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Getting a quality higher education online: From novelty to indispensable necessity

Gerald Ariff
Gerald Ariff

Chief Partnership Officer at HarukaEDU/

Jakarta  /  Thu, April 2, 2020  /  09:22 am
Getting a quality higher education online: From novelty to indispensable necessity

The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced us to rethink about the quality and readiness of our online learning system. ( Life Graphic)

“I’m totally bored and stressed out,” bemoaned my 10-year-old son. “My teachers gave us tons of assignments to do, more than I normally get in school.”

Their normally working moms are also stressed out. “Nowadays we have to feed our kids three decent meals a day, and cannot prevent them playing non-stop on their mobile devices, since there’s no friends to play with, no physical classes to go to. It’s also very difficult to focus on doing remote work with all these distractions,” said one woman. 

These are the realities of today’s world: COVID-19’s seemingly omnipotent presence is causing havoc to our regular life patterns.

Immediate lockdowns implemented in several countries (but not yet nationwide in Indonesia) are generating the same potential challenges for governments: how to ensure the people and related supporting institutions survive through this pandemic.

Fifteen years ago, a small primary school in rural South Korea started using cute robots to teach its students English, with native English tutors from the Philippines remotely accessing the robots in real-time. Then, as it is now, the prospect of city-dwelling expats teaching small groups of children in remote communities was unpopular as well as uneconomical for the institutions concerned. It was an innovative education novelty for such a school to implement such a program.

Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and universities are closing down their campuses, many indefinitely, and abruptly forced to transfer their learning online using free services such as Google Classrooms and Zoom and burdening their students with heavy assignment loads, with questionable results. The pandemic’s rapid speed of spreading combined with ill-prepared government officials will only likely worsen the learning development of nations’ human capital from kindergarten to university levels.

Indeed, the wave of closures has abruptly occurred in the travel, airline, hotel, manufacturing, retail, hospitality, events, sports and banking sectors, forcing highly debt-leveraged institutions to rapidly enter into administration. Unfortunately, this phenomena, which had been affecting the higher education sector way before the pandemic, is only likely to worsen.

Technology adoption

The pace of technology adoption is speeding up faster and faster. A 2013 Harvard Business Review article noted that it took 30 and 25 years respectively for electricity and telephones to reach 10 percent adoption by US households, but less than five years for tablet devices to achieve the 10 percent rate. It took 39 years for telephones to reach 40 percent penetration and another 15 years before they became ubiquitous, whilst smartphones accomplished a 40 percent penetration rate in just 10 years. The same seems to be happening now with online education, which has been around for 20 years.

In 2011, the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen predicted 50 percent of US universities will close or go bankrupt by 2026 due to a combination of: a broken business model of traditional universities, lack of economies of scale, complexity of higher education operations, declining pool of 18-year-olds and disruptive innovation of online learning.

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, observed that student enrollments in accredited US universities had shrunk consistently since 2010, while enrollment in online learning continues to rise. By the end 2018, nearly 20 percent of US students were enrolled in mostly online degree programs. Richard Vedder, an Ohio University Professor, noted this phenomena in October 2018, stating, “To me the issue is not, ‘will universities be forced to close?’, but rather how many will close and over what time period”. His more recent dire predictions in March 2020 noted that COVID-19 “can kill universities as well as people”. 

Reviewing the US National Center for Education Statistics trends confirms these predictions: 528 universities (or 12 percent) out of a total of 4,313 (as per 2018) were closed between 2000 and 2018. The worry here is that 318 universities, 60 percent, were closed between 2014 and 2018, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Centuries-old US nonprofit universities are no exception to this onslaught. US universities are closing much faster than in previous decades. Venerable institutions such as Green Mountain College in Vermont (est.1833, closed 2019) and Marygrove College in Detroit (est.1905, closed 2019) have continued to shutter despite running online degree programs and having sizeable student bodies. 

According to EY-Parthenon the most vulnerable universities are those with fewer than 1,000 students. The comparison is worrying: 40 percent of US universities (~800), compared to 65 percent in Indonesia (~2000) have less than 1,000 students; ~500 US universities provide accredited 32,000 online degree programs versus less than 25 Indonesian universities offering ~80 online degrees – the majority of those (50+ online degrees) are offered by Universitas Terbuka (UT), an open university.

Recent abrupt mitigation steps led by Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton and over 200 US universities going online are being followed reluctantly by many Indonesian universities at the formal behest of the education minister of Indonesia.

How those students being sent home or studying online will effectively complete their pedagogic learning objectives with inadequate, poor quality online learning infrastructure and processes remains to be seen. Hence, “quality” online learning should no longer be a novelty but should be quickly adopted as an indispensable necessity by university operators if we are to successfully survive through this pandemic. (kes)


The writer is chief partnership officer at HarukaEDU/, an EdTech startup. He obtained his doctoral degree in strategic management from the University of Indonesia.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.