Has COVID-19 brought the ‘Future’ of Higher-education to the ‘Present’?

We live in a world of constant change, a world where one has to bring out something new, something fresh and very importantly, something that is feasible. For that we need research, since R&D plays a huge role in bringing up change (read innovation). It is quite ironic to see that the place where so many changes are researched, discussed and modified-that same place has conformed to its very primitive form, still. Higher education may be traced back around 2400 years ago when Plato founded the first academy. From that period on, for about 1400 odd years, higher education was limited to a very few individuals. Larger scale universities sprouted in Bologna in year 1088 and in 1150 in Paris.  Despite the change in the number of higher education receivers, the method of it resembled that of the ancient academies- where professors and students would physically meet for the lecture provided by the former, in order to transmit knowledge to the latter. This was done by professors professing from (predefined) texts (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2016) and much have not changed yet.

To be fair, there has been some ruffling of feathers to come up with innovative ways to future and further education. The first disruption to higher education may be attributed to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439, making books more available and affordable. The next biggest disruption to higher education may be distant learning. The evolution of distant learning may be divided into 3 periods in accordance to the media used: printed materials, television and internet. The first documented distance learning dates back to 1728 when Boston Gazette featured an advertisement for weekly stenography classes, where the materials of the course were sent by mail. The second period of distance learning started in 1969 with Open University resorting to the use of augmented correspondence learning facilitated by mail and through Television . Sesame street, which started airing on the 10th November 1969, is another example of TV-based distance learning, where the curriculum was designed by Harvard Professor Gerald Lesser. The advent and use of internet mark the third period in the distant learning timeline. In 1989, the University of Phoenix launched its online campus that offered bachelor’s and master’s degrees online to its entirety. In 2008,David Cormier from the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada coined the term MOOC with regards to a course called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’ that was offered to 25 students in the traditional lecture format and to 2200 (nonpaying) external students. The idea of MOOC spread like pandemic, so much so that the New York Times named 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC” (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2016).

Clayton Christensen, the inventor of the term ‘disruptive innovation’, believes that the emergence of new educational formats such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) will shake up the whole education industry, particularly the business schools and other higher education institutions. This may even lead to bankruptcy for many, and this view is widely supported by many researchers (Liyanagunawardena, et al., 2013). A new variant of online education is Small Private Online Course (SPOC). Contrary to MOOCs that are widely available courses to online participants, SPOCS are rather small and private in nature meaning that the access is restricted for the course participation, even though the medium of instruction (and participation) is online (Lockhart et al.,2017). Even though these distant learning and e-learning are plagued with a host of problems, it is hypothesized by many (and anecdotally suggested) that it is going to be the future of education. As Zhang et al. (2014) puts forward that e-learning requires more maturity and self-discipline, there are many other studies such as the one by Ali & Smith (2015) that support the point that students enrolled in online courses are more likely to drop out than ones in traditional lecture format. The world, oblivious to the sudden need of online education (due to COVID-19), was merely taking (baby) steps towards cautious implementation of online learning. Ideas such as Smart learning, MOOCs and MAITS are still in their infancy when suddenly we are pushed to start experimenting. The world, irrespective of their previous technological know-how are now using online education. Platforms such as BigBlueButton, Zoom and many others are seeing traction like never before. Education institutions all around the world have been given the chance to start afresh, as if a ‘restart’ button has been pressed. It is now time for education institutions all over the world to truly benefit from technology and very importantly get a fair level of competition. However, some might be more well equipped than others and as posited by Moreira, et al. (2017) in their study on distance learning for Prisoners, many people lack access to proper resources such as access to internet and bibliographical contents, while others may face lack of guidance. This holds true not only for the students, but also for the instructors. Although developed countries (and institutions) may be facing lesser troubles, in a way, everyone is facing the same situation as the one faced by prisoners. And this experience should be an eye opener for the students, instructors and institutions alike. Will this learning lead us to bring the ‘Future’ of higher-education to the present? Or will we just go back to the old ways? An educated guess would be that flipped classes and smart learning will be more prominent and frequent. The extent of it, however, remains to be seen…


Ali, A. & Smith, D., 2015. Comparing Social Isolation Effects on Students Attrition in Online Versus Face-to-Face Courses in Computer Literacy. Issues in Informing Science and Information Technology, 12(1), pp. 11-20..

Kaplan, A. M. & Haenlein, M., 2016. Higher education and the digital revolution: About MOOCs, SPOCs, social media, and the Cookie Monster. Business Horizons, 59(4), pp. 441-450..

Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Adams, A. A. & Williams, S. A., 2013. MOOCs: A Systematic Study of the Published Literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(3), pp. 202-227.

Lockhart, B. J. et al., 2017. The Use of a Small Private Online Course to Allow Educators to Share Teaching Resources Across Diverse Sites: The Future of Psychiatric Case Conferences?. Academic Psychiatry, 41(1), pp. 81-85..

Moreira, J. A., Monteiro, A. & Machado, A., 2017. Adult higher education in a portuguese prison. European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, 8(1), pp. 37-53.

Zhang, D., Zhao, J. L., Zhou, L. & Nunamaker Jr., J. F., 2004. Can e-learning replace classroom learning?. Communications of the ACM, 47(5), pp. 75-79.

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