The shutdown of physical learning in institutions meant that universities had to resort to emergency online learning through digital technologies to deliver education to students. The rapid transition unleashed a future of digital transformation, offering new ways of learning and teaching in the sector. 

The coronavirus pandemic is perhaps the biggest story of our lifetime. The way it has swept through nations is unprecedented and its knock-on effects across all facets of society have been staggering. For the education sector, while the virus has triggered the closure of learning institutions across the globe, experts say the same virus could accelerate the use of technology in promoting education.

Before covid-19 struck, equal access to education was always a challenge at learning institutions in South Africa. Higher education data from Amnesty International and Statistics South Africa, among others, showed that the participation rate of disadvantaged groups in all universities was at its lowest due to inequality and lack of access to the sector in previous years.

“The current participation rate from 18- to 24-year-olds is 22%, and the national development plan is asking a reach of up to 30% of people in these age groups being in higher education by 2030,” Universities South Africa (USAf) CEO, Professor Ahmed Bawa, told Wits Vuvuzela.

The extended national lockdown following the onset of the virus in March 2020 occasioned a significant shift towards virtual learning through a devised innovative solution to teaching. It is feasible that some of the benefits of this transition could broaden access to education.

One scenario is the capacity of online learning for bringing people and classes from different worlds and cultures together into a learning experience, to increase the sharing of ideas and set-up fascinating opportunities for students. This is just one of the changes online learning could bring to the sector, said Bawa.

To some institutions, such as the University of the Witwatersrand, the impact of online learning for university students has been positive. The vice-chancellor of Wits University, Professor Adam Habib, was quoted in an Independent Online article published in August 2020 as saying, “Anecdotal evidence is showing that our students are performing better in the online environment than face-to-face. This suggests we need to re-imagine how we test and assess our students’ capabilities.”

The vice-chancellor confirmed to Wits Vuvuzela that a partial explanation for the improved performance is the daily tracking of attendance done online and students’ comfortability with studying in their own space and time.

These sentiments were echoed by an expert in education, deputy vice-chancellor at Wits University, Professor Ruksana Osman, who told Wits Vuvuzela in an interview that students’ flexibility on the instructive decisions made by academics in online learning showed the adaptability of students and staff.

“We had 90% to 95% students’ login on our sites every day,” Osman said. Even though these results cannot be compared with face-to-face classes, the use of data and data analytics to track students’ general performances, besides their academic life, through online learning has been one of the impressive tools that have helped many universities during covid-19, she added.

Using data analytics comes after the low student throughput rate in the country, with about 40% of students failing to complete their degrees in record time. Bawa said the data have then been used to track students’ wellbeing and to intervene immediately, rather than waiting until they fail at the end of the year.

While inequality and the digital divide are always the core considerations of this transformation at only a few public universities that are less exposed to technology, students nevertheless engaged somehow. Strong resilience in completing the academic year under these circumstances was shown by students and staff. Bawa told Wits Vuvuzela the persistence showed surprising positive outcomes through a decrease in the dropout rate since universities transited online, as this pointed to students’ willingness to adapt and learn.

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande announced the return of 66% of students to campuses in level two of lockdown on August 26, and universities are negotiating on adopting a blended learning model. The combination of face-to-face classes and online learning may be a solution to ensure science students get the best training, but will some of the online experiences be retained post-covid-19?

“Academics are keen; they are offering lots of staff developing workshops where lecturers are learning and keeping up with technology in preparation for the blended approach,” said Osman. The apparent enthusiasm for investing in technology shows how students and staff are serious about advanced learning.

For Bawa, not only will the blended approach define a significant change in university culture, but the mode will be far greater in providing full attention to students. The traditional big classes, with a vast number of students, will become more micro-organised to ensure high engagement in courses.

He continued to say, online learning in the blended mode will mean that “Engagements will be in small, intensive tutorial groups and there will be much emphasis on learning through the delivery of material in technological platforms.”

Covid-19 has unleashed a potential change in the sector, and many institutions have responded by using various platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams to advance learning. Negotiations with mobile network providers, zero-rated websites and the provision of digital devices to students by universities, showed success in investing in innovative structures of learning.

“Generally, our online transition is a success story,’’ said Dr Allen Munoriyarwa, a journalism lecturer at the University of Johannesburg. “It is always a happy feeling to know that in the transition there are very few students who were left behind,” he added.

The launch of local communication satellites by the department of higher education and training and of the single shared services platform by USAf are some of the strategies to bring learning and access close through technology. Research released by University of Johannesburg postdoctoral researcher David Mhlanga in July 2020 shows that South Africa, “has some pockets of excellence to drive the education sector into the 4IR (fourth industrial revolution), which has the potential to increase access”.

With some of the expertise shared on online learning, a complete reimagination in higher education will happen and will lead to an innovative education system.

“The innovation will be about academic thinking of new ways to teach, new ways for students to learn and new ways of assessing students,” said Osman.

FEATURED IMAGE: An educator shares ways of being a great teacher on YouTube. Education experts say the higher education sector will be completely transformed, as most institutions resort to the blended learning model of teaching to deliver education using technological platforms.  Photo: Zikhona Klaas