Universities that invest in digital learning will ‘reap the rewards of a wider pool of engaged students’

20 Feb 2023

Image: Unicaf

Unicaf is an online and blended learning institution with partner universities in the UK, US and several African countries. Its CEO, Dr Nicos Nicolaou, discusses how the move to online learning, precipitated by Covid-19, has shaped access to higher education in powerful and positive ways.

Despite the initial challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic on higher education, the industry rallied to find solutions and keep educational opportunities up and running.

Industry leaders fast-tracked digital transformation to provide online learning, seamless communication and integration across institutions. And not only did this prove successful in navigating pandemic disruption but it continues to provide a platform for education to progress and thrive post pandemic.

So, how can we expect to see these once short-term solutions continue to shape the world of academia?

Unexpected challenges

The Covid-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to every industry including higher education – especially in regions almost entirely dependent on face-to-face learning opportunities.

As resulting social distancing restrictions hit continents like Africa, the industry faced a range of unforeseen challenges. In-person lectures were no longer permitted in areas that had limited digital infrastructure and connectivity and, as economies began to shrink due to restrictions, this translated into budget cuts and fewer individuals enrolling on courses.

Unlike some industries, higher education simply cannot afford to stand still, with global markets demanding qualified individuals to fulfil positions and the risk of a pause in learning threatening to dramatically impact global economies.

Research suggests that missing the equivalent of just one-third of a school year could cost a country 1.5pc of its GDP for the rest of the century. With higher education institutions (HEIs) and national economies on the brink, it was critical the industry found immediate solutions.

Turning to technology

With social restrictions preventing face-to-face meetings and travel opportunities, it was inevitable technology would play a role in the solution. However, this digital transformation had to be implemented at speed to limit costly disruption.

Fewer than one-third of Africans having broadband access.

The obvious first step was to make lectures and learning resources available online – allowing students to access course materials instantly and avoid missing key information.

As an institution that delivers online and blended learning, during the pandemic Unicaf was able to offer students academic qualifications completely online.

Unicaf University is accredited by the British Accreditation Council (BAC) as an Independent Higher Education provider, as well as by local accreditation councils in Malawi, Uganda and Zambia.

Organisations and institutions like this allowed HEIs to resume courses at the earliest opportunity to avoid postponing deadlines or creating a backlog for stressed students and future cohorts.

This short-term solution also offered another benefit in allowing students to rewatch materials and revisit key modules at any time.

However, the digital transformation faced challenges in developing markets – namely in areas with insufficient telecommunications infrastructure and issues with connectivity and reliability. According to research, fewer than one-third of Africans having broadband connection access.

These issues needed to be addressed quickly.

Democratising learning

In many cases, plans to introduce digitised curricula were fast-tracked, while a combination of government and tech industry investment saw tech hubs and data centres produced to facilitate online learning.

In tandem with affordable alternatives such as SMS-based learning systems, offering offline remote learning opportunities, this also made materials available to those in remote areas and with the lowest incomes.

There were also moves to address the roadblocks preventing students from accessing live lectures and participating in collaborative seminars or group projects.

Perhaps the most obvious advantage is the increase in equal learning opportunities afforded to students.

Zero-data and zero-rated schemes were introduced by network providers and funded by governments in low-income areas to make video conferencing technologies and key education applications available to all.

Reflecting on a successful transformation

While many of these solutions were initially developed to address short-term emergencies, the industry has since continued to enjoy the benefits as we return to pre-pandemic normality.

Perhaps the most obvious advantage is the increase in equal learning opportunities afforded to students – in the flexibility delivered by digitised learning and also in affordability.

Where online learning has often been seen as a luxury supplementary option for those from high-income backgrounds, digital opportunities are now becoming more widely available to all learners.

Similarly, students now can enrol on courses offered by nationwide or even global institutions without having to cover costly travel or accommodation fees. And in addition to the educational benefits for students, institutions are also benefitting from tapping into a diverse knowledge pool – enriching discussions and widening perspectives.

Another benefit is the potential for collaborations with other worldwide institutions. Not only does this strengthen relationships among learning establishments – now able to access and share resources between specialist departments – but it also promotes sustainability among universities during a turbulent period with enrolments still below normal levels.

Looking forward to online learning

As global HEIs continue to welcome students back for in-person learning, the experiences of the last two years are set to shape a more efficient and valuable educational environment.

In a survey, 90 percent of African higher education students agreed that a blend of online and face-to-face learning is of equal value to a fully in-person experience. Many HEIs will now be looking to embrace the benefits of digital learning in flexibility, affordability, permanence and convenience to keep students engaged.

Institutions are also benefitting from tapping into a diverse knowledge pool – enriching discussions and widening perspectives.

It’s important that our institutions continue to develop and provide the facilities needed to accommodate a hybrid learning culture, even as we return to campuses. HEI leaders cannot afford to neglect digital learning in favour of traditional learning approaches and must instead focus on integrating online opportunities into the curricula.

Future-proofing the hybrid learning experience

We must ensure that relevant infrastructure is in place to support long-term hybrid learning. Many of the schemes and investments rolled out during the pandemic were designed to help the current cohort navigate short-term disruption and are not suitable for optimal learning going forward.

This means not only providing the learning material but the resources and infrastructure to access it – including mobile capabilities and the storage space to deliver the comprehensive spectrum of learning materials, applications and more, across the lifecycle of a degree.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to embracing digital learning. For example, the emergence of virtual reality classrooms offers the benefits of collaborative learning for those unable to attend sessions.

Those willing to invest in the facilities to provide these opportunities will reap the rewards of a wider pool of engaged students, the financial benefits that come with fuller classrooms and the reputational benefits of championing a diverse and equal alumnus.

By Dr Nicos Nicolaou

Dr Nicolaou is the CEO and founder of Unicaf which was established in 2012, and currently offers fully online and blended programmes. It operates learning centres and university campuses in 12 African countries, including Zambia, Malawi and Uganda.

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