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    How the Pandemic Has Accelerated Higher Education's DX

Reading guide: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to education worldwide. It has also accelerated the digital transformation of higher education, and it has meant online and hybrid learning have become incredibly valuable in reshaping higher education. To meet the urgent need for education-related Information and Communications Technology (ICT) applications in developing countries, global technology companies such as Huawei are sharing resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings unprecedented challenges to education worldwide. According to UNESCO, COVID-19 caused educational interruptions of some kind to nearly 1.6 billion students globally at its worst point to date. And, according to the World Bank, 220 million students worldwide were affected by the closure of their universities in 2020. Meanwhile, according to an International Labour Organization (ILO) study, 90% of vocational and technical centers had to close and suspend their vocational skills assessments and certifications.

Facing this sudden educational crisis, governments have had to quickly take measures to transition from offline to online teaching. In the process, issues such as education inequality, underdeveloped distance education, and the gap in digital infrastructure have become more apparent than ever. For example, in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, only 65% of low- and middle-income countries and just 25% of low-income countries had built distance education platforms.

To address this issue, stakeholders around the world — including universities, international organizations, enterprises, and education policymakers — have worked together to launch initiatives to ensure education continuity during the pandemic, accelerating the development of online teaching and the digital transformation of colleges and universities.

UNESCO-ICHEI Helps Higher Education Digitally Transform Worldwide

Guided by the principle of "achieving inclusive and quality education for all" in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Education 2030 Framework for Action, in December 2019, UNESCO-ICHEI and our partner universities and enterprises around the world proposed establishing the International Institute of Online Education (IIOE). It was officially launched in April 2020.

The IIOE is committed to supporting colleges and universities in developing countries to cope with the challenges caused by suspending classes because of the pandemic. It hopes to help higher education institutions worldwide to digitally transform by building online teaching capabilities, sharing software and hardware resources, and providing customized policies.

Since April 2020, the IIOE has served more than 12,000 teachers from 135 countries in the form of webinars, online open classes, and advanced training.

The IIOE also launched teacher training programs in Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing in 2021 to help global partners continuously improve their capabilities in online learning, distance education quality assurance, and education development planning during the pandemic.

The reason UNESCO-ICHEI can quickly mobilize so many course resources and adapt them to universities and teachers in developing countries in the pandemic is that we have strong support from partners. More specifically, at the beginning of 2020, with the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, UNESCO-ICHEI quickly mobilized resources from partner universities and enterprises to complete tasks such as platform development, website cloud server deployment, course resource collection, and Operations and Maintenance (O&M) team establishment in just over two months.

After assessing the network conditions in developing countries, such as those in Asia and Africa, the deployment of HUAWEI CLOUD Content Delivery Network (CDN) services worldwide, and users' data security protection needs, UNESCO-ICHEI decided to deploy the IIOE platform on Huawei Cloud.

Meanwhile, global technology companies such as Huawei are sharing certification course resources to meet the urgent need for ICT applications in developing countries, complementing existing public education resources. UNESCO-ICHEI is actively exploring cooperation opportunities with outstanding ICT enterprises to jointly support the course development of partner universities and their countries.

Digital Transformation of Higher Education in the Context of the Pandemic

The pandemic has made people fully aware of the importance of schools, teachers, and educators to society. Meanwhile, it has also shown that the education industry is not yet equipped to withstand sudden turmoil. A better recovery can only be achieved through multilateral cooperation and support from institutions such as colleges and universities, governments, enterprises, and international organizations.

Based on lessons learned about education continuity, UNESCO-ICHEI, together with global partner universities and enterprises, released Suggestions for Accelerating Digital Transformation of Higher Education in COVID-19 Pandemic in December 2020, which outlines how to rebuild a more inclusive and resilient education system in the post pandemic era. The document makes four proposals for higher education institutions, international organizations, enterprises, and higher education practitioners around the world:

I.Focus on online teaching and pursue fair, quality higher education. The mission of colleges and universities for the development of online teaching shall be clarified. Course system reform should be driven by further collaborations between education institutions and enterprises. Colleges and universities should be supported in fulfilling their mission of promoting the development of the national digital economy and improving talent development.

II.Focus on capacity building of higher education practitioners and enable the digital transformation of colleges and universities.

Advanced training shall be organized and high-quality course resources shall be shared to improve teachers' online teaching skills. Teachers shall also be encouraged to develop high-quality, localized online courses; they will also be encouraged to collaborate on those courses and share their knowledge and resources.

III.Establish multilateral cooperation mechanisms to promote the development and sharing of public welfare resources.

Hardware and software facilities and shared educational resources shall be introduced to universities through multilateral public welfare cooperation between government, enterprises, and universities. In line with UNESCO's principles such as 'Africa First' and 'gender equality,' resources will be distributed with priority given to countries, higher education institutions, and people most in need.

IV.Formulate customized policies and guidelines to ensure the quality of online teaching.

Customized national strategic plans for developing digital talent shall be developed based on the economic development needs of each country and the employment standards of enterprises. A national quality assurance system for online teaching shall also be established, along with guidance for ICT course development and skills certification.

Working Together for More Inclusive and Sustainable Education

Colleges and universities with complete digital teaching conditions and capabilities before the pandemic were well positioned to cope with the crisis. When the pandemic is over, those who temporarily that don't have the appropriate capabilities and conditions will also be more resilient and flexible because of the lessons they have learned.

Meanwhile, the important role online teaching in colleges and universities in various countries has played in responding to the pandemic and ensuring courses can continue as close to normal as possible has proved that online teaching is more than just a tool to supplement traditional teaching activities. We believe that, in the foreseeable future, online teaching will also be an important method in ensuring developing countries have equal access to quality higher education.

With continuous infrastructure upgrades to higher education institutions and the whole education system, related policies will be refined and teachers' skills will improve. Online and hybrid learning will be very significant for developing countries to seize educational opportunities, improve teaching quality, and achieve sustainable development, and they will also become part of a 'new normal' for higher education.

UNESCO-ICHEI and our partner universities and enterprises must seize this opportunity to mobilize resources and capabilities to build an ecosystem that supports the digital transformation of colleges and universities, improves the ICT skills of students and teachers, and enhances the quality assurance of online and hybrid learning. Our goal is to achieve mutual international recognition of online courses and degrees — to build more inclusive and sustainable education together.

Pull quote:

Online and hybrid learning will be very significant for developing countries to seize educational opportunities, improve teaching quality, and achieve sustainable development, and they will also become part of a 'new normal' for higher education.

—Li Ming, Director of International Center for Higher Education Innovation under the auspices of UNESCO (UNESCO-ICHEI), Chair Professor of Research Center for Higher Education of Southern University of Science and Technology