Within a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe, and has challenged many of the taken for granted assumptions and practices inherent in higher education. The manner in which students engage in teaching and learning at universities and colleges across the world has had to dramatically shift almost overnight. In most instances, face-to-face classes have been cancelled and learning has moved online, in order to prevent the further spread of the virus. In South Africa, the continued struggle to overcome poverty and lack of access has meant that many institutions of higher learning were forced to suspend all academic activities whilst trying to find workable solutions to continue the academic year in a manner that leaves no student behind.
Globally, the short-term has been characterised by hurried strategies to put emergency teaching plans in place. Quick decisions have been needed concerning the financial futures of universities and their faculty. The long-term implications of the virus are undeniable and as we enter into a period of uncertainty, it is necessary to reflect on the character of higher education into the future.
Inspired by a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, we reached out to some of the SACAP staff and educators to ask them for their views on how they thought the Coronavirus might change higher education in the future and here is what they had to say.
Inequality Exposed. New Modes of Learning Critical.
TheCOVID-19 crisis has undeniably exposed the inequality inherent in higher education, not only in South Africa, but across the world. Dr Ashley Smyth, Academic Dean of SACAP, suggests that:
“Lower-income students may suffer disproportionately to students able to afford online resources, such as PCs and high-speed-internet access, to enable them to succeed in an online-learning environment. Currently there is no clear equity template of how to deal with this, and major concerns exist on how to address the impact on learners from low income and disadvantaged groups.”
Dr Poppy Masinga, Social Worker and Educator on SACAP’s Pretoria Campus, echoes these concerns and focuses on the renewed investment required to tackle these challenges, saying:
“It is obvious that higher education institutions need to invest in infrastructure and other related resources to accommodate the current situation facing the country and the dire need to migrate to online teaching.”
Dr Masinga goes on to share her sentiments about whether online education can prove to be a long-term solution suggesting that:
“Higher education institutions need to realise that online teaching cannot and should not replace face-to-face teaching. A blended model will be required to meet the needs of the diverse cohort of students. The Department of Higher Education will have to find funding models that ensure that academic institutions are well equipped to deliver on online teaching and learning. It’s likely that although challenging, this kind of investment will ensure the robustness of higher education in a post COVID-19 world.”
It is in this post COVID-19 world that Dr Smyth encourages us to consider the potential innovation that we will witness in higher education:
“While the global higher education picture is alarming, it is not all bad. The emergence of COVID-19 also heralds an underlying excitement for changes that will see learners and solution providers truly embracing the ‘learning anywhere, anytime’ concept of digital education in a range of formats. The physical classroom environment will likely return at some point, but not the same as before. Exciting options for a blended approach to learning utilising both face-to-face faculty expertise with virtual resources, that only a year ago was not even dreamed of, is a likely transformative scenario.”
The Age of Online or Just Good Teaching and Learning.
But resources, both physical and virtual are only a small part of the kinds of change required in the higher education landscape. Carl Badenhorst, Head of Learning Design and Online Teaching at SACAP, brings to light the idea that it’s not so much about the introduction of technology in the ‘classroom’, but about innovation in teaching and learning, regardless of the mode. Badenhorst argues that while:
“Some have hailed this as the age of online learning but I don’t think it’s ever useful to dichotomise teaching and learning in this way. Misperceptions run deep, from the ideas of ‘going to class’ and attendance as a measure of learning through to equating the adoption of technology with ‘how-to’ guides. I think it may be presumptuous to make predictions at this stage, but what we should see is educators who start to see that learning innovation is about learning innovation and not about technology. This context is forcing us to be far more intentional about teaching and learning and to realise the extreme limitations that four walls can and do have on teaching and learning.”
Badenhorst goes on to suggest that the pandemic has brought to light the complacency that exists around teaching and learning generally in higher education, as the publish or perish culture ultimately related to the bottom line has become the focus of many universities globally. He believes that the current crisis has highlighted how critical good teaching is to the success of the university, suggesting:
“Institutions have had to decentralise themselves and the most critical success factor in this has been educators who have been able to adapt, to be empathic and to engage their students in the work of teaching and learning. These have proven to be the real leaders of higher education.”
Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of what Creston Davis, founder of The Global Centre for Advanced Studies, calls ‘an optimistic way forward for education’. That is a decentralised model built on the value of co-ownership where the strength lies in a global network of educators, and students who are able to immerse teaching and learning into our everyday day lives.
COVID-19 Did Not Disrupt Teaching and Learning. Being Accustomed with the Status Quo Did.
Finally, Dr Ngoni Chabuda, Business Professional and Educator in the Management and Leadership Faculty on the Pretoria campus, emphasises the need for an entrepreneurial mindset in education as we turn our attention the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Dr Chabuda offers a positive outlook for the future of higher education stating:
“If the truth be told, teaching and learning in general will NEVER be the same again post COVID-19. Whilst we drench ourselves in the misfortunes of C19, lest we forget about the opportunities it also presents. Educators are presented with opportunities to tap into their entrepreneurial, creative and innovative mindset to develop solutions that will influence teaching and learning. Education policy formulators are presented with the opportunity to implement blended learning. Teaching and learning as we know it in higher education has been presented with an opportunity to fully embrace 4IR or 4.0 to the extent that it revolutionises the industry. As educators we are agents of change and therefore should consider the upside of this pandemic and apply it in embracing the future”.
Time will tell what the full impact of the Coronavirus on higher education will be, both positive and negative. That being said, it is important that policy and decision makers, administrators, faculty and students don’t waste this opportunity to reflect; not just on the immediate solutions, but to seriously interrogate many of the often outdated and sometime harmful educational practices of the past. It is often said that it is in our most challenging times that we are able to make our greatest innovations. In these times, when our circumstances extend beyond anything we could have imagined, we see the world in a new light and with new clarity. We are in a position to imagine a new future for higher education in what will undoubtedly be a new world.
Written by: Dr Jaclyn Lotter (Deputy Dean)