By harnessing digital technologies, we safeguard education

Countries that want a sustainable education system should look beyond traditional forms of learning and take advantage of digital learning tools. Yet higher education institutions in emerging economies have been reluctant to wean themselves off bricks-and-mortar learning environments and create cyber-school environments. In contrast, those in advanced countries have embraced evolving and ground-breaking technologies.

As a result, the pronounced gains of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) in education have been felt in different ways by higher education institutions in the developed and developing world. Technology poverty in education in developing regions has created inequalities in a way that threatens the achievement of inclusive and equitable quality education enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4).

Without question, infusing technology into teaching and learning increases access to education, fosters students’ interest in schooling and enables teachers to attain higher levels of productivity. The old-fashioned mechanisms for delivering education are becoming increasingly ineffective when it comes to addressing the complex social problems we face in this era of globalisation.

The disruption in education caused by the pandemic necessitated the diffusion of education technology globally. Many of the ‘impoverished nations’ that have resisted the idea of integrating cutting-edge technologies into education had to urgently migrate from the traditional face-to-face modality of instruction to an online mode.

But the question is: are higher education institutions in developing nations co-evolving with technology after the pandemic crisis?

Challenges of online learning

The havoc wrought by COVID-19 affected over 1.5 billion of the world’s student population. Online learning became the alternative route and, in some countries, the only legal means to continue education because of the accompanying social distancing norms and lockdowns.

The sudden freezing of the accustomed chalk-and-talk method of instruction and the adoption of technology-enhanced learning in higher education institutions in developing nations because of COVID-19 led to unprecedented challenges.

UNESCO reports suggest that 826 million students who had to engage in COVID-19-engineered remote learning did not have a household computer and 706 million did not have internet access.

Those who were able to engage were faced with network lags, glitches in the learning management system, limited funds to purchase data bundles or digital tools and many other challenges.

Technology possibilities

Notwithstanding, the rapid diffusion of technology in higher education institutions in developing economies during the COVID crisis provided a window of opportunity for the massification of technology in education.

Numerous initiatives were witnessed globally showing how school leaders and relevant stakeholders employed technology-enhanced learning to prevent a general catastrophe in education. This precipitated significant positive changes among teachers and students in terms of building their digital literacy and capabilities by exposing them to web-based and virtual learning methods.

With the advent of potent vaccines against COVID-19 and the fading of the initial threat of the pandemic, many higher education institutions in developing countries are discontinuing their efforts to leverage technological tools to promote online learning. Some popularly cited reasons are a lack of funds and infrastructure to carry on with online instruction. Is this the right decision?

Building a crisis-resistant framework

Education in the post-COVID world should be safeguarded against future disasters and pandemics. The future is unpredictable and the higher education industry is unlikely to escape further disruptions. As one scholar puts it: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

To this end, harnessing digital technologies to facilitate teaching and learning is an effective way of building education systems that are resilient to future pandemics. Post-pandemic education should be designed to withstand unforeseen events and emergencies that serve as dangers to progressive education and lifelong learning.

Several higher education institutions are still assessing and recovering from the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Building a crisis-resistant framework for higher education institutions means that sustainable solutions are already available to mitigate any future threat to education.

To guarantee continuity in education, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, together with high-level government officials, put out a global call to invest in the future of education at the 2021 Global Education Meeting in Paris through the Paris Declaration.

From recovery to transformation

Adversity can be a blessing or a curse depending on how you respond to it, and it is in the midst of great adversity that revolutionary inventions come into being. Although a large number of higher education institutions worldwide, particularly in developing countries, have resumed physical learning, we should not seek simply to recover from the educational loss of the pandemic but to transform how we learn.

The deployment and use of modern technology in the classroom can empower teachers to adopt human- and learner-centred ways of instruction and, at the same time, to promote dynamic and flexible learning.

The search for a return to ‘education as normal’ should not stop higher education institutions from being inventive. A robust digital culture supported by strong digital leadership can accelerate the digital transformation of education.

Investment in technology when it comes to professional development for teachers and in open educational resources for learners are essential steps needed to steer the transformation of education in this intelligent era. The creation of smarter campuses and hybrid learning spaces can catalyse the transformation agenda.

The demand for technology-enhanced learning

The spread of technology has intensified because of the complex problems facing modern societies and the ever-changing nature of our world. Nowadays, technology is ubiquitous and operational in modern workplaces and diverse sectors of society.

Technology-enhanced learning plays a pivotal role in helping students acquire 21st-century skills (such as computational thinking, communication, creativity and analytical and collaborative skills) needed in the labour market.

Upcoming generations need to be adept at interacting with advanced forms of technology, such as the increasingly pervasive artificial intelligence so that they are ready for the new techno-based occupations to come.

Thus, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, education should not remain stagnant or turn its back on technological innovation. Educators and policy-makers in education, especially those from developing nations, should anticipate the huge changes to come in the education and business industry and inject technology into teaching and learning.

Technology-enhanced learning in higher education institutions is at the forefront of educational reform and building human capital for shared social and economic benefits.

Michael Agyemang Adarkwah is a postdoctoral researcher at Smart Learning Institute, Beijing Normal University, China. He obtained his PhD in education leadership and management from Southwest University. He has a bachelor degree in nursing and has worked as a registered nurse (RGN) in Ghana. Michael is an international expert peer reviewer. He is part of the editorial board of the Journal of Educational Studies and Multidisciplinary Approaches and the International Journal of Modern Education Studies, and Social Education Research. He is an associate editor for SN Social Sciences and has been recently invited to serve as an assistant editor of the Online Learning Journal.