SOUTH African universities are currently considering the future of teaching and learning after the rapid shift to emergency remote teaching and learning in 2020 and 2021. During this time, two narratives have (re)emerged. One implies that teaching and learning online is more difficult or demanding than in-person education. The other that it’s not as good as in-person teaching and learning.
In the South African higher education context these concerns seem to be closely tied to staff burnout and to the inequities and complexities of the sector, which were amplified by emergency remote teaching and learning.
There were many equity and inequality issues in South Africa higher education prior to the pandemic. Strategies have been designed to create a more equitable higher education system. Still, as the COVID-19 pandemic has so starkly reminded us, challenges remain. Now is the time to continue focusing on addressing inequities rather than citing them as a reason not to change.
Our argument is based on our work in the field of online teaching and learning and informed by our experiences of moving to emergency remote learning at a South African university during the pandemic. We developed a support strategy for staff and students and this gave us insight into their challenges and needs.
Online teaching and learning before COVID-19
Open distance learning and online learning in higher education are nothing new. Pedagogically sound curricula had been delivered in fully online modes long before 2020. But integrating technology into teaching and learning has long been a point of contention in contact universities globally. Part of the reason is the way online tools were sold to higher education institutions, with little consideration to managing the associated changes.
Academics were often “thrown in at the deep end” with little pedagogical training or guidance on the use of the technology. Online and blended learning became the province of the early adopters and those brave enough to persevere. And expectations created by software companies weren’t always met.
Emergency remote teaching and learning
COVID-19 forced the rapid upskilling of academics and students to teach and learn remotely in ways unfamiliar to most. Emergency remote teaching and learning is by no means the same as authentic online or blended teaching and learning. The latter is usually carefully planned and designed over a long period, before the launch of carefully crafted learning experiences. And students have the choice to sign up for that mode of delivery. In contrast, in an emergency mode, some curricula were reduced to a bare minimum.
Nonetheless, the emergency shift enabled academics to begin to question some long-held assumptions about in-person teaching and learning. It raised questions about the role of the classroom, the lecturer and the way students learn. This can lead to improved practices in the sector.
The change undoubtedly placed immense strain on academics and students alike. And this came on top of many systemic factors that have been increasing the pressures experienced by academics over the last two decades. However, it is not online learning that led to this strain, but the transition to a different way of teaching and learning during a pandemic.
A Department of Higher Education and Training survey of nearly 49,000 students from 24 higher education institutions in South Africa found that 96% of those who responded had learning devices in 2020, of whom 89% had smartphones. But half of all respondents found a smartphone difficult to use for learning.
More shocking are the findings of another survey of just over 13,000 students which revealed that just over 40% of respondents could not buy their own food during the pandemic, about 30% didn’t have a suitable study space, 6% reported not having electricity, and more than 40% felt socially isolated.
Yet these realities were not new. Emergency and remote teaching and learning has brought them to the fore.
While some may cite pedagogical reasons for returning to the classroom, it’s likely to shift focus away from these uncomfortable truths once more. Reverting to pre-pandemic ways could simply dim the spotlight and allow for a continuation of what had been. Rather, we argue for developing more inclusive and better teaching and learning practices as the sector moves beyond emergency mode.
Towards a realistic view of the future
Now is the time to use the lessons learned from this disruption, while being realistic about the sector’s context. First, there’s a need to untangle conflated perceptions of emergency and authentic teaching and learning. Academics must reflect and learn from what has been developed over the last 18 months. They must guard against silencing a conversation about entrenched inequalities.
Second, academics must remember that social learning doesn’t only occur on campus. It can happen in online spaces. The sector should aim to enhance student learning experiences.
Third, the fact that emergency and remote teaching and learning has introduced new (or at least previously undervalued) ways of engaging with students must be acknowledged. This enhances academics’ ability to respond to the expressed needs of students. Now is the time to have uncomfortable conversations, grapple with the realities laid bare by unusual times, and imagine new possibilities.
Fiona MacAlister, the project manager for online learning at the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management in the University of the Witwatersrand, also contributed to this article.