Goldrick-Rab. S. et al. (2020) #RealCollege During the Pandemic The Hope Centre for College, Community and Justice Philadelphia: Temple University, June, pp. 22

Wasik, E. and Bray, M. (2020) Bridging the digital divide to engage students in higher education London: The Economist Intelligence Unit, December 15, 20 pp

McKenzie, L. (2021) Bridging the Digital Divide: Lessons from Covid-19 Washington DC: Inside Higher Education, February 2, 27 pp

It is not often you find two reports on higher education published within two months of each other with exactly the same title. The Economist report also directed me to a large survey of U.S. students of the pandemic’s impact on students, from their basic needs security to their well-being, as indicated by employment status, academic engagement, and mental health, which I address in the third post in this series.

In this post, I will focus on the Economist Intelligence Unit Report, in the next post on the Inside Higher Education report, and finally, in a third post, I will focus specifically on The Hope Centre’s report. 

I will provide a summary and analysis of each and then a comparison. However, you will find that these are three very different reports, even though they share the same topic.

The Economist: What is the report about?

[The report] explores the impact of the new higher education paradigm spurred by covid-19 on teaching and learning experiences, engagement, performance, and value….the report explores how covid-19 hit the “fast-forward” button on the remote education revolution, and its resulting impacts on teaching and learning. 

In particular: How do we engage (and retain) students in this brave, new learning normal?…it will investigate the pandemic’s impact on the higher education sector across and within specified countries (the US, UK, Australia and Germany)

Who did the report?

The Economist is an international political and economics journal with offices around the world. The study was sponsored by Microsoft. The study was conducted by Emily Wasil and Marianne Bray, both staff in the Economist Intelligence Unit, with input from ten ‘experts’:

  • Rebecca Frost Davis, associate vice president for digital learning, St. Edward’s University (a private, Catholic university with 3,500 students in Austin, Texas)
  • Kassie Freeman, founding president and CEO, African Diaspora Consortium
  • Douglas Harris, professor and department chair of economics, Tulane University
  • John Hattie, professor and director, Melbourne Education Research Institute (MERI), Melbourne Graduate School Of Education 
  • Michael Horn, author and co-founder, Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation
  • Michaela Martin, programme lead, higher education policy, governance and management, UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning
  • Christopher C. Morphew, dean, John Hopkins School of Education
  • Sara Goldrick-Rab, president and founder, Hope Center for College, Community and Justice
  • Dr. Stella L Smith, associate director, Minority Achievement, Creativity and High Ability (MACH III), Prairie View A&M University (a public, historically black university in Texas with just under 9,000 students)
  • Dr. Elizabeth J Stroble, president, Webster University (a private, Catholic university with just under 10,000 students based in Missouri but with multiple campuses.)

I have listed these as it may help to explain some of the findings of this report.


The only statements about methodology that I could find was this:

Through surveys targeting higher education faculty and students across the US, UK, Australia and Germany, 10 pioneering expert interviews, along with comprehensive desk research, this paper aims to explore the impact of the new higher education model spurred by covid-19 on teaching and learning experiences, engagement, performance, and value.

Underpinned by quantitative and qualitative research, the report will draw upon compelling insights from two multinational surveys targeting higher education faculty members and students respectively, leading expert interviews, and rigorous desk research. 

No information however is given about the surveys, how many participated, how the sample was chosen or even who conducted the data collection and analysis. There is not even a link to data from the report.

Conclusions in the report are supported by 29 highly selective blog posts, articles, and general reports on education. The report is primarily an opinion piece about the impact of Covid-19, drawing mainly on the experts listed above, with selected statistics from the unpublished survey to support conclusions.

Main findings/conclusions

  • Most higher education institutions were not yet on the digital transformation bandwagon before covid-19.
    • 82% of faculty members cited that less than half of their academic institutions’ courses were offered remotely prior to covid-19. 
  • Since the outbreak, however, the crisis has served as a catalyst for accelerating widespread digital adoption at an unprecedented rate.
    • Now, 83% of faculty members report that their institutions’ courses will be conducted all or mostly remote this academic term, and 62% say their institutions’ courses will be conducted all or mostly online for the coming academic year.
  • Most higher education students around the world reported not feeling mentally or academically prepared for the coming year.
    • A striking two thirds (66%) of students claimed they did not feel mentally prepared for the year ahead, and 6 in 10 students cited not feeling academically prepared. 
  • Adapting to new remote learning environments and maintaining student engagement have been the two most significant challenges facing both students and faculty since covid-19.
    • Almost half (48%) of students claim the pandemic has worsened their ability to remain focused and engaged. 
    • 6 in 10 faculty members reported a decline in student engagement
  • The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on education system disparities.
    • Over half of the surveyed students reported being concerned about adequate, equitable access to the technology and digital tools necessary to join remote classes since covid-19.
  • A lack of social connection has hindered student and faculty learning experiences. 
    • More than half of students cited limited engagement with fellow students as a significant challenge to remote learning.
    • One third of faculty echoed this sentiment, reporting minimal social interaction and community-building opportunities as a key obstacle.
  • Covid-19 has heightened student concerns about achieving optimal grades and securing a job after graduation.
    • One third of students have reported that the pandemic already affected their ability to perform well in assessments. 
    • Nearly half (46%) of students report being extremely concerned about their job prospects post-graduation. 
  • Higher education institutions have rapidly pivoted to adopt new technologies to deliver engaging learning experiences.
    • Most universities and colleges have implemented digital solutions such as video-conferencing tools, online platforms, web-based resources and live lectures.
    • Around one in four faculty have created hybrid learning models, upskilled staff and increased investments in technology.
  • To truly boost student engagement and learning outcomes, however, faculty needs to evolve from digital solutions to more flexible and active learning approaches.
    • One third of students said flexible learning and interactive methods are the most effective way to boost their engagement, and half cited flexible learning as providing the most benefit to their education experiences.
    • 86% of faculty are convinced that flexible assessment and tools will continue long-term.  
  • Most higher education faculty (85%) are convinced that covid-19 has accelerated the future of the remote learning revolution by a decade.
    • As a result of the crisis, the first half of 2020 was the largest half year for global edtech investment in over 10 years – at $4.5 billion – three times greater than the average 6-months of investment in the prior decade.
  • The pandemic has forced educators to rethink how teaching can best be used to deliver high teaching outcomes. 
    • Three quarters of students agree that technology and digital tools will not be a replacement for actual teachers and professors. 
    • A shared sentiment among the experts interviewed was that in-person learning is integral to cultivating higher-level cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making.
  • A key silver lining from covid-19’s cloud of disruption is its shattering of higher education’s stereotype of being slow to respond to change and wedded to tradition.
    • If anything, the sector’s response to the pandemic has underscored its ability to pivot rapidly and embrace a new pedagogical model.

What caught my attention though was that there were reported differences between faculty in Germany, the UK, USA and Australia. However, although it seemed to me from the report that acceptance of ‘remote’ learning in the future was lowest in Germany, then the UK, and highest in Australia, then the USA, the results were confusing. This is unfortunate, because a valid and reliable comparison of not just the overall acceptance of online learning, but its actual implementation, between the four countries would have been really valuable. I would have thought that with funding provided by Microsoft, this should have been possible, but this report really isn’t able to do that – it just drops hints and possibilities, based on who knows what kind of sample.

My comments

The report is full of dubious statistics about how unhappy students – and faculty – were about remote learning, which I am sure we are all aware of, but unfortunately there was no reporting or acknowledgement of all the research done on online learning prior to Covid-19 on how to engage and motivate online students. This is the real digital divide: between what is known about effective online learning and what was actually practiced during Covid-19.

In the end, there is a recognition in the report that technology alone is not enough. Two or three of the experts working in higher education cautioned that teaching methods have to change for online learning to succeed. For instance, Douglas Harris, professor and department chair of economics, Tulane University is quoted as follows:

transitioning to an online environment doesn’t just mean adopting new technologies to the same education methods. It changes the entire learning process, which means faculty must adapt their teaching approaches accordingly.

It took me a while to understand the title of this report. It turns out that the digital divide the writers are talking about is not the divide between rich and poor, Internet access or not, nor differences between USA, UK, Germany or Australia, but the divide between what the Economist or its selected experts believe could be done with remote learning, and the actual readiness of universities to move into remote learning.

In other words, it is pushing the Christensen Institute ‘disruptor’ theory – that technology will or could – change everything. In particular, it was pushing very hard the idea that there is lots of money for businesses to make in providing digital technology and services to universities – they are ripe for picking.

The Economist is an immensely influential journal with politicians and business people. With funding from Microsoft, there was a wonderful chance to collect valuable international comparative data and to identify some useful strategies to build on or mitigate the actual disruption caused by Covid-19. It is a more than a pity then that they didn’t do their research thoroughly or transparently. So, I think another real divide is between journalists who want a headline story, and researchers who are trying to understand exactly what is working and what isn’t in online and remote learning. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here