22 July 2020

75 for UN75: A Conversation on Technology and Higher Education

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and as part of its 75th anniversary initiative (UN75), United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) is hosting the "75 for UN75: 75 Minutes of Conversation" series of online dialogues with academics, educators, researchers and students around the world, to discuss their priorities for the future, obstacles to achieving them, and the role of global cooperation in managing global issues. On 15 July 2020, UNAI hosted a Portuguese-language  webinar on the theme Technology and Higher Education: Virtual Research and Education in the New Normal as part of the " 75 for UN75: 75 Minutes of Conversation" series of online dialogues.

This year, 143 countries have implemented nationwide closures of educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected over 1 billion learners worldwide. These extraordinary times will eventually give way to a “new normal” in all sectors of society, including education. In this webinar, five speakers from Brazil, Cabo Verde and Portugal addressed topics including the impact of the pandemic on the academic community, lessons learned from the crisis and the role of technology in the new normal.

The event was opened by Rebeca Otero, Coordinator of the Education Department of UNESCO Brazil. For Ms. Otero, one of the main lessons highlighted by the pandemic is that “we are all in the same sea of problems, but not in the same boat of solutions.”  Affected students face diverse realities and decision makers who are making policies to address the global education disruption need to take into consideration the range of challenges students face. “We were not prepared for such a large-scale disruption. The disadvantaged students have found it difficult to continue their studies. The truth is that we will keep discussing and studying the effects of COVID-19 on education, but we will only understand its real impact after a long time.”

Antonio Andrade, Professor and Researcher in Technology and Education at the Catholic University of Portugal, agreed that higher education needs to adapt to the individual needs of students, many of whom need to take care of their children at home while they study. Others may not have access to high-speed internet, or a quiet space for studying at home. These challenges make it difficult for students to concentrate on virtual classes. “We realized that not everyone can enjoy online studies,” said Professor Andrade. “We are now studying and researching the use of technology in learning, thinking of people with specific difficulties in their family contexts. I believe it is possible to do more and better without necessarily making big financial investments.”

Addressing the role of educators in the virtual learning environment, Magno Hernany, Director of the Center for Distance Learning Support, University of Cabo Verde, highlighted the importance of teaching students to be “co-responsible” for their own education: “The student needs to seek his or her intellectual independence, discover his or her self-learning processes, and break from traditional teaching paradigms.”

According to Joziana Barçante, Vice Dean of Research at the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil, it is indeed time to think outside the box and seek interdisciplinary alternatives to maintain the viability of research and education in the world. Domingos Andrade, Professor and Researcher in Educational Software, University of Cape Verde, complemented this thought when he mentioned that teachers had to take on the role of psychological counselors since the beginning of the pandemic “to keep the students motivated despite all the anxiety in the atypical moment.”

The event ended with a Q&A session between the participants and the speakers, involving issues related to the contribution of academia in achieving the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the humanization of education during this unprecedented time, and the challenges faced by developing countries in keeping up with the technological updates that virtual education requires.

Additional resources:

UN75 Webinar Portuguese