Flexible learning during Covid-19:  how to ensure quality higher education at a distance

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By Michaela Martin and Uliana Furiv, respective lead and consultant working at the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning programme specialist on a project on flexible learning pathways.

The Covid-19 outbreak closed universities and other tertiary education institutions in 175 countries and communities, affecting over 220 million post-secondary students. While some institutions moved their classes to online and distance education platforms thanks to their pre-existing experience, many others struggled. In some countries, this lack of preparedness resulted in delays in moving the courses online; in others, governments have halted higher education completely for an indefinite period of time.

In 2018, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO) launched a project to help guide countries identify policies and instruments that support flexible learning pathways (FLP) in higher education. The research included a stocktaking exercise of good practices in the field, an international survey, and eight in-depth country case studies to analyse factors for an effective implementation of flexible learning pathways. Many lessons can be drawn for the current context, now that distance learning is a key mode of education delivery, rather than just an add-on to face-to-face learning. 

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Image: Ivan Radic

India offered distance education as a major alternative mode of delivery long before the arrival of Covid-19. The country has more than 15 open universities and 110 Dual Mode Universities, which provide education through distance modes. For the period of Covid-19 outbreak, the government has also allowed top 100 India’s HEIs to provide fully online degrees. In addition, the government even integrated online learning in the New Education Policy currently under review.

One interesting practice India uses to deliver distance learning is with the Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM) platform which aims to provide access to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other e-learning content developed by various education providers. An important aspect of MOOCs hosted on the SWAYAM platform is their potential to receive recognition by higher education institutions. Under current provisions, a student entering a higher education study programme in a university can transfer up to 20 per cent of credits from relevant online courses completed on SWAYAM – something that one could imagine being a useful model for other countries to follow in current circumstances.

As we are seeing in many countries around the world, many students in rural areas are unable to access online content, and television or radio broadcasting is often more effective. The Indian government therefore created the SWAYAM Prabha programme, which disseminates the audio-visual content developed as part of the SWAYAM-hosted MOOCs through 32 educational TV channels. Within the current context, such platforms can be accessed immediately so that learning continues and is recognised when credits are issued at a later stage.

In Malaysia, the Wawasan Open University (WoU), a private university established by a consortium of Malaysian public universities, mainly delivers distance learning programmes to non-traditional learners, such as working Malaysians who have not proceeded to higher education after secondary education. In a context where most higher education institutions have been forced to close, the pandemic has not interrupted students’ learning thanks to the virtual learning platforms that existed before the crisis: We are, after all, an Open Distance Learning (ODL)  university!”, reported the Vice-Chancellor on the universities’ webpage.

In Finland, a similarly effective online system has been created. There, the national policy framework emphasises equality and quality education for all and universities and universities of applied sciences in the country offer Open Studies courses that are open to everyone regardless of education and age. The courses are offered by over twenty Finnish universities free of charge and can be recognised in students’ degrees.

Quality assurance of online learning is a challenge

Online distance learning is common in many countries. Findings from our international survey suggest that a majority of UNESCO member states (78%) already had flexible modes of delivery of programmes prior to Covid-19, even if the quality and validation of such delivery modes (e.g., through credit transfer or credit recognition of online courses) is not a straightforward issue for many.

Evaluating students’ learning acquired through distance learning has been a challenge for quality assurance, however, regarded with scepticism by some quality assurance and accreditation bodies, although it is likely that under the present circumstances these will now disappear. One good example to draw from on this point comes from the Netherlands where the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) has published a memorandum on online and blended learning. This memorandum includes the formal recognition of MOOCs by higher education institutions. Another example comes from the USA, where the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) issued a guidance document intended to provide both institutions and accreditors with flexibility regarding accrediting visits and for distance education.

There is no doubt that there are many challenges to implement and assure quality of online education. In addition to issues of access and Internet connectivity, not all programmes can be supported by online technology, such as lab-based research programmes, for example. And governments need to be aware of the inequalities that online learning can create as students from lower socio-economic strata find it more difficult to access to IT infrastructure and internet packages. There should be a coordinated approach between governments, quality assurance agencies and higher education institutions that addresses not only available resources but also a broader vision of what flexibility of learning can provide. Offering more flexible higher education in terms of delivery and pacing will be unavoidable if the Covid-19 crisis is going to be around for a while, and defining flexible quality standards for it will be indispensable as well.