Given the background provided above, the questions that can be asked as we still face uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic are:
What was the response to the pandemic by higher education systems in terms of the provision of ICT infrastructure such that they could continue to function?
What were the outcomes of these interventions in terms of the inclusion (or exclusion) of marginalized students?
Will the disruption to higher education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the uptake of new modes of instruction, learning and assessment, result in greater inclusion in the future provision of education?
About the research
Many questions have been asked about the future of higher education post-COVID-19. The answers paint various scenarios, including that higher education will simply revert to ‘business as usual’. Others suggest that higher education will be forced to adapt, although the exact nature of longer-term change remains unclear (Van Schalkwyk 2021). More ominous future scenarios include the demise of higher education. Whatever the response, change will take place in a context in which the COVID-19 crisis was seen to “deepen systemic socioeconomic vulnerabilities [and] widen income and wealth gaps” (Lenzen et al., 2020, 8).
Higher education plays an important role in national development by providing high-level skills and new knowledge for innovation (Muller et al. 2017). In the decades following the 1950s, higher education enrolments expanded rapidly in the US and Europe, followed by Asia, Latin America and Africa in the 1990s and 2000s (Scott 2019).
This expansion created a new market that attracted the interest of the business sector, including, for example, commercial publishers, resulting in the marketisation of academic and scholarly publishing (Thornton and Ocasio 1999). However, with questions arising about the value created by commercial publishers with the advent of digitization and the world wide web, combined with generous profits made by publishers (Larivière et al. 2015), the relationship between higher education and commercial publishers has become increasingly strained as the imperatives of commerce and science clash (Strasser and Edwards 2015; Taubert and Weingart 2017).
Just as massification significantly transformed the higher education landscape and the scholarly publishing industry, the current COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted higher education as lockdowns and other restrictions were imposed across the globe. Higher education institutions (HEIs) have been compelled to invest significant funds to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and, due to the unprecedented nature of the global COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions have had to face challenges related to their teaching, learning and assessment activities. Most interventions have focused on developing and/or augmenting digital infrastructure to support undergraduate online teaching and learning to salvage the 2020 and 2021 academic years.
Since there were no existing policies and guidelines in most higher institutions on online teaching, learning and assessment, several questions such as, what to teach, how to teach, what should be the duties of the teacher and the student, the workload of the teacher, the teaching environment, and the implications for education equity, etc. were not clear. Conducting assessments remotely during COVID-19 also posed extraordinary challenges for higher education institutions owing to lack of preparation as well as the inherent problems of proctoring when relying on remote assessment technologies.
As before, the disruption of higher education has created new opportunities which have attracted the attention of the market. In other words, just as massification disrupted scholarly publishing, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to disrupt the ICT sector, specifically those parts of the sector that provide internet connectivity, and remote teaching and learning technologies.
Of concern is the fact that COVID-19 has, in many contexts, exacerbated pre-pandemic inequality, including in higher education (Salmi 2020). Governments, higher education institutions, private companies and donor funders responded to address inequalities related to internet access and to include marginalized students in the provision of online teaching, learning and assessment. However, it remains an open question whether the crisis-related initiatives to democratize access were effective and are likely to prevail post-pandemic (Komljenovic 2020). The entry of commercial service providers into a growing market providing new online learning platforms, modes of instruction and assessment, driven by a cocktail of necessity and what Broussard calls ‘technochauvinism’, could well reverse any gains made during the pandemic. As Czerniewicz (2022, 2) writes: ‘The digital divide is alive and well; indeed, the digital paradox is that even as the basics of the divide are addressed through access, more complex layers of exclusion are added; digital inequalities thus morph into new complicated forms’.