(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Leaders of colleges and universities around the world have all been seized by the same question regarding the future of higher education. Conversations have explored various nuances, from warning of the impending doom of existing models of higher-education institutions to extremes in the virtual education continuum and the rise of technologies and adapted pedagogies. However, there is unanimous agreement that change is inevitable in the world after the disruptions caused by Covid-19.
When we take a moment to pause and look back, it is incredible that we have had 10 weeks of delivering our academic offerings online. . At Hamad Bin Khalifa University, as at many institutions around the world, this shift was made literally overnight. Our students, grappling with new realities and their own personal struggles, completed their academic year; about 130 students completed and defended their theses. Faculty and support staff, rapidly adjusting to the concept of remote operations, ensured the delivery of more than 120 courses virtually. We did what we had to under extraordinary circumstances and within significant time constraints.
However, these solutions are mere Band-Aids to the greater reconceptualization of the future of higher education. They served their urgent purpose but now our pedagogies need the attention of the surgical room. Like many contemporary solutions, our education system needs to be reimagined in a sequential phased manner. We are still operating within an emergency protocol, but this period of distance learning has been the ideal motivation to strive for what we had shelved earlier. It is time to be bold, creative, and challenging. We have an entire educational delivery system to reinvent for the Fall term where we realistically may still have to practice online or in a blended format; and then reimagine it again for a post-Covid-19 world when our campuses will be reactivated.
These last few weeks have highlighted significant advantages to virtual teaching. As primarily a graduate university, a significant proportion of Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s students come with existing careers, businesses, family commitments, and other demands on their time. The element of flexibility in virtual learning can greatly enhance their quality of life. Recorded class sessions will support various learning styles that thrive on self-paced education. Chat rooms and breakout rooms without a physical presence can encourage more reticent personalities to be more actively involved. The list goes on.
Yet, because of this instant transition to the virtual world, we have also realized two key factors that we must take care not to undermine when reconceptualizing our future at Hamad Bin Khalifa University: the power of the human connection and the pride we take in our local heritage. These key factors tie us to our campuses and encourage us to re-evaluate how our physical premises can be enhanced to support a dynamic and hybrid learning system in the post-pandemic world
We must also build capacities to enable meaningful relationships between students and professors and mentors.
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In the next phase, we are actively redesigning our entire curricula to integrate components of virtual delivery. This translates to more than just a hodgepodge of recorded lectures and presentation slides. We have been vigorously challenged to incorporate elements that meet all the rights of our students: high-quality content, opportunities for discussion and engagement, elements of self-pacing, optional prospects of delving deep into topics of interest, novel technological features, and interpersonal relationship-building mechanisms.
Furthermore, we must also build capacities to enable meaningful relationships between students and professors and mentors. Our academic portfolio will require an aptly customized transformation; for instance, in addition to strict adherence to safety protocols, our lab-based disciplines will see elements of reorganized lab schedules, re-designed lab kits, data collection programs, simulation software, and an array of technologies to enhance virtual “experiential” learning.
In a subsequent phase, our campuses will be reactivated and our physical environment will once again see human interaction. Our traditional classrooms will be filled once more, but our curricula will not look the same. We strive for a vibrant blend of virtual flexibility and in-person experiences, incorporating the potency of virtual education with the organic power of the human connection.
At Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development, of which the university is a member, there is an inherent pride taken in our physical environment and the local heritage that is reflected in every aspect of its art, architecture, and shared culture. These too will continue to be an element of our campus experience, but our highly equipped infrastructure will see even greater technological capacities to support more virtual elements.
The future of education will not be a one-time blanket revolution. As we still navigate our way through the crisis and its potential resurgences, and then face a more refreshed world, our pedagogies will continue to be shaped by emerging innovations, tighter digital security, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, emerging literature, and diligent quality control. As we ride a new paradigm in higher education, it will be a matter of the survival of the audacious, the resourceful, and the astute.
As much as pressure builds for higher-education institutions globally, fostering hopefully positive transformations in our capacities as cultivators of knowledge, our success will be defined by our most important stakeholders: our students. It is students, who in effectively building a robust skill of self-motivated learning, will ultimately determine the success of our evolution.
Emad El-Din Shahin is interim provost at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, a research-intensive institution in Education City, Qatar.