KENDALL BEHR

A global team of experts sought to discuss the challenges and advantages of the shift to online learning amidst the pandemic., and its correlation to the formation of a new hybrid learning model in the 21st century.
The conference’s theme this year was “Teaching innovation in higher education: COVID-19 and beyond”, and was organized by the University of Pretoria’s Department for Education Innovation, headed by Professor Gerrit Stols, the Director: Department for Education Innovation.

For many South African students and lecturers, the shift to online learning has posed challenges. For the minority of students who have reliable and uncapped internet, online learning has come with the loss of class discussion, being able to ask questions in class, and learning from other students’ questions. One of the speakers at the conference, Chad Bonney, Chief Financial Officer of Global Businesses at the software solutions company, Cengage, suggested that the new hybrid teaching model we witness amidst the pandemic will instil megatrends in how tertiary institutions are viewed, with online and distance learning gaining greater traction. Bonney predicts that the current shift to the new model will deepen inequalities in the education sphere, allowing only the fittest universities to survive. Bonney cited an example in the United States where “a slew of higher education institutions [are] closing down in [the] northeastern United States, they are closing their doors for good as students are not coming back”.

The conference’s theme this year was…organized by the University of Pretoria’s Department for Education Innovation…

UP has provided students with laptops and free data bundles, to aid the adaption to this new model of teaching. However, this new template for learning is influenced by external factors such as load shedding and erratic connectivity. For instance, for students living in Mamelodi, power outages at the beginning of August meant that laptop and cell-phone batteries were flat, and the students could not access lectures, online classes, or tutorials.

UP Vice-Principal: Academic Professor Norman Duncan, cited that UP was able to transition into the new online teaching template due to the high degree of readiness UP’s online platform exhibited after UP’s adoption of hybrid learning templates in 2015. Prof. Duncan ascertained that “the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched us in ways previously thought impossible. It has brought out the best in many and I hope that we will use our newly honed capabilities to better manage the future of university education”.

Dr. Tony Bates, a Canadian e-learning speaker present at the conference, said that it would be a pity if universities and schools went back to the old method of teaching (through contact classes) post-COVID-19 regulations. He believes that online classes offer students a higher chance at personalized learning and asserts that online classes should be the future.

Dr. Bates recognized that “about 85% of people in Canada have access to the internet, while indigenous people and the unemployed cannot access the internet”. He suggested radio and TV as alternative mediums of sharing learning materials.

UP was able to transition into the new online teaching template due to the high degree of readiness UP’s online platform exhibited after UP’s adoption of hybrid learning templates in 2015

For many South Africans who can’t afford to study full time at tertiary institutions, a system that disseminates materials through TV, radio, and even the postal service would democratize the opportunities to get university degrees. This practice is seen at the University of South Africa (UNISA), which currently possesses the highest number of students in South Africa, many of whom live in rural areas.

However, the infrastructure to offer this kind of learning experience is not something that most South African universities seem equipped to offer. Many lecturers are overwhelmed with work since lockdown has forced them to learn new methods of communicating with their students which take longer and do not get immediate feedback from their students. While online learning does make it easier for South Africans around the country to be able to study for university degrees, it is something that needs to be well-planned and thought out before it can be a viable option for South African universities.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Tawana Kupe, acknowledged that the shift to the “new unusual” has caused individuals to experience “anxiety, uncertainty, and trepidation, and to say this was a disruption is an understatement”, citing that efforts at sustainability have been hampered by the pandemic. But he acknowledges that we must see the silver lining, by focusing on the new opportunities that the new learning model has brought. Prof. Kupe asserted that “the future of higher education is digital and online. Being innovative and creative is a continuum. I’m not saying it will be purely online – there will be a spectrum of hybrid/blended learning to fully online learning.”

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