CoViD-19 has induced shifts in higher education that necessitate new thinking for the future

Published On: 19 July 2022|

At the recent Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELMENGAGE #8 event, blended learning, critical thinking and leadership attributes received dedicated focus.  This event was the eighth webinar in a series of monthly public engagement webinars hosted by the HELM programme on pertinent issues affecting higher education.

The 28 June event questioned the notion of universities as stable and enduring institutions. In the past, notwithstanding curriculum and other changes, students, teaching staff and administrative staff remained constant. However, CoViD-19 ushered in changes that challenged that notion. HELM ENGAGE #8 sought to explore how the 4th Industrial Revolution is affecting higher education in the context of on-going change.

Dr Birgit Schreiber (left), HELM’s Senior Associate, facilitated a conversation between Professor Lis Lange, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Teaching and Learning at the University of Cape Town, and Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Johannesburg. Professor Lange, whose research interests are on the philosophy and politics of education, has among other topics researched on change in higher education, looking at the meaning of curriculum transformation and the possibilities it presents. Professor Marwala is a foremost thinker on the intersection of 4IR and higher education and an author of over 200 publications on leadership, computing, systems and artificial intelligence.

Question One: We are aware of the impact of CoViD-19 – can you share some of the more invisible and not-so-obvious changes, that are occurring, and that we might only be aware of much later. 

Professor Lange (right) suggested that CoViD-19 had accelerated processes that were already underway. This was the introduction of online learning, using digital technologies to support teaching and learning. She said this had had significant consequences on the redefinition of academic work and its identity, and “also brought to the fore, inescapable brutality and depths of existing inequalities in society.”

She highlighted the different impact of CoViD-19 along class and race demographics and expressed her concern that “people failed to see the bigger picture.”

“We are failing to distinguish between long-term historical processes that were already taking place and specific moments along the duration of CoViD-19,” she said.

“We are not seeing the more structural situation. It is vital that we understand the context in which we are operating and what it means to live in these times. There is a lot in our society that we are not seeing because we are fixated on the short-term questions.”

Professor Marwala (left) agreed that the pandemic thrust the university sector into uncertainty. Universities woke up to the fact that teaching staff were not adequately prepared to execute remote teaching and blended learning. “We take it for granted that digital skills are certainly the new norm in terms of literacy of the 21st century,” he said. “Sometimes, as academic institutions, we assume that our staff are equally competent in using digital platforms. The reality, to the contrary, came as a shock.”

He added that for distributing internet data bundles to students during the national lockdown, universities could only rely on existing telecommunication companies that offer remote communication capabilities. “The devices that we gave to 28 000 students, with monthly data, did not guarantee students’ access to learning, simply because, depending on where you come from, the level of connectivity differs quite markedly,” he said.

Professor Marwala proposed a dedicated spectrum for higher education institutions to enable them to circumvent inequality and the cost of technology. He emphasised that blended learning was not a modality confined to the CoViD-19 era but a new form of learning.

Question TwoDid universities display short-term vision and miss the mark by providing internet data bundles and devices to students, considering that most students’ remote learning contexts were difficult and compromised? 

In response, Professor Marwala displayed optimism toward blended learning. He said he found the learning material and assessments good enough and impressive. “At any given time during CoViD-19, we had several thousands of students on any of our premises – whether on campus or outside in accredited accommodation. That was important for equalising access.

“We found that the university environment was much more valuable to students than we had previously thought – a clear sign that the physical space where learning takes place is still invaluable. I could see that our students really wanted to come back to campus because completely digital education does not achieve what university education is supposed to achieve.”

Professor Lange suggested that campuses are quasi-equalising spaces, where students enjoy equal access to available resources. “The moment the campus ceases to exist, the student faces the reality of a shack in Langa, a house in Constantia or some other dwelling in the rural areas beyond the township towers, with no internet access. Then the process of learning becomes completely unequal.

“When I talk about the bigger picture, I am referring more to the structural deficiencies of our development than the socio-economic development of our country. We can put as much money as is available into data and devices, but we cannot change the situation of our students. That is the one problem.”

Regarding deep learning, Professor Lange admitted that there was some staff-student solidarity and a bit of leniency, especially in 2020, as staff were concerned about students. By 2021, it was clear that some prerequisites for learning in students were missing. That necessitated actioning remedial measures.

“My sense is that real engagement in students diminished with the absence of the timetable, and the absence of lecturers. That was our experience. But I agree that it may vary.”

Digitally mediated teaching and learning are not synonymous with distance learning

Professor Lange believes that digitally mediated teaching and learning neither equals distance learning nor does it mean that all learning happens online. It means the use of technology to enhance learning and teaching, with students on campus. She also mentions augmented reality, which allows classroom participation from other places, adding that digitally mediated education can bring people together in various ways.

Professor Marwala agrees. “But that does not mean that all engagements have to be physical. At UJ, classes alternated between physical and digital interactions. This is what blended learning is about,” he says, adding that that modality allows students based in other countries to participate and collaborate, rendering this an enriched learning environment.

Question Three: For all the positives that emerged from the digital teaching space, what do you regard to have been a loss for higher education in this changing environment?

Professor Lange: “For me, it was all the features of human communication. When engaging virtually, people are not always fully attentive. They could be distracted by various factors.  We lost the ability to read others’ emotions…My biggest concern is how the process of learning has been affected in a society increasingly inundated with technology. I wonder how social media has affected neurological development of individuals.

I do not think that we have caught up with neuroscience developments in terms of developing appropriate teaching. This is a very new generation, a different phenomenon. We need to adjust, physically and otherwise, and how we teach and understand the learner experience.”

Professor Marwala: Technology is evolving and changing the way of life, and people need to take note of that. That said, I must add that human beings are social beings. Technologies can be developed to assimilate human behaviour, but they will not quite become like actual humans. So, the future will be blended.

Will online interactions stunt transformation goals in the sector?

Question Four: I am concerned that virtual engagements might not quite accelerate transformation. Appreciation for diversity may not be the same as it would be in physical interactions.  Please share your thoughts on this.

Professor Marwala: I am finding that whatever happens in the physical space is also happening in online social spaces.  So, we are likely to witness the challenge of people isolating themselves on digital platforms replicating on physical platforms. What we ought to understand is that this is more than just about physical or cyberspaces. Much more needs to be done to ensure that people fully utilise the diverse spaces that we operate in.

Professor Lange: I find that technological developments exacerbate individualism. We have not sufficiently explored this problem, even as a global society. Technology seems to be increasing individualism and I wonder how much transformation of institutional culture can take place in this digital mode, which, in my view, enables a level of cruelty and disregard for the other.

What kind of leadership do we need in higher education to navigate these changes?

Dr Schreiber posed this question as the session drew to a close.

Professor Marwala:  Higher education needs leaders who value critical thinking and reading. Those who do not read must not lead. Today’s leaders ought to also understand technology. Complete education requires those in the social sciences to understand technology and those in technological disciplines to understand humanities. Holistic education is essential for leadership skills.

I have noted that technology tends to diminish critical thinking in people. Social media, for example, tends to feed people views with which they agree. How can people develop critical thinking skills if they do not diversify their thoughts?  That could produce self-absorbed people with no appreciation for a good argument and its value.

A society that does not question things shall ultimately die, intellectually.

Professor Lange: I agree that the sector needs critical leaders. What we are trying to do is to lead critical institutions to be the shining light of that critical thinking ability. A level of courage is vital, particularly in a public higher education system. A higher education leader has to be an intellectual – somebody who loves knowledge and questioning, from all perspectives.

Even for the future, I cannot overemphasise the importance of having self-reflecting leaders and universities that will position themselves strategically in a changing world to influence the necessary change. Higher education leaders need to understand that fear, doubt, and silence are sometimes necessary. They, of necessity, help us to contemplate before deciding on the next course of action.

Nqobile Tembe is a contracted Communication Consultant for Universities South Africa.