University Students
Students have become so adept at being digital natives that more of them would prefer their university access also be conducted online. And they want greater flexibility in choosing when to study. Image Credit: Agency

In a university sector used to gradual change, COVID-19 has brought an overnight revolution. Almost from day one, universities were forced to switch to remote learning.

In June, the World Bank praised the way in which Middle East universities responded to the crisis and their largely successful efforts to move courses online. The pandemic pressures on universities come at a time when many prospective students were already considering whether uprooting their lives for three gilded years of full-time study is worthwhile.

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According to a World Economic Forum report, youth unemployment in the region stood at 31 per cent in 2017 and university graduates made up nearly 30 per cent of the total unemployed. COVID-19 will reshape this still further and expedite the move away from “traditional university experience” for many students. However, the class of COVID-19 – the first to grow up as “digital natives” – are well prepared for this change.

If they don’t understand a problem, they’re unlikely to wait for an appointment with their teacher that could be days away. Instead they can go to an online education provider offering handpicked tutors and targeted educational content in formats that they themselves choose.

Converts to the cause

Many students are also reluctant to spend time commuting to and from a lecture theatre when they could get the same information online at their convenience. After months of online learning from their mainstream university courses during the pandemic, they may be reluctant to return to a fully face-to-face model of teaching.

A recent Dynata survey of 1,145 US college students found that more than two-thirds of respondents want to continue some form of online learning post-COVID-19. These students are receptive, and prepared, for the change – with just 30 per cent flagging their tech skills as a challenge to online learning.

Operating hours

For many, flexibility is key. We find most demand for learning is after 9pm, with midnight being the most common time for our tutoring sessions. Universities that respond to this thirst for convenience, relevance, and affordability will make themselves attractive to a more questioning generation of students.

But online learning requires intelligence and empathy to get right. As Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, CEO Of The Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation For Education, pointed out, education institutions in the Arab world need to invest in multiple components - including appropriate media content, assessments mapped to learning objectives, course communication tools and processes, online labs, and thoughtful academic integrity systems that respond to local contexts.

Coming to grips

Despite an enthusiasm for online learning in general, 76 per cent of students in the Dynata survey thought that online courses should be better planned. only 35 per cent of those with no prior online learning experience thought their online courses were well designed.

Teachers also need to be better trained in teaching online. Nearly half the surveyed students said that their instructors were not comfortable and proficient using online tools to support their learning.

Online education provides an additional huge advantage: it is a way for universities to meet demands from government and students to cut the soaring costs of tuition. Demands that will only become louder as the economy comes under pressure. If universities can develop a hybrid model that preserves the same quality at a lower cost, they will have won a great prize - the prospect of an elite higher education for students who find the current costs of living and studying at a university full-time an impossible leap.


The COVID-19 crisis has compelled universities to rethink their offer. By fast-forwarding underlying trends, which need to be addressed, it has spelled out the reality that universities will need to innovate if they want to survive. Already some colleges are leading the pack.

As Dr. Mansoor Al Awar, Chancellor of the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU), the UAE’s first e-university, has said, his establishment is looking at reshaping higher education by steering teachers away from the traditional education model that no longer meets modern demands. Its working model focuses on a blend of face-to-face classrooms, online classrooms, and self-paced learning.

A global pandemic that prevents students and teachers from being in physical proximity would, in any other time, have been catastrophic for higher education. It is fortuitous, perhaps, that it has coincided with the technology – as well as the desire among students – to reinvent how they learn. But universities should beware.

Hastily replacing lectures and tutorials with ‘Zoom in a room’ could be a useful stopgap, but in the long term could leave students feeling lost.

Students are ready to embrace the rich possibilities of online learning. But in this brave new world, higher education will need to learn a new skill: creating a sense of belonging in a class that could do the majority of its learning virtually.

The reaction of universities to COVID-19 is providing them with a crash course that they cannot fail.

- Nathan Schultz is President of Learning Services at Chegg.