Global research collaboration and the pandemic: How COVID-19 has accelerated networked learning in higher education

Image courtesy of https://www.polyu.edu.hk/web/en/about_polyu/global_network/

According to the National Science Foundation (2019), one out of every five academic research articles are written by authors hailing from more than one country. This fact suggests that the value of international research collaboration was recognized and sought out well in advance of the global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, but perhaps it’s only just the beginning.  Reasons to pursue global collaboration in higher education include reaching wider audiences and increasing the impact of published research, reducing bias and broadening perspectives with a diverse research team, and leveraging the ability to offset domestic skill shortages by collaborating across national borders (Lee & Haupt, 2020).  Networked learning in higher education can also encourage new levels of creativity and innovation in all kinds of disciplines, and it expands the potential for authentic global and cultural learning experiences in an increasingly connected world (Cronina et al., 2016).  These benefits apply to even the most scholastically “productive” countries like the USA and China (Lee & Haupt, 2020).  That said, understanding that international collaboration in higher education was valued–at least to a certain extent–prior to 2020, I am curious to explore how recent changes in technology and cultural shifts in academia during the pandemic have worked in tandem to build upon this trend, potentially accelerating technology’s impact on global research collaboration and cooperation into the future.

With the onset of COVID-19, scientists and researchers from every corner of the world scrambled to understand the virus and seek a cure. Information sharing among countries quickly became essential, especially for those countries that were hardest hit early on (Lee & Haupt, 2020).  Though socio-political tensions between countries–and even domestically within countries–were hardly in short supply in 2020, the demands of the pandemic shifted priorities such that many international corporations and research institutions began working together rather than competing with each other to produce a vaccine, and large-scale exchanges of medical and public health data, including possible solutions, was (and still is) shared internationally using digital and online tools (Buitendijk, 2020).

When it comes to information sharing, one way of measuring an increase in international collaboration is through a country’s participation in open access publication platforms.  Open access journals and publication platforms remove barriers for accessing information and research since they do not require payment or subscriptions in order to be read and cited.  Sometimes the cost of publishing is absorbed by these open access platforms through philanthropic efforts, sponsorship, or submission fees paid by the authors, etc., but the bottom line is that there’s typically little profit to be made by academics, researchers, and authors who publish in open access platforms. Thus, the motivation for researchers–either individually or nationally speaking–to publish in an open access platform is often more altruistic in nature, placing higher priority on the sharing of information than any potential gains or notoriety received from publishing, monetary or otherwise.  According to Lee & Haupt (2020), countries with lower GDP who were more severely affected by the pandemic were the most likely to increase participation in open access publishing and international research efforts. It would follow that decisions to increase open-access participation was also meant to illicit reciprocal behavior from other countries, and indeed, the majority of all “knowledge producing” countries increased their participation in open access publishing during the pandemic: “For each of the top 25 COVID-19 research-producing countries, there was a noticeably higher proportion of open-access articles on COVID-19 than during the past 5 years and on non-COVID-19…publications during the same period” (Lee & Haupt, 2020, para. 26).

In addition to the public health concerns that have motivated scholars and researchers to participate in more information sharing during the pandemic, it must also be said that the act of collaboration has gotten exponentially easier in recent years.  In a 2010 publication, Iorio et al. discuss the use of digital tools designed to facilitate international collaboration and interaction amongst higher education scholars.  In this specific case, domestic teams in five different areas of the world were attempting to complete an integrative design task which required synchronous virtual meetings, a way to exchange ideas, brainstorm, and problem solve in real time (though not necessarily synchronously), as well as an appropriate digital repository for their work (building plans, model mapping, cost estimates, etc.) which could be accessed frequently by the members of each team in their respective countries.  The article focused its efforts on reviewing the virtual reality platform Second Life. To me, Second Life now feels woefully insufficient as a project management platform, at least according to 2021 standards, but at the time, the authors found Second Life to be a comparatively “appealing choice” due to its options for customization and tools such as virtual white boards, voice and text chat, scheduling agents, etc., all in one centralized, virtual location. Second Life aside, the authors noted that “To date, very few technological options exist that provide all of [the needed] functionalities to distributed networks. Commonly used tools such as email, instant messaging, and teleconferencing do not provide a framework for interaction that fully satisfies the demands of geographically distributed projects.”

Sample of a virtual meeting room in Second Life; image courtesy of https://marketplace.secondlife.com

In short, Second Life was more or less the best this research team could find in 2010. Since then, there’s been a massive influx of virtual project management/collaboration platforms introduced to the market.  Consider the list below of some of the “big names” in collaboration software along with their launch dates:

This list represents nine, powerhouse collaboration platforms, all of which rolled out between 2010 and 2020, and many of which depend heavily on the power and popularity of cloud storage or cloud computing (which was also expanding significantly during this time frame).  And please note: this list is hardly exhaustive.  There are many more out there (and counting!), and even the ones on this list are constantly being updated and expanded.  Each platform or collection of tools on this list boasts its own strengths and weaknesses (the exploration of which is not the point of this post), but there can be no doubt that no matter the platform, it is easier to make the choice to communicate, collaborate, and innovate with people all over the world in 2021 than it was even ten years ago.  Of course, not only have the tools themselves gotten better, but the pandemic has accelerated digital tool adoption for purposes of collaboration at an extraordinary rate, popularizing already existing tools (e.g.. Zoom teleconferencing) in unprecedented ways, such that millions, if not billions, of students and professionals in myriads of settings worldwide are collaborating and problem solving virtually across distances in ways they were not one year ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark realization the fact that we need ‘global solutions to global challenges’ (Buitendijk et al, 2020) and that we need not relegate the phenomena of increased global collaboration in higher education to a particular moment in time.  Instead, we might view this as an opportunity to challenge the model of competition between higher education institutions and place lasting value on diversified bodies of knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption (Buitendijk et al, 2020).  We might also recognize that a philosophy of collaboration makes it possible for students and lecturers in all types of higher education settings to have more equal roles in creating content, sharing resources, and asking/answering important questions (Cronina et al., 2016).  As centers of research all over the world, universities have a crucial role to play in helping humans to better care for one another on a global scale, teaching us to become “more empathic, less competitive, and more networked in our research and educational activities” (Buitendijk, 2020).  Let us not lose the momentum of this moment to embrace a new norm in higher education, maintaining a sincere commitment to, and value of, community-minded research and collaboration across borders.

For further discussion on this topic, consider viewing this 60-minute webinar, “The impact of COVID-19 on University Research and International Collaborations” offered through the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education. The webinar was recorded in August of 2020.

References:

Buitendijk, B., Ward, H., Shimshon, G., Sam, A., & Sharma, D. (2020). COVID-19: An opportunity to rethink global cooperation in higher education and research. BMJ Global Health. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2020-002790

Cronina, C., Cochraneb, T.,  & Gordonc, A. (2016). Nurturing global collaboration and networked learning in higher education. Research in Learning Technology, 24

Iorio, J., Peschiera, G., Taylor, L., & Korpela, L. (2010). Factors impacting usage patterns of collaborative tools designed to support global virtual design project networks. Journal of Information Technology Design in Construction, 16, 209-230. https://itcon.org/papers/2011_14.content.08738.pdf

Lee, J., & Haupt, J. (2020). Scientific globalism during a global crisis: research collaboration and open access publications on COVID-19. Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00589-0


National Science Foundation (2019). Publications Output: U.S. Trends and International Comparisons. National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20206/executive-summary

Assessment in higher education during COVID-19 and beyond: Will it ever be the same?

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Perhaps the word “unprecedented” has been overused in recent months, but it consistently seems to be the most fitting word to express the seismic shifts in all areas of life that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. As K-12 and higher education institutions worldwide have grappled with rapid pivots to online teaching and learning (and have continued in these blended and fully remote modalities for much longer than anticipated), academics are now taking a moment to reflect on the past year and its lasting implications for the world of education.  After all, as business theory would posit, disruption leads to innovation.

As an educator interested in online teaching/learning in post-secondary education, I would specifically like to explore how the last year of remote learning has impacted assessment strategies in higher education. How have widespread shifts to online teaching/learning impacted college students’ abilities to demonstrate competency in varied and student-driven ways?  Higher education is notoriously “old school,” and post-secondary classes are most frequently  lecture-based, led by instructors who are slower to adapt to more progressive, student-driven pedagogies.  And yet, as universities across the U.S. have made college and graduate school entrance exams like the SAT, ACT, and GRE optional for applicants in 2020 and 2021, a world beyond high stakes standardized testing can perhaps be imagined now more than ever.

Higher education instructors worldwide are already engaging in this issue and offering recommendations for ongoing change.  Perhaps surprisingly, some of the first publications I encountered came from educators in the graduate medical school community in both Australia and Pakistan. This was particularly striking since the medical sciences require lab work and clinical assessments which are particularly challenging to address in remote situations, as well as the fact that the medical sciences have long required high stakes testing at many stages of a medical student’s training.

According to Torda (2020), many medical school instructors in Australia have moved to lower the stakes of traditional written or multiple choice exams delivered online during the pandemic.  At the same time, a shift has been made to put more weight on multi-sourced feedback and student portfolios.  Where clinicals are concerned, simulation platforms such as the OSPIA (Online Simulated Patient Interaction and Assessment) system have been leveraged to bridge the gap until in-person clinicals may safely resume.  Another significant shift has been an emphasis on measuring a student’s ability to exhibit key professional skills, known in the medical community as “Entrustable Professional Activities,” over and above written examinations (Torda, 2020)..  In other words, students are being assessed on their ability to apply their learning in professionally relevant contexts.  Some of these skills include, but are not limited to, recommending and interpreting common diagnostic and screening tests, providing a (virtual) oral presentation of a clinical encounter, forming clinical questions and retrieving evidence to advance patient care, and collaborating with professional colleagues (Torda, 2020).  It was noted that, taken as a whole, these measures go a long way toward easing test anxiety and motivations to cheat in an otherwise high stakes, demanding field of study (Torda, 2020).

Additional examples of altered assessment strategies in the medical community have been reported in Pakistan.  Similar to Torda (2020), Khan and Jawaid (2020) posit that the pandemic has necessitated lowering the stakes of online-proctored, traditional exams.  The authors advocate for the use of student portfolios and video evidence of professional tasks completed, as well as synchronous open book exams.  The authors note that the aim of synchronous open book exams “…is to assess the ability of students to analyze and solve a problem, [and to] assess critical thinking and creativity. With open book exams taken in real time, the issues of cheating can be minimized.” (Khan & Jawaid, 2020, p. 109)

Changes in higher education assessment have also been reported in the United States. In June of 2020, Natasha Jankowski, in partnership with the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), spearheaded a higher education survey meant to capture “a snapshot of assessment-related changes made during Spring 2020 in response to the sudden shift to remote instruction…” (Jankowski, 2020, p. 3). The survey included responses from faculty and staff at 624 different institutions, both public and private, with representation from all 50 states. The survey sought to record learning changes that higher education instructors were making, the impacts of those changes on assessment culture, and the role of student voice in the decisions (Jankowski, 2020).  The survey results showed that 97% of respondents made learning, instructional, and assessment changes of some kind during Spring 2020. Changes included modifying assignments and assessments, allowing flexibility in assignment deadlines, shifting to a pass/fail grading model, and modifying assessment reporting deadlines.  Though some respondents made changes that included accepting alternative assignments, this was a less often made change (Jankowski, 2020).  The survey also showed “…that assessment-related changes were undertaken to address student needs” (p. 3).  However, these changes may have had more to do with faculty/staff perception of student needs as opposed to action taken in direct response to student reports: “Information gathered from students was less likely to influence decisions on what to change, and students were less likely to be asked to identify their needs prior to decisions being made.” (p. 3) Consequently, it might be hard to define many of these changes in assessment as authentically “student-driven.” 

Nevertheless, it seems that the pandemic has disrupted “business as usual” in higher education such that many of the changes reported above may in fact have lasting impact with increasing opportunity for student voice to take a front seat in decision-making.  Dr. Funmi Amobi of Oregon State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning puts forth compelling arguments in favor of  “reimagining” assessment in higher education in light of the lessons we’ve learned in the pandemic (Amobi, 2020).  Amobi asserts that the radical move to remote instruction has “refocused attention on improving assessment practices to alleviate student stress and anxiety, emphasize learning, and redress inequities in student success.” (par. 2)  The author goes further and provides seven practical strategies for reimagining assessment in higher education.  Though these strategies can certainly be used effectively in remote learning environments, they are not only meant to solve problems related to online teaching and learning.  The strategies presented by Amobi (2020) should be taken seriously by all higher education instructors wanting to diversify their approach to assessments and create more student-centered learning experiences: 

  1. Use short, weekly quizzes to assess students formatively, and consider making the quizzes cumulative so that they may contribute to a summative assessment score.
  2. Ask for justification on multiple choice tests and grade the response instead of the answer.
  3. Create opportunities for collaborative, group tests.
  4. Have students construct exam questions themselves as a way of reviewing and exercising higher order thinking skills; then, include many of the student questions on the exam.
  5. Allow for notes or a study card and have students submit the prepared materials for credit along with the actual exam.
  6. Utilize practice tests.
  7. Spend time reviewing exams to address misunderstandings and improve future performance; consider giving credit for thoughtfully corrected exams where learning is evident.

In each of the reviewed publications, certain recurring themes were readily apparent: 1) it may be high time for colleges and universities to rethink the value of high stakes testing 2) varied assessment strategies allow for a more effective presentation of student learning 3) assessment is part of the overall learning process and should not be divorced from student voice 4) varied assessment strategies reduce test anxiety and the motivation to cheat (the ladder being oft-cited as a obstacle in online assessment). 

We must avoid the underlying assumption that more technology is needed in order to solve the problems that technology introduces.  In other words, as the pandemic continues to require extended engagement in remote teaching, higher education instructors must not assume that the only way to assess online is to find a way to virtually proctor the same exam that would normally be given in a physical classroom (Kumar, 2020).  Instead, educators at all levels may take this opportunity to make meaningful changes to their use of assessments, both now and into the future, thinking critically and creatively about how to best meet students where they’re at.  

References:

Amobi, F. (2020, November 12). Reimagining assessment in the pandemic era: Comprehensive assessment of student learning. OSU Center for Teaching and Learning. https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/osuteaching/2020/11/12/reimagining-assessment-in-the-pandemic-era-comprehensive-assessment-of-student-learning/

Jankowski, N. A. (2020). Assessment during a crisis: Responding to a global pandemic. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. https://public.uhcl.edu/education/centers-initiatives/planning-assessment/documents/niloa-covid-assessment-report.pdf

Khan, R. A. & Jawaid, M. (2020). Technology Enhanced Assessment (TEA) in COVID 19 Pandemic. Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences 36, 108-110. 10.12669/pjms.36.COVID19-S4.2795

Kumar, R. (2020). Assessing higher education in the COVID-19 era.  Brock Education Journal 29(2), 37-4. https://journals.library.brocku.ca/brocked

Torda, A, (2020). How COVID‐19 has pushed us into a medical education revolution. Internal Medicine Journal 15(9), (1150-1153).  https://doi.org/10.1111/imj.14882