University: digitize or go back


Traditionally regarded as a minor modality, online teaching had already achieved its nature and quality mark before the pandemic. Their figures, however, were (are) still small: of the 251 million university students only 2% receive training exclusively online (just over 5 million). In Spain the data are somewhat better, but equally low compared to face-to-face teaching with 85% of undergraduate students and 76% of master’s students .

And suddenly, like a black swan, as unexpected as it is devastating, COVID-19 appears, acting as a catalyst for essential educational change. Faced with the difficulty of maintaining face-to-face classes, universities have turned their eyes to online and blended teaching, which have acquired a citizenship card and will experience an exponential increase in demand.

The number of tertiary education students will increase from 100 million in 2000 to 377 in 2030 and 594 in 2040. The Asian continent, Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa will experience spectacular increases in training that will not be able to be served by traditional providers of education. teaching. It is possible that within 20 years we will have more than 100 million students online and a higher number taking hybrid education.

And something similar will happen in Spain in a context of general student growth until 2030-35 due to the disembarkation of the generations born in the stage of recovery of the birth rate (1998-2008).

The unstoppable digitization process

According to a recent projection, remote universities are going to win around 50,000 students, which will probably be more if the number of these institutions increases. To this factor will be added the unstoppable digitization process.

The entire value chain of educational activity needs to be digitized. The institutions that succeed will survive; those that don’t will be doomed to irrelevance.

The increase in demand, the technological revolution and also the possibility of meeting aspirations that face-to-face training does not cover: those of those people who for reasons of time, geographic location, work reasons or family commitments cannot go to the classrooms every day.

Broad spectrum skills

All courses are subject to online training: degrees, masters, short programs and continuous training. Certainly some specific subjects and trainings lend themselves more than others to virtual training, but all, in whole or in part, can benefit from this way of transmitting knowledge, competences and skills.

There are already programs for almost everything. Many of the companies listed on Hiring offer virtual internships. Prestigious aprenticeships or bootcamps have online versions . To perform non -contact testing no facial recognition technologies such as Proctor U . And the examples could be multiplied.

It must be recognized that some degrees, particularly in health sciences, require a greater presence for certain training courses. For them (and for others) there are hybrid or semi-presential modalities through which many of the training paths of the future will run.

As the Obanian motto states (“Yes. We can”), online training can do anything and with the same quality and efficiency as the face-to-face format. The old accusation of being a minor educational instrument, of limited scope and unsatisfactory results, no longer holds. This is how the results prove it and this is how the market recognizes it.

Challenges of the transition from face-to-face to virtual

The move from face-to-face to virtual poses some significant challenges. I quote three:

  • Avoid inequalities among students due to the difficulties that some may have in access (due to resources or connectivity) to digital training. This was recalled by a communiqué from the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Committee in which all governments are called “to leave no student behind.”
  • Difficulties facing the heavy investments required by digitization and access to essential resources such as Artificial Intelligence. The transformation required will require more public funding, alliances between institutions to lower acquisition costs or the use of external suppliers.
  • Adequate training of teachers to effectively develop the new virtual teaching modalities. It is a process that not only requires the learning of new technologies and the use of pedagogical resources, but also a true change of mentality that not everyone is in a position to assume, especially those who “do not step” in teaching methods that have never had to use.

The digital transition, an EU mandate

The importance of classroom teaching is not debatable. Spanish universities, particularly public ones, continue to bet firmly on this type of teaching, although they already offer some virtual degrees. However, only digital natives reach the level of digitization demanded by the times.

COVID-19 has raised an adaptation problem, but it has also generated a possible solution to solve it. I mean the opportunity offered by European reconstruction funds that have focused shot three types of sectors: the green deal, the reindustrialization and precisely the digital transition .

There is a unique opportunity for, with these funds, a comprehensive digital transformation is carried out in Spanish universities to modernize their structures and operations and to make them an international benchmark for the integration of emerging technologies and an example of good practices for other educational systems, especially in Latin America.

This transformation could include four major actions: a digitization of the administrative infrastructure; a digitization of teaching (teachers and students); the development of digitized research environments; and the digitization of knowledge transfer.

The initial impulse must correspond to the Ministry of Universities. The priority beneficiaries will be face-to-face public universities. And as contributing elements would be the digital native universities that could play an essential role in the training of the human resources of the non-digital ones. Some have already done so. This is the case of UNIR, which is carrying out multiple training activities in Spain and Latin America.

And we are convinced, as I have heard from different political and academic leaders, that we are not living in an era of change, but rather in a change of era defined by the digitization of everything that surrounds us.

Author Bio: Rafael Puyol is Professor of Human Geography. President of UNIR and Head of Institutional Relations of The Conversation Spain at UNIR – International University of La Rioja