Digital Tools in Romanian Higher Education: The Influence of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Digitalization of Universities.

AuthorHudrea, Adrian
  1. Introduction

    Education is one domain that is seen as both conservative and open to new technologies. The history of educators using new technologies to facilitate learning dates back to at least the 18th century, when enterprising teachers began to use the newly established postal system to offer what would eventually be known as 'distance learning' (Kentnor, 2015). While individual entrepreneurs initially offered courses on a limited number of subjects (shorthand, accounting), universities such as Oxford and Cambridge began offering correspondence education in the 1800s, among other forms of education (Harting and Erthal, 2005).

    Education institutions made use of each era's mass medium and employed it in their effort to reach students. Radio was used in different countries for student and adult education (a good example is represented by BBC in the United Kingdom). After the Second World War, television enabled the creation of dedicated programs or even stations that broadcasted educational content (Harting and Erthal, 2005).

    Technology was used not only for communicating with students who were not on campus, but it was also used in the day-to-day operations of schools and universities. From the 'magic lanterns' of the nineteenth century to projectors and photocopiers in the twentieth century and tablets, MOOCs, and 24h connectivity now, schools have repurposed and adapted technological methods and artifacts for educational needs.

    The possibilities provided by computers and the internet enabled much greater and faster access to information (think virtual libraries, online encyclopedias or curated search results). Such technological advancements also allowed for less emphasis on information retention (the information was only a click away) and more analysis and practical application; technology in classrooms can thus change the way schools and universities think about education.

    Universities use technology in both their back-office operations (for example, document management systems or procurement platforms) and their educational activities, with learning management systems or various digital educational platforms being the most visible examples. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced most universities to abandon face-to-face instruction in favor of digital interactions, shed light on these previously unknown (at least outside of the academic world) digital tools. This increased research interest in better understanding the benefits and drawbacks for universities of relying on digital instruments for a growing share of their activity.

    This increased scrutiny revealed some interesting results. Korikov and Levin (2021) found out that Learning Management Systems (LMS) are not as interactive and do not offer the personalized content and education that face-to-face settings allow. They can be supplemented by other digital tools to overcome their shortcomings (Korikov and Levin, 2021). Despite being touted as very easy to use and understand, the educational platforms employed especially during 2020 and 2021, on which schools and universities relied during lockdowns and restrictions, are not a panacea for current educational needs. No platform can satisfy all requirements and personal interests, and ability and skill (of both teachers and students) remain important (Troshina, Dobrova and Kozyreva, 2021).

    On the other hand, contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be an IT specialist or teach IT-related subjects to make use of new technologies in your teaching. University professors of different disciplines are just as likely to master and use digital educational technologies (Novikova and Bychkova, 2022).

  2. Literature review

    The COVID-19 pandemic was a tragedy that provoked hundreds of thousands of deaths and disrupted the daily lives of most of humanity. It was also a peculiar situation in which most countries introduced a small number of interventions (lockdowns, mask-wearing, travel restrictions, financial help) almost simultaneously. Schools of all levels shut down for long periods in vast parts of the world. Data from UNESCO (2023) shows that, on average, countries closed their schools (partially or totally) for almost a year (49 weeks). Large variation exists: in India closures lasted for 93 weeks, Burundi, Belarus, Nauru and Tadjikistan did not introduce any such restrictions (UNESCO, 2023), but most countries shut down schools for in-person learning for long periods of time.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruptions in higher education institutions around the world, requiring them to adapt their teaching and administrative practices in response to the crisis. This review of the literature looks at how universities have dealt with these challenges, with a particular emphasis on digital pedagogy, online learning, emergency remote teaching, and the impact on equity and inequality.

    2.1. Digital pedagogy and online learning

    The rapid shift to online learning was a common response among universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because lockdowns and the move to digital learning happened more or less in the same period of time in many countries, researchers had the opportunity to study how differences in the national context, available resources, or culture affected the universities' response. Crawford et al. (2020) conducted a study analyzing the digital pedagogy responses of 20 countries, which revealed a wide range of strategies, from synchronous to asynchronous learning and the use of various online platforms. They found that higher education institutions employed diverse approaches, with some countries relying heavily on videoconferencing tools, while others utilized learning management systems (LMS), open educational resources, and social media platforms to facilitate learning.

    Dhawan (2020) discussed the perceived role of online learning as a panacea during the crisis, emphasizing its potential to enhance learning outcomes and student engagement. The author highlighted several advantages of online learning, such as flexibility in time and location, the opportunity for personalized learning, and the ability to foster collaboration and communication among students. Dhawan (2020) also notes that this decampment to online education also presents a number of challenges: technical ones (login, app installation, audio-video problems, lack of good internet access), student motivation difficulties (the flexibility of digital education is a blessing but can also be a curse), lower engagement opportunities, mediocre course content, lack of practice, the disappearance of the boundaries between school and private life.

    These problems brought by online education were also discussed by Rasheed, Kamsin and Abdullah (2020); the authors conducted a systematic review of the challenges faced by universities in implementing online components of blended learning, identifying issues related to technology infrastructure, instructional design, and student engagement. They emphasized the need for robust and reliable internet connectivity, appropriate hardware and software, and adequate technical support to ensure a smooth online learning experience. The importance of engaging and interactive online learning materials was also evident in this study, as well as providing timely feedback, and taking into account the diverse needs of the students.

    In a case study of the way in which Peking University coped with the COVID-19 pandemic, taking into account also the long lockdown periods in China, Bao (2020) highlighted the importance of institutional support and faculty training in ensuring the successful adoption of online teaching. The author noted that the university provided resources and training sessions to help faculty members develop their online teaching skills, adapt their instructional strategies, and utilize various online tools effectively. Dedicated technical support teams also proved to be helpful, especially at the start of the online educational period, when, for a lot of students and professors, the tools and methods used were not very familiar.

    Marinoni, van't Land and Jensen (2020) conducted a global survey to find out the key factors that influenced the success of the transition to online learning. These included the availability of digital infrastructure, the preparedness of faculty and students for online learning, and the level of support provided by the institution. The authors also observed that the pandemic prompted many higher education institutions to reconsider their approaches to teaching and learning, with a growing emphasis on flexible, learner-centered, and technology-enhanced pedagogies. Administrative and bureaucratic barriers that seemed insurmountable just a few weeks before were torn down in the mad dash to provide students stuck at home with the best education possible under those circumstances.

    2.2. Emergency remote teaching

    In order to differentiate the 'classical' online learning approach (which existed before the COVID-19 pandemic), the concept of emergency remote teaching emerged as a distinct approach, characterized by the rapid and unplanned transition to online instruction (Bozkurt and Sharma, 2020). This shift was primarily aimed at ensuring the continuity of education in the face of widespread closures and physical distancing measures. Unlike traditional online learning, which is typically designed and developed over an extended period of time, emergency remote teaching involved the rapid adaptation of existing face-to-face courses for online delivery.

    Rapanta et al. (2020) stressed the importance of refocusing teacher presence and learning activity in the context of emergency remote teaching. They argued that instructors needed to establish a strong online presence, provide clear guidance and expectations, and offer timely feedback to support student learning. The need to design learning activities that offer students opportunities for active...

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