UNESCO learning cities' responses to COVID-19 – outcomes of webinar on 15 April


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22 April 2020

The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar on higher education institutions’ support for local communities on 15 April 2020 as part of its ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. A global overview of priority areas was provided by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO-IESALC), followed by presentations on initiatives by several higher education institutions, including the American University in Cairo, the University of Glasgow, the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia. More than 150 UNESCO GNLC members, city representatives and education stakeholders from around the world participated.

In her welcoming address, Ms Edith Hammer (UIL) stated that the webinar would explore different ways in which higher education institutions are supporting local communities during the pandemic, within the wider framework of cities’ response strategies to COVID-19. It is clear that the outbreak has had a direct impact on students, whose learning has been discontinued or moved online, but it has also influenced institutions’ capacities to promote lifelong learning and to engage with local communities. Higher education institutions have a broad range of resources to offer in response to the pandemic, including a vast research base and expertise in different disciplines, which can shape the public discourse and contribute to the dissemination of fact-based and accurate information. Furthermore, many universities already have experience in innovative teaching methodologies: online and blended learning are in place in many institutions, meaning they are well positioned to support local communities and other learning institutions with the sudden and widespread shift to online learning. The great challenge for all higher education institutions is ensuring that the right to quality education and lifelong learning is not compromised by this pandemic.

Ms Hammer also provided some details about UIL’s fledgling international research project – conducted in partnership with Shanghai Open University – on higher education institutions’ contributions to lifelong learning. This project will feature an international survey and detailed analysis of how the lifelong learning agenda is shaping transformation processes within the higher education sector.

UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO-IESALC)

Dr Francesc Pedró, Director of UNESCO-IESALC, spoke about a report just issued by the institute on COVID-19 and higher education, which addresses three main areas: impact analysis (the effects of the pandemic on various actors, as well as the offer and supply of higher education); policy responses (a landscape of responses at government and institutional levels); and recommendations (all based on a series of fundamental principles). A key finding of the report was that there was no time for higher education institutions to prepare for closures: in cities across the region, there was a sudden surge – within the space of a few days around the middle of March – in the numbers of students and teachers affected by closures. Institutions have worked towards ‘business continuity’, attempting to mitigate learning interruption by moving online, but there is a question mark over capacity. Percentages of households with internet connection by world region reveal that, in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia and the Pacific, a majority of households lack connectivity.

Dr Pedró argued that the current impacts of the pandemic on higher education are easily documented, yet it is difficult to anticipate which impacts will leave their mark on groups of actors in the medium and long term. It could be that there is a rise in the demand for higher education once the virus is under control: young adults witnessing the economic consequences of COVID-19 may seek refuge in higher education and wait for better employment prospects before entering (back) into the labour market. Additionally, it is widely expected that universities will see reductions in their budgets, potentially proving catastrophic for small private institutions. Forward-looking policy-making is needed, and it is underpinned by several fundamental principles: ensuring the right to higher education for all; leaving no student behind; reviewing current regulatory frameworks and policies; preparing in time for the resumption of face-to-face classes; rethinking and redesigning teaching and learning processes; and generating greater resilience in the sector.

The American University in Cairo, Egypt

Ms Malak Zaalouk, Professor of Practice and Director of the Middle East Institute for Higher Education (MEIHE) at the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Graduate School of Education, reported that her institution was already civically engaged and had community-based programmes in place before the spread of COVID-19; this has helped the university to respond quickly to the pandemic. In consultation with the Government of Egypt, AUC was the first higher education institution in the country to model a full lockdown and wholesale shift to online teaching, which other institutions subsequently followed. The university maintains regular online communication on COVID-19 while its Adult and Continuing Education programme has also moved online, ensuring the continuation of learning opportunities for local communities during the pandemic.

Students have remained socially engaged in recent weeks, in part through the implementation of online awareness campaigns about the psychological and physical effects of the virus, including preventative measures. They have also shared hotline numbers provided by the Ministry of Health, coordinated with external service providers to deliver essentials to elderly populations, and distributed sanitizers, masks and other hygiene products to vulnerable groups. Across these activities, student groups have coordinated with charities and other local organizations.

In other health-related developments, the university has provided its wider community with online counselling services for mental well-being, while working to extend coverage to include local schools. Other public universities in Egypt have been active in responding to COVID-19. Helwan University students have supplied medical professionals with protective equipment, while Ain Shams University has been exploring options for the production of affordable ventilators. Ms Marie Macauley (UIL), in her capacity as moderator of the webinar, asked how student engagement came about at AUC. Ms Zaalouk replied that it has largely been born out of bottom-up initiatives, though the institution supports student clubs, which were active before the pandemic and already working with NGOs and local community groups.

University of Glasgow, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Prof. Michael Osborne, Professor of Adult and Lifelong Learning and Director of Research, School of Education, University of Glasgow, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, provided an insight into his institution’s responses to COVID-19. There, all teaching has moved online, and the university is preparing for an indefinite delay to the start of the next academic year. Modified arrangements have been made for examinations and other assessments, students in need have received financial support packages, and fieldwork and other events have been postponed.

The University of Glasgow has supported community-based learning by adapting general interest courses for adults so that they are accessible online. ‘Art in a time of crisis’, organized in collaboration with the Centre for Open Studies and Hunterian Museum, involves 20-minute short lectures, while other lectures on civil engagement and various concepts, ideas and philosophies have also been made available.

To support Scotland-wide responses to the virus, the School of Education at the University of Glasgow is working with the Scottish Government to further develop a COVID-19 communications toolkit for the general public and is using emerging evidence from national and international networks to support educational leaders and policy-makers to develop informed responses. In terms of students’ social engagement, ‘Food for Glasgow’ has been set up as a group to coordinate emergency food provision in the city and support has been extended to migrants and refugees.

Finally, the University of Glasgow has mobilized its expertise in response to COVID-19 by working with care homes to organize remote mental healthcare sessions (led by the School of Engineering), hosting a major coronavirus testing facility, aiding medical advancements through its Centre for Virus Research, providing advice on ‘pop-up networking solutions’ for ad hoc clinics and testing centres in parking lots, and advising the municipal government on the use of vehicles to provide transport to critical health workers.

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile

Prof. Patricio Donoso Ibáñez, Head of Managerial Institutional Affairs at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, highlighted several ways in which the university has been providing learning opportunities for local communities during the pandemic. He first noted that online teaching began there much earlier than in other institutions around the world: many courses moved online at the end of last year due to civil unrest. Currently, there are open online courses, webinars and videos available to different groups of learners, covering virus-related topics including the safe use of personal protective equipment and basic respiratory care for critically ill people. The Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile is offering 20 free massive open online courses (MOOCs) on the Coursera platform, as well as another 35 online courses to support small and medium enterprises in response to COVID-19.

The university has provided support to local neighbourhoods and families through training related to mental health and the prevention of domestic violence, and is further supporting the national effort in Chile by contributing to a national governmental committee and working towards increased testing, improved detection of COVID-19 cases and contact tracing, and interdisciplinary research projects. One intersectoral initiative is ‘Project Hope’ – a joint effort between the university, an international mining company and local health authorities to provide community-based mass detection and surveillance systems. Other medical-related actions undertaken at the university include work led by the School of Biology to find a vaccine for the virus and students’ preparation and distribution of virus self-care kits for vulnerable populations.

Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia

Mr Abiy Menkir Gizaw, Lecturer and Community Service Director of the Department of Adult Education and Community Development at Bahir Dar University, presented the current situation at his institution, where all classes have been halted and students provided with reading materials to continue their studies remotely. Leaflets featuring information about COVID-19 have been distributed among students and members of the local community, and the university’s medical experts have provided training for regional health professionals. Similar to the other institutions participating in this webinar, Bahir Dar University has been mobilizing student volunteers to support the community in responding to the pandemic – in this case, specifically from the fields of health and textile engineering. Unfortunately, technical issues cut Mr Gizaw’s presentation short, but you can find more information here.


Moderator Ms Macauley opened up the debate by asking participants whether students had remained on campus or returned home as the pandemic developed and how initiatives had been logistically implemented. Ms Zaalouk answered that students of the American University in Cairo were not permitted to remain on campus, nor were teachers/lecturers, in order to preserve the health of all students and staff. All communication has since been conducted online, with technical support provided by the university. An additional question concerned higher education institutions’ capacities to engage with those who do not have internet access; Mr Ibáñez explained that the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile worked to identify students with connection issues – made possible by its already active role in local communities – and allocate resources to support them, for example by arranging satellite connections in some regions. Prof. Osborne noted that, at the University of Glasgow, less formal initiatives and close work with community organizations have proven effective. In response to a question about universities’ long-term preparations, Ms Zaalouk asserted that an eventual return to face-to-face learning will require careful planning, while Prof. Osborne differentiated between two phases of the COVID-19 response: the first phase is focused on quality teaching and learning, with the next phase looking more at the long-term impact of social engagement with communities.


GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the GNLC webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the four previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Mexico City (Mexico), Bogotá (Columbia), Lima (Peru) - Outcomes of webinar on 9 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March

Don’t miss the opportunity to join our upcoming webinars. Further details can be found at https://uil.unesco.org/event/gnlc-webinars-unesco-learning-cities-response-covid-19.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw

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