Blended teaching and learning post-CoVID requires different strategic, space and technological planning, academic experts advise

Published On: 14 July 2022|

Embracing the “new normal” of blended teaching and learning in higher education will need an integrated approach to strategic planning. This will have to include capacity planning, space planning norms and a new dimension technology planning.

This was the collective view of panellists who explored implications for higher education planning, of findings of two research studies completed in 2020 and 2021, respectively, to explore student and staff experiences during the CoVID-19 pandemic. The discussion took place during a symposium that was hosted on 28 June by Universities South Africa (USAf) in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education and the University of the Free State’s Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL).

Findings from the surveys – Students’ Access to and Use of Learning Materials (SAULM) and Staff Experiences of, and Perspectives on Teaching and Learning and its Future (SEP-TLF) – were presented to senior academics, policy makers and stakeholders, with the purpose of dissecting the implications thereof, for Planning, Funding andQuality Assurance.

The policy implications were dealt with in three distinct sessions.

For the planning part, moderator, Dr Oliver Seale, who is Director: Higher Education Leadership and Management at Universities SA (USAf) asked the three questions listed below, to which a panel of four senior leaders responded.

Question 1: What are the implications for planning equitable access to resources and infrastructure at national and institutional levels, as the basis for blended learning and teaching in the new normal?

Professor Cheryl Foxcroft (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching at Nelson Mandela University, said as universities moved beyond the pandemic, she saw a role for both contact and online learning (blended or hybrid). In support for what Professor Strydom had mentioned earlier, she supported the idea of a need to bolster institutions’ human resources alongside the information technology infrastructure.

She said if universities were going to create an engaging learning experience for their students by introducing innovative e-tivities, for example, they would need “more e-technologists and learning experience designers.”

At Nelson Mandela University, she said, making these appointments during the pandemic had ameliorated the angst that their academics had shown in their attempts to create exciting materials for their sites.

Acknowledging that the sector was financially constrained, Professor Foxcroft said there needed to be a conversation around “getting this kind of help as it enhances the quality and effect of the materials that students learn with.”

Regarding mental health, a subject that had been discussed widely during the symposium, Professor Foxcroft posed a question on resourcing institutions to address this challenge. “Is it about appointing more psychologists or figuring out what drives the issues?” She said good points had been mentioned about student and staff isolation and alienation as life spiralled out of control. These necessitated sparing a thought for resourcing for mental health within institutions.  The DVC added that at her institution, the Dean of Health Sciences had run a programme to teach coping skills to deal with the uncertainties of the time.

Ms Liana Griesel, Executive Director: Strategy, Planning and Quality Assurance at the University of South Africa,expressed belief that universities could not return to the old normal and that an integrated approach to strategic planning is needed. Her view was that old space planning norms and new technology planning norms were ‘lacking within the sector’.  These ‘disconnected levers for transformation’ were not seen as components of each other, thus impeding potential integration.

Ms Griesel said even though funding matters had been dedicated their own session, it would be remiss of her to discuss planning in isolation of funding. She particularly urged a re-think of higher education cost drivers. “The cost driver for face-to-face is changing; the cost driver for blended is now emerging; and the cost driver for distance education is blurring. It’s important to see these in relation to locationinteraction and intention — the three cost drivers that influence the way the future of higher education is funded.” She said if we look at the current funding principles, the block grants and earmarked grants, they are predominantly FTE [first-time-entering] driven and graduates driven.  She submitted that funding in the newly emerging mode of teaching and learning required new thinking around cost drivers in relation to the three principles mentioned earlier.

The problem lies with policy makers, she asserted.

“If we analyse this in isolation from the current strategic planning regimen within higher education, I think we’ll miss the boat. I believe the current strategic plan of every institution within the sector needs analysing. But that means we’d need to capacitate the sector.”

Turning to changing dynamics, she pointed at student profiling. “Five years ago, in many of our institutions, NSFAS [the National Student Financial Aid Scheme] funded students stood at 20%. Today, that figure is 75%.” She therefore concluded that instead of continuing with compliance-driven submissions to the DHET, the sector needed to think more holistically about what needs to change, going forward.

Dr Kirti Menon (left), Senior Director: Academic Planning, Quality Promotion and Professional Academic Staff Development at the University of Johannesburg, cited the areas below, as having offered lessons for the sector, during the pandemic:

  • The lack of agility with planning at national and institutional level. “The old adage of universities and Higher Education moving at the pace of elephants, which would have probably been true at some point, was proved incorrect during the pandemic.” This needs to be addressed.
  • Communication during the pandemic became critical at all levels. “We need to create new communication channels.”
  • Financial distress relief cannot be left to universities to resolve. In the face of financial constraints, this requires a re-think.
  • Strategic ‘ready-to-go’ planning at universities is critical, with far more extensive business contingency plans. To what extent has the sector learnt from the pandemic to prepare better for other looming crises – for example, Stage 6 rolling blackouts? What does that do for higher education, and to the country at large?
  • The sector must deliberate and reach consensus on: what is contact teaching and learning: what is hybrid and what is hyflex? What is the mode of delivery for each modality and what are the implications of each of these modalities in relation to the student’s course and in relation to the student’s year of study? What does it mean to be a first year and be fully online or hybrid? What do all these terminologies mean, and what does it mean in terms of us providing a higher education experience? Do we need a greater discussion given the funding implications of remote students? If we are to adopt technologies –and we shouldn’t do so in any blind way – do we need a discussion on remote students?
  • We need a greater discussion on the value of large classes teaching. What the pandemic has shown us with pedagogical discontinuities that we’ve had, is that large class teaching has probably never been valuable except for the first five rows. So, what particular lessons could we derive that we can take forward?
  • Space planninghow do we re-purpose and reimagine this? Do we do so as a sector or as individual universities? How we do it is absolutely critical to what we will ultimately achieve.

Professor Nomathemba Taukobong (left), Director: Institutional Planning at the Sefako Makgatho University of Health Sciences said, considering that universities are now being fast-tracked towards the blended mode of teaching and learning, “the way we do things has changed. This therefore calls for a review of policies at national level that will allow continuity, even in times of crises.

“We were made to provide devices, data and connectivity for our students. But that fund has ceased to exist, and we have to go back and find ways to provide support to our students.” This is where she said prescripts in policy would come in, to allow continuity “while we try to figure out what will work best for us” in future.

Acknowledging that institutions are not the same, and that some are not well resourced, Professor Taukobong encouraged collaborations at institutional level to enable the sharing of practices.

QUESTION 2: In what ways do we enable data analytics to inform planning and enhance effectiveness and efficiency?

Professor Taukobong said although using data analytics was nothing new, universities had perhaps not done so to promote efficiencies and to enable more effective future planning. “We need to encourage academics to use data to plan. We might have used dashboards before, but I do not think we have made them accessible to everyone in enabling them to change or plan for the future. In the same way that we provide data to the Department of Higher Education and Training annually and DHET uses that data to plan for the future, we need to make dashboards available to academics for institutional planning purposes, especially now as staff plan for teaching and learning in the blended mode.”

For her part, Dr Menon believes that data analytics and business intelligence at universities can be disintegrated and that “pulling it all together” is critical in charting the way forward.  She said data analytics are used “to understand which student is on NSFAS, what their performance level is, what their participation on a learning management system is, whether they were logging on, how long they spent on Blackboard and whether they completed assignments.

“At universities, this kind of information resides in several different locations. Bringing it all together to make sense in order to inform the way the university proceeds, is absolutely critical.”

Dr Menon said this was true for mental health, the data of which sits elsewhere.

At UJ, she said, a pandemic CoVID-19 coordination committee brought this data together on a weekly basis. “It was a critical lesson for us as a university. It enabled us to think more deeply about where we locate our data collection and how we bring it all together. That is a lesson we have to take forward to shape our future approaches to teaching, learning or fulfilling our functions as universities.”

Ms Griesel believes the Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) is not sufficient anymore, and that the need to create new data points, and quickly, is necessary. “We need to do this collaboratively – if we do it at our own pace and address our own individual challenges, we will compromise comparability and benchmarking, etc., among universities; not that we are in competition with one another, but I think this is an area for a shared service model of higher education.”

She offered the ideas below, as pointers to what could be improved in this regard:

  1. Data owners within universities need to be defined as soon as possible. At times, their disconnection compromises institutions and leaders’ ability to get real time data at the time of need.
  2. Breaking down silos requires a new typology of administrators to deal with this within universities.
  3. Investment in data analytics is too high for a single university, hence the need for a shared service model. “Let’s share expertise and not see this as competing with one another.”
  4. Finance, HR, ICT Executives need a new purpose in creating a shared understanding. There’s a single point of truth needed in the organisation to make real-time decisions.
  5. Institutions are rich in data but poor in information. New types of data are required on, for instance, what it costs to run an institution these days. This would be another example of a shared service model, to enable us to understand what it takes to provide higher education services.
  6. “Quality is not only about our programme qualification mix (PQM) and our curriculum. How do we reach and interact with our students? Those data points are crucial for us to assist leadership to make the right decisions at the right time with the right cost and the right funding.”

In her concluding response to the data analytics question, Professor Foxcroft said there was certainly value in the national surveys such as those presented by the UFS research team. She said surveys provided the opportunity for institutions to drill down into the data themselves. “At Nelson Mandela University, we took the learning materials survey and drilled it down so our academics had actual feedback from students that they could work with. It helps to contextualise things.” She stressed the importance of the student voice – not just in a quantitative way that you get from surveys and their marks etc – but actually.

She said regular meetings with student leaders informed much of Nelson Mandela University’s planning during the pandemic. “We were learning from the ground up; the students had wonderful ideas on how to address their challenges.” Challenging her peers at the national level, Professor Foxcroft said she was not seeing enough of the student voice being given prominence in teaching and learning debates. This symposium would have been another opportunity to involve the student voice, she said.

Adding to what her fellow panellists had said about bringing data points together, Professor Foxcroft also encouraged making that data more meaningful for academics, and available in real-time. “The more we bring in LMSs to execution data points and work together with academics, the more meaningful that becomes,” she concluded.

panel two implications for planning
Leading the discussion on implications for planning were Dr Oliver Seale (bottom far left), session Chair; Dr Kirti Menon (top middle); Professor Nomathemba Taukobong (top right); Professor Cheryl Foxcroft (bottom right) and Ms Liesel Griesel (bottom middle).

Question 3: How do we enhance academic leadership and management and staff development at an institutional and sectoral level?

With reference to the SEP-TLF study findings, Professor Foxcroft mentioned academic leaders feeling insufficiently developed to deal with the crisis. “We have not sufficiently developed complexity thinking at senior management and academic leadership levels. That was what people wanted during the pandemic: answers in a fluid situation.

“Complexity thinking is crucial in the world we operate in. We had to rapidly move to online learning – but we are not going to offer only online learning going forward.”

She said people were conflating the fully online world with the more blended, mixed-mode type of learning and teaching. “Some senior management think that if students can dial into class and learn remotely, we can enrol many more students. But you still have only one lecturer who has to deal with those students.”

She said these questions needed answers:

  • What sort of pedagogy is being used in virtual and physical spaces?
  • Are they the same?
  • How does one understand the outcomes they want to achieve in virtual and physical spaces?

She said: “Different spaces give different opportunities. Self directed learning has never been so well developed in the students and we don’t want to lose that. Synchronous learning has to be thought through and built into our training. In the online virtual spaces we want less synchronous learning.”

Ms Griesel believes the changing dynamics in the sector need a student-centred-ness approach where development opportunities need to focus on a new type of academic. The changing pedagogical relationships exist and are prominent in the sector. And, she said, a higher demand on academics in critical times means greater support needs for them.

She asked: “How are faculties affected during student protests? New types of administrators are needed. Is there an opportunity for USAf and the sector to work on a programme dealing specifically with the training of administrators for a changing higher education landscape? We need critical data analysts, and we should share them. We need negotiators and project managers, psychologists, a different type of individual who can assist the higher education system at this time.”

Regarding leadership training, Ms Griesel raised more questions:

  • How do we train leaders for the future when the dynamics are changing and sometimes we need to deliberately say no to past practices and focus and rethink the future?
  • How does the sector deal with student protests?

“Leaders are academics themselves and we need to deal with new typologies,” she concluded.

Dr Menon said: “There has been great discussion on the pedagogy of care and compassion. Those of us who manage academic staff development have had to take that on board as our own pedagogic approach and focus on the needs of our staff. That allowed us a rare window of opportunity to engage with academics differently.

“There is great value – as universities grow larger – in creating small networks connecting academics to academics so they can share practices, support each other and showcase innovations and new ways of teaching.”

Professor Taukobong suggested going back to the drawing board to find what did and did not work.

Alongside funding and planning implications, the 28 June symposium also explored the implications for quality assurance, of the SAULM and SEP-TLF studies. Highlights of that session will also be published on this platform.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.