Due to COVID-19, higher education institutions (HEI) in Latin American and the Caribbean held their facilities almost completely closed during this year and a half, having serious implications for education, research, governance, and the relationship of HEI with society.
According to figures of the International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC, for its Spanish acronym), the pandemic impacted around 25 million students. Although on average, 45% of the households have a fixed internet connection, it is estimated that this percentage is much lower in rural areas.
The gradual resumption of activities in virtual learning was not at the same rhythm, nor with the same quality in all the countries of the region, not even between the HEIs in the same countries.
Despite this scenario, and far from being considered a barrier for continuity in higher education, the university system had to face the contingency, and inclusively it has contributed scientific knowledge in different areas to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, showing the important role universities play around the world.
“Face-to-face education will have to acknowledge the characteristics of the universities that come out of confinement. Much will be lost but also there will be significant gains. What is true is that Latin American and Caribbean universities after the pandemic will be different from before the pandemic.”
The fact that omicron is now the dominating variant in most countries around the world, makes us remember that the pandemic has not ended yet and thanks to the progress in vaccination, the impact of its gravity has diminished. This situation influences not only the economic recovery but also the education recovery, where returning to face-to-face education continues to be slow.
But returning to the classroom is not the only challenge Latin-American HEIs face. Academics interviewed by Periódico UNAL during the XCVII Regular Meeting of the Executive Council of the Latin American and the Caribbean (Udual, for its Spanish acronym) recently held in Bogotá contributed with what for them could be the main challenges for higher education in a recovery scenario.
Academic and Rector of the Universidad Nacional de Avellaneda (Argentina) Jorge Calzoni, “two years after the health emergency we cannot return to the classrooms, laboratories, offices, stadiums, theaters, and other academic and cultural spaces as we did before the pandemic and much of that will have to change.”
“Face-to-face education will have to acknowledge the characteristics of the universities that come out of confinement. Much will be lost but also there will be significant gains. What is true is that Latin American and Caribbean universities after the pandemic will be different from that before the pandemic.”
One of the main challenges left by the pandemic is regarding the new competencies teaching-learning models, which demand learning from those who learn but also from those teaching.
In this process, accelerated by the pandemic, they have proposed building a cyberlearning community, understanding that although new technologies, including artificial intelligence, are important, not all are useful for the proposed higher education purposes in the region, particularly in countries with greater lag.
According to Udual General Secretary, Professor Roberto Escalante, said technologies and the new learning models should be inclusive, in other words, they need to include pedagogical and social content transcending the technological realm.
“It is necessary to propose wideband internet to be a public global asset. If this initiative is achieved, funding of new learning models would be accessible for the governments of the region.”
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua Rector and VP of the Central American Udual Regional, Professor Ramona Rodríguez, says, “the context has compelled us to combine classroom face-to-face and virtual education, as we will not return to this system with large groups for theoretical classes. Face to face education will be for practical classes and laboratories, with interdisciplinary approaches to facilitate the assessment of learning.”“Another urgent task is to understand that the graduate profile of all undergraduate and graduate programs has changed as an answer to the new technological environment. There are now new capacities that could pertain to new, also emergent fields of work. The new pedagogical models resulting from on-line learning need to be boosted, benefitting the positive lessons of the lock-down”.
Among the modifications that need to be incorporated is reducing the duration of courses, as virtual learning proposes short courses directed towards relevant competences to the new conditions, so alumni may insert themselves in the job market.
Besides the technological aspects, Udual claims that other learning elements need to be considered, greater conception and pedagogical character, such as aspects that boost more constructivist and more creative teaching, directed towards research.
“We acknowledge the importance of technological innovation but they need to be accompanied by novel pedagogical elements. For this we call on the need of technological innovation, accompanied by social innovation,” claims the organization.
To consolidate hybrid teaching scenarios, it is necessary to propose wideband internet to be a public global asset. If this initiative is achieved, funding of new learning models would be accessible for the governments of the region.
The challenges of a post-pandemic university will be discussed during the upcoming World Higher EducationConference (WHEC2022) which will take place in Barcelona in May of this year and with the motto, “Reformulating ideas in higher education to secure sustainable development for the planet and humanity.”
Udual will present a document on the current situation of higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a purposeful perspective. Some of the proposals are below.
To contribute to improving the current situation, having better quality, equality, inclusiveness, and productivity in the interest of development, Udual proposes, among others, for Governments and universities to guarantee the possibility of access and cost-free connectivity for students and professors.
Also, universities need to boost learning technologies for knowledge to be conceived as an ally for the formative process, avoiding the imposition of models governed by electronic platforms, without losing eye of the most human aspects of education.
Research in issues related to sustainable development goals must be promoted in universities; creating solid and inclusive strategies favoring intraregional and extra-regional academic mobility; use of knowledge contributed by technology and innovation to extend collaboration and international cooperation, and create mechanisms to increase enrollment of people with special educational needs, guaranteeing adequate insertion in all dimensions of higher education.
Additionally, supporting regions with greater needs for incorporating more women, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, and other higher education vulnerable groups, so no person or region be left behind.
Furthermore, update the higher education quality concept to adequately weigh the social impact of universities and new development produced by distance education and advocate for university autonomy from international organisms.
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