The COVID-19 global health crisis has had an unprecedented impact on different sectors of society, including higher education. Universities and other institutions of higher learning across the world were compelled to cease their physical operations and shift rapidly to so-called ‘emergency remote teaching and learning’. Evidence shows that at the beginning of April 2020, schools and universities closed in 185 countries, affecting nearly 90% of enrolled learners (Marinoni et al., 2020). Internationalisation was among the most affected areas, leaving a profound mark on both student and staff mobility.
Depending on their pre-existing capacity for crisis management, infrastructure for distance learning, and available policy and management support, some institutions have been better prepared to ensure a smooth transition to distance learning compared to others. Access to technical infrastructure, competences and pedagogies for distance learning, and requirements of specific disciplines and study programs have been just some of the main challenges experienced by higher education institutions in their transition to distance learning (Marinoni et al., 2020). Fields that require lab- or practice-based learning have found it especially difficult to organise their instruction virtually (Gaebel, 2020). Students from low socio-economic backgrounds, rural areas or with learning difficulties were particularly impacted by the transition to distance learning (Gaebel, 2020; UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, 2020). Research has also been deeply affected due to the postponement of scientific conferences, cancellation of international travel, and delayed or cancelled research projects (Marinoni et al., 2020).
As many countries are now facing a second wave of infections, distance learning can no longer be viewed as an emergency strategy, but rather as an organisational reality that requires adequate planning and implementation. For this reason, university leaders need to draw on the lessons learned during the first months of the outbreak to understand what worked well and less well in their institutions, and devise an effective strategy for a high-quality distance teaching and learning model.
The remainder of this paper discusses findings of a research study conducted in higher education institutions in Poland, to understand how students experienced the transition to distance learning at the beginning of the crisis, and how this experience can be used to inspire future development and improvement.