Vol. 16, No.2 of the Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education (JCIHE) explores digitalization in the COVID and post-COVID era in 13 countries and regions around the world: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Caribbean, China, Ethiopia, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico, United Kingdom, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

In their introductory article, Hans G. Schuetze, Wietse de Vries, and Germán Álvarez Mendiola state:

The articles in this Special Issue show the many commonalities and challenges of the transformation to a digital state and society, but also significant differences between them, especially between the countries of the ‘global North’ and the ‘global South.’ However, these differences stem mostly from governmental policy decisions regarding higher education, more so than technological dimensions of digitalization or the stages of economic development.

The main themes

Taken together, the articles in this issue suggest widespread, steady and sustainable growth in digital learning globally, but much more so in some countries than others for the following reasons:

The importance of a national digital infrastructure for digital learning

Widespread and affordable technology infrastructure, including home- and work-based broadband internet access, and home and work-based computing facilities, are essential for  effective implementation and adoption of digital learning. This includes already existing widespread general digital skills in the general public. However in countries, especially in the global south, with widespread economic and social inequities, digital learning in itself merely widens the gaps in equity. In this respect it is interesting to compare Australia and Canada with similar levels of economic development, but the use of digital learning appears to be much more prevalent in Canada than Australia, mainly because Canada appears to have a more widely accessible digital infrastructure.

Government policy matters

However, the digital infrastructure is only one factor; government policies regarding digitalisation nationally or in higher education in particular varied widely from country to country. Government policies in countries such as China, Vietnam and the European Union  have not only strongly impacted the adoption of digitalisation throughout their economies in general, but also have also affected the adoption of digital learning; government policies in other countries, such as Brazil or Mexico, have been weak or ineffective and as a result the take-up and effectiveness of digital learning has been less effective.

Variations in academic culture

Academic culture varies considerably from country to country and affects the acceptance or rejection of digital learning; for instance although in many ways their economies and government policies regarding digital learning are similar, digital learning is much more widespread in Korea and Vietnam than in Japan. Views on academic freedom and the purpose of higher education vary not only between also within countries and can result in barriers to the adoption of digital learning

There is no single model of digital learning in HEIs

Digital learning in HEIs takes many forms which vary from country to country; for instance open online courses or ‘China’ MOOCS, developed by leading HEIs in China, have resulted in widespread adoption and integration within the whole HEI system in China, and especially in blended learning. Digital learning seems to be limited to a small number of institutions in some countries (such as the Open University of Japan) and in other countries is used to some degree in nearly all HEI institutions (Canada, for example).

The impact of Covid

Many of the articles emphasised the extent to which Covid-19 changed views and practices regarding digital learning. Perhaps the most important is that it resulted in some governments (for instance Japan) dropping barriers to using online and distance education credits towards a degree. Brazil however cancelled a whole a year of studies during Covid because of lack of digital infrastructure to support emergency online delivery (compare this with South Africa, where at least one institution paid a yearly fee to a national telecom company to enable all its students and staff to have Internet access during Covid.).

In some countries, such as Japan and Mexico, articles claim that universities have reverted back entirely to in-person teaching, but in many others, Covid enabled a big leap forward in digital learning.

Moral and ethical issues

There are several articles in this edition that question the moral and ethical foundations of digital learning.

One article examines in particular ethical issues regarding the use of big data (although to be honest, although interesting – I liked ‘the ethics of a horse’ analogy – I did not find this very helpful in practical terms); two others (one from Mexico and one from Australia) view digital learning  through the lens of neoliberalism; the article from Australia included the following statement: ‘The LMS…is indicative of a business model templated hegemony with a focus on managerialism, analytics, integration to other dominant systems and a standardised manner for packaging and sharing knowledge.’ Substitute ‘The large lecture classroom‘ for ‘LMS‘ in the sentence and see if it still makes sense.


I found that for an academic journal, most of the articles were very interesting, although they ranged considerably in quality and method.

I also wonder about the accuracy in reflecting what is happening across a whole, often very large, country, in some of the articles. At least two articles drew national (or even global) conclusions from a case study of one institution. In particular the two articles on Mexico made no reference to the two main institutions using digital learning, Universidad de Guadalajara or Tec de Monterrey, and the coverage of Australia was limited to one institution, whereas online and distance learning is widespread in Australia, but varies a great deal between different institutions. However, I suppose it doesn’t matter if one considers digital learning a hegemony.

These are minor criticisms though. The articles provide in a relative short space a global if somewhat selective overview of the state of digital learning, and raise a number of important issues surrounding digital learning in higher education.


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