Catalyst for Change

Breaking through the digital barrier in mainstream higher education  

COVID-19 has been the catalyst for unprecedented change within higher education (HE) institutions that previously favoured traditional modes of teaching. Whereas the reaction of the education sector during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002/2003 was wholesale suspension or postponement of classes, the response in 2020 has been characterised by a dramatic pivot towards digitally based, student-oriented learning. Technological capabilities that laid relatively dormant within Chinese HE for a significant period of time have raced to the forefront of educators’ minds, and, according to Dr Juan Caldero and John Fowler from Coventry University in Chongqing, the sector will be irrevocably changed as a result.  

Chinese scholars have long been predicting the sweeping changes that occurred in western HE in the 2000s would reach the Chinese sector. These changes included integration of the student learning experience into a virtual learning environment (VLE), a shift towards online collaborative platforms and more widespread use of Socrative methodologies – collaborative argumentative dialogues instead of teacher-led lectures. In spite of significant innovation in research and well-documented social change driven by digital technologies, HE in China has always retained a penchant for the face-to-face teaching mode and paper-based learning technologies. A visitor to a Chinese university teaching building might be forgiven for thinking they have been transported back to an education setting in the 1990s; lecture halls are large and the static rows are filled with students managing small piles of textbooks.   

In response to the fast-moving challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused extraordinary levels of disruption and uncertainty for lecturers and students alike, academic institutions temporarily closed campuses and moved to remote working for campus-based faculty and administrators. Domestic and international programmes followed suit quickly. However, institutions and educators that had already invested time and effort in the transition to remote teaching delivery, student support and assessments are far better placed than those that did not. These institutions have achieved in an extremely short period of time the capacity to build digital capability, create new staff and student experiences, and maintain effective support for home and overseas students.   

Chinese institutions face significant challenges in migrating the student experience online whilst adhering to internal and external policies, especially in the area of assessment. European institutions with operations in China can and should rely on their established online procedures and track record during the COVID-19 pandemic; maintaining, where possible, open communication channels and sharing examples of best practices with partner institutions.

Some documented benefits of online collaborative learning tools include improving learner input and efficiency. In turn, this helps students seek clarification, reduce anxiety and solve learning difficulties. In other words, learners do not feel isolated due to the sense of having a learning identity within the VLE. This learning identity can provide both instructors and learners with immediate feedback and reflective thought. Online team debates, online conversational topics and role play simulations can create multiple forums for discussions and consolidation of students’ learning. 

The long-term benefits of digitalisation for academic institutions are fundamentally clear: It provides:

  1. access: the advantages of digital search over print or hard copy issues;
  2. preservation: digital data will not deteriorate or disintegrate with time; 
  3. cost reduction in terms of storing and duplicating textbooks, academic journals, theses, dissertations and ongoing research; and
  4. clear and precise organisation and dissemination of all data.   

The jump to digital platforms such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), integrated learning applications and team resource management suites has not all been smooth sailing. Online learning creates communication issues and an uneven playing field in certain cases: poor internet connections, intermittent accessibility, home environmental issues and time differences can all limit meaningful interaction online. Educators must be aware of the limitations. In response to these issues, institution administrators will need to work to ensure a standard experience for students and revisit the customer journey. 

There are further concerns regarding the long-term effects of restrictions in face-to-face learning. Some scholars have argued learners might lose the sense of reality of the physical world and, therefore, trust in other people.[1] Also, there is the criticism of online forums, particularly with lectures or larger classes, in which few learners “are active or sophisticated enough to read regularly and actively participate”.[2] Thus, it is imperative that institutions manage the pastoral dimension of virtual delivery and provide training for students where necessary.  

These concerns extend to educators themselves. Poor time management or questionable institutional practices might lead to teachers feeling overwhelmed. In face-to-face classes and under academic regulations, lecturers allocate specific time during the week for ‘drop-in hours’, when students can go to the lecturer’s office to discuss their academic work. Online learning provides both a forum and individual communication between students and lecturers. This therefore increases the number of hours and amount of work lecturers deliver weekly in order to accomplish optimal pedagogical outcomes. In some cases, lecturers might feel that the amount of work can become excessive. However, scholars argue it would be advisable to explore the use of small peer groups to support all students engaging in their learning.[3] In other words, students will also be part of the academic community and best practice.  

Challenges related to digital migration persist but, as the education sector has no other choice at the moment, such issues are being quickly surmounted. Regardless of any appetite to return to traditional education values, the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be one of greater acceptance of the digital learning experience, even for great institutions once thought immovable. 

Dr Juan Caldero is lecturer in Legal English and Academic English and John Fowler is assistant professor and programme manager of the Sino-UK Collaborative Law Programme. The Sino-UK programme is collaboratively delivered by Coventry University and the Southwest University of Political Science & Law in Chongqing (SWUPL). This is a unique globally-oriented double degree Commercial Law LLB programme for ‘Tier 1’ Chinese students. CU@SWUPL has set the bar in terms of delivering high quality education by combining one of the United Kingdom’s best modern universities with one of the top three Chinese institution for Law; and by being the only China-UK project to have an academic team permanently based in Southwest China. 

[1] Dreyfus, H, On the Internet. Routledge, London, 2001; Hunt, R. Affordances and Constraints of Electronic Discussions, 1999, viewed 22nd May 2020, ERIC, item: ED454508.
[2] Hunt, R. (1999). Affordances and constraints of electronic discussions. New Brunswick: ED454508.  
[3] Towndrow, A., et all, 2013, Quad-blogging: promoting peer-to-peer learning in a MOOC. eLearning Papers, vol. 33, no. 1-4. Retrieved from http://