Liberal arts in Asian higher education: The online revolution

A key session in the forum was titled “The leap to digital: How the shift online revolutionised higher education”. In many countries attempts are underway to use the momentum gained by the initial crude response to COVID-19, which replaced teaching in university classrooms with teaching on screens, to realise a vision of sophisticated hybrid teaching and learning in higher education.

The four distinguished speakers in this session discussed their personal perspectives on the way in which this revolution is evolving, and the further changes and refinements they would like to see.

Dr Amal Al-Malki, Founding Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar, explained that her college has a fundamental commitment to promoting social justice, in line with the SDGs. Therefore, she was deeply concerned about the way in which the pandemic-driven shift to online learning had impacted disadvantaged students across the globe. She noted that research findings pointed to 61 percent of worldwide learners being adversely affected during Covid lockdowns. This figure included more than 30 million learners in India, alone, according to a recent report by the Asian Journal of Business Ethics.

“While online education has proved itself as a valid temporary solution, it’s validity beyond the crisis remains to be evaluated,” Dr Al-Malki added. On the positive side, mobile teaching and learning methods have penetrated parts of the world previously devoid of such provision. However, the detrimental effects on wellbeing arising from isolated online learning are well documented. Dr Al-Malki hoped that innovative hybrid and HyFlex models will prove effective where they are accessible, but she did worry about issues of inclusivity.

Professor Youmin Xi, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, highlighted the fact that online education is more than online teaching. “Many teachers simply use commercial software to deliver modules,” he pointed out.

Prof Xi said he didn’t believe the “Five C” model of key competencies – cultural competence, creativity, critical thinking, communication and cooperation – will be sufficient for 21st-century learners. Additional competencies – in areas including digital literacy, lifelong learning, social responsibility and sustainable development – will be required to support the new model of quality education.

“No one can doubt that the future is hybrid education,” he said, but the key challenge is to help students, and teachers, transform their behaviour and attitudes. He explained that Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has developed a new “harmonious education” model which contains a formal education dimension, but is also self-directed by students under the supervision of a mentor, and is integrated into the community and society. To realise this model, the university has developed the concept of the “learning mall” in which students can choose to study online or onsite, according to their purpose, and find support and mentors. Access to Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University’s learning mall is being opened up to the world from June 2022, Prof Xi pointed out.

From this September, Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) will introduce four new trans-disciplinary programmes. “All of them are based around the SDGs of the United Nations,” the university’s Vice-President of Teaching and Learning, Dr Albert Chau, explained.

The programmes will bring together expertise from faculty across the university, and will include experiential and service learning elements, enabling students to use their knowledge and skills to address community needs. Dr Chau said the need to adapt to COVID restrictions has accelerated desired changes, such as in the expansion of digital learning systems, the transformation of the assessment process, and broadening of access throughout the education journey.

Dr Chau said he believed it was important to include intra-cultural elements in higher education and that HKBU puts a very strong emphasis on the internationalisation of the curriculum. “Some of my students hesitated about joining exchange programmes because of a lack of financial means,” he noted. However, the scope for virtual access to exchange programmes had made them far more accessible.

The moderator of this session, Professor Peter Duffy, Director of the Teaching and Learning Centre at Lingnan University, also had a chance to share his perspective. “Some of the universities in Hong Kong were among the first to shift online due to the social disturbances (that occured) before COVID hit in 2020. So we have been using a combination of online and face-to-face ever since,” he explained.

Now, though, it was time to go beyond conversations about e-learning as separate and distinct from teaching and learning, he said. “In 2022 we are moving around a range of modalities, online and face-to-face, and looking at changes to our learning spaces and learning design, and changes even to the way we perceive quality education.”

Looking to the future of quality education, Prof Duffy hoped to see a shift from passive to active learning, increasing digital fluency among students, for academic as well as social purposes, and an increased emphasis on the notion of community. He pointed out, though, that, with a third of humanity still offline and many others with only limited connectivity, digital inequality remained a major concern.