners, foundations, multilaterals, and international organizations. Rethink online offerings to reach new domestic and international students, through virtual exchange alliances, virtual internships, shorter courses, micro-credentials, or digital certifications.
- Develop and diversify infrastructure. Transform digital infrastructure toward a more agile and flexible system for digital pedagogy, investing in learning science, and training of faculty. Develop a basket of low-tech innovations to reach disadvantaged students with the same learning opportunities.
- Increase collaboration. Invest in public-private partnerships to address challenges to accessing innovative technologies, infrastructure, and digital skills training. Many organizations, including the World Bank and UNESCO, have also shared a range of resources for countries to use. Building collaborative relationships with open universities could also guide policy and practice to ensure quality.
- Position universities as critical contributors to building national resilience. Beyond the need for specialist research, resources, and knowledge to combat COVID-19, the East Asia region is plagued by environmental challenges. Universities could be critical partners in tackling challenges affecting all sectors of society.
- Provide flexible learning pathways. Introduce more aspects of flexible learning into regular face-to-face courses. In addition, introduce a variety of courses to complement national skills needs.
- Develop and implement quality assurance regulations for flexible learning, with focus on accountability and transparency.
- Draft and implement policies on the ethics and security of technology. Policies on the use of data, the extent of privacy, and the rights of citizens need to guide the ethical use of technologies, even during a crisis.
- Implement data management and quality measures. More data require better ways of managing data, and the current jump in online learning offers lessons and opportunities to make improvements going forward.
- Tackle the digital divide. Students from poorer families, living in rural areas, or who are marginalized in other ways, are often excluded from innovations.