The Changing Role of the University in a Pandemic Era

Traditionally, a university is an institution of higher learning and the most prestigious of all the institutions of higher learning and have become part of the fabric of our civilization. A university is composed of undergraduate, graduate, and professional colleges and offers programmes in several areas. Society requires universities since they play a crucial role in our search for new knowledge and our civic life.  Over the years, they have stood as privileged and well-protected sites serving the creation, structuring and dissemination of knowledge, both theoretical and practical.

Universities have been classified as public or private, a classification generally based on the way in which universities are financially supported. Public universities (may have single or distributed campuses) are usually funded by the government or a public entity while private universities tend to have much smaller student bodies and small class sizes.

Universities have also been described as either teaching or research institutions. Universities that offer doctoral programs are usually referred to as research universities. Whether public or private, teaching or research, all universities have certain core functions-teaching, research, and  public service.

In their teaching activities, universities provide the professional training for high-level jobs, as well as the education necessary for the development of the personality.

In executing their research activities, universities  add on to the state of knowledge in given areas. With few exceptions, most scientific “breakthroughs” have come from universities.

Since not everybody will have the benefit of university education, universities try to reach out to society by either supporting community-based projects, or by opening its doors to the general public for some type of non-academic projects. This is the public service responsibility of universities.

The ultimate yardstick for measuring the success of a university is the improvement in the lives of the people it serves. The full benefit from a university can be obtained only if the university and society are organically linked together. Raised in another way, the needs of society have to be at the center of a university’s activities.

The unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic outbreak forced almost all universities the world over to close their physical campuses, move their courses to the virtual environment as well as major university activities such as faculty hiring, commencement or graduation. It is estimated that about 1.5 billion students , representing about 90% of all primary, secondary and tertiary learners in the world are no longer able to physically go to school.

COVID-19 has struck our education system like a lightning bolt and shaken it to its core. Just as the First Industrial Revolution forged today’s system of education, we can expect a different kind of educational model to emerge from COVID-19.

The pandemic exposed some of the weaknesses and under preparedness of most universities. With the persistence of the pandemic, universities continue to innovate. Given the fact that this is not the first time universities are confronted with such a pandemic, expectation is that most of them will adopt to the impact of the pandemic by putting in place workable solutions to address the challenges posed by the pandemic. Experts agree that the emergency response put in place by most academic institutions due to the impact of the pandemic is a prelude to the beginning of a new era in the history of higher education. The trend now is in the direction of virtual learning systems. Thus, traditional campus-based universities will have to adapt to this trend by investing in online video-conferencing apps (i.e., Zoom, blackboard, Cisco Webex, Google Meet, etc.), learning management systems, technological infrastructural upgrade, connectivity upgrade, and others as a way to finding solutions to avoid a dip in the quality of education they are providing. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, online learning was not placed at center-stage

While investment in the infrastructure is paramount, the key to academic success is student engagement and faculty capacity building.

Student engagement is regarded by the Glossary of Education Reform as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show.” It is sometimes said that students can only be regarded as being engaged in their learning if they actively participate in lessons and take a genuine interest in their own education.

In physical classrooms, students and facilitators are located within the same environment. Thus, capturing the attention of students and engaging them in meaningful classroom discourse takes on a different dimension than in a virtual environment where students and instructors are located remotely. Thus, without the right strategies, it may be difficult to generate the same level of interest, participation, and overall ‘buy-in’ that prevails in traditional classrooms.

Measures have now been developed to facilitate effective virtual student engagement for all students. For example, Garrison, Andersen and Archer developed the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework to highlight the importance of what they call social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence to facilitate successful educational experiences in online distance learning environments.  According to them, Social Presence is the ability of participants to identify with the community, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities. They define Cognitive Presence as the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse in a critical Community of Inquiry. And Teaching Presence is regarded as the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes. Taken together, the model describes how learning takes place for a group of individual learners through the educational experience that occurs at the intersection of social, cognitive and teaching presence.

Today, instructors are using devices such as live video lectures, video and audio media, and other online capture tools to allow students to interact in virtual learning environments in multiple ways.

Due to the need for the workforce to constantly increase their knowledge base and upgrade their skills, universities are now offering non-traditional degrees, certification, and career professional areas. Customized and flexible programmes are now being developed to meet the knowledge requirements, as well as the learning style needs, of career professionals.

There is more emphasis on certifications, modular programmes, and skill sets. The programmes are increasing being offered in flexible ways, tailored to the needs of students. Emphasis is being laid on self-paced, and self-testing assessment that can be done anywhere and any time.

Osei K. Darkwa, Ph.D.

Visiting Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

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