Jaisubash Jayakumar: Lecturer, Department of Pathology, University of Cape Town
Sumayah Salie: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town
Bongani Baloyi: Lecturer, Department of Civil Engineering, Walter Sisulu University
Lauren Petersen: Technical, Administrative & Research Assistant to Research Chair: Oceans Economy, Research, Technology Innovation & Partnerships, Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Kasturi Behari-Leak: Senior Lecturer and LTHE Course Convenor, Centre for Higher Education and Development (CHED), University of Cape Town

The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had substantial effects on all sectors in society including Higher Education (HE). In South Africa and beyond, HE has had to re-invent itself in a matter of weeks, even days to migrate the academic project to an online remote emergency teaching (RET) mode, to complete the year.  This has undoubtedly affected each course and its curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. As part of initiating RET, institutions disseminated surveys to assess students’ access to electronic devices, mobile data and internet access, including the number of possible hours a day a student could study online. Most of these surveys seem to have neglected key factors that we think are crucial for a holistic and meaningful teaching and learning experience. These include pedagogical, infrastructural, biological (physical and emotional) and psycho-social alignment in a context of Socio-Economic Status (SES). 

Thus, while most of the interventions at institutions have been geared towards student’s access to technology, important as this is, we think that similar attention needs to be paid to other concerns such as the dimensions of diversity and difference that prevail in our (online) classrooms. These dimensions, we are aware, have a danger of essentialising our students and reducing them to categories of inequality. We believe however that in a country such as South Africa, these dimensions are really important markers that seriously affect our students’ wellbeing and their (in)ability to participate fully in the RET mode.

As academic-students on a post-graduate diploma in Higher Education Studies at UCT, namely the “Learning and Teaching in Higher Education” course, we had to design an online teaching event in the time of COVID-19. We had to reflect on who we and our students are and use this knowledge to design teaching in socially aware ways. We were tasked to use a framework that identifies the dimensions of difference (language, race, class, gender, disability etc) in our teaching contexts. Being aware of Difference in ways that do not collapse or celebrate it, enables us to teach in meaningful, socially conscious ways. We would like to share our reflections here to amplify the question about the ethics and integrity needed as part of our role in taking care of our students as we pivot to online platforms and embrace a remote teaching mode. Our fear is that ‘remote’ might further estrange those students who already feel alienated and marginalised in our face-to-face classes. 

Extra effort is therefore needed now to mediate social exclusion by using a pedagogy that is socially aware, inclusive and cognisant of how epistemic and social domains interact and interplay in the online mode; a mode that can mask aspects such as these. Our ‘presence’ in RET is needed more than ever to ensure that all voices are heard, all perspectives are shared and that no-one is left behind in the online mode. 

We have discussed this robustly on the LTHE course and assert that by focusing on who our students are, we are able to better shape teaching by using socially aware pedagogies to make sure that students are not invisible and silent when we engage, asynchronously. We are fearful that if we don’t, the new RET mode will exacerbate the already unlevel playing fields in HE and we will all have to face the consequences and impact further down the line. This has implications for our students now, students still entering university and the future of our country. While academics and course convenors are busy with upskilling to online teaching now, we caution that we also need to pay attention to the critical aspects of teaching (online or any mode) that can easily decrease in importance when compared to the supposedly more important thrust to learn the technical skills needed to teach online.

We share the section of our teaching design assignments here that focus on us understanding who is in our classes, to show the complexity involved in teaching in a diverse context such as ours. We invite you to reflect on who is in your (online) class and how might that knowledge assist you in teaching in socially conscious ways.

Jaisubash Jayakumar

I am Jaisubash Jayakumar, a Lecturer in Medical Education at the University of Cape Town (UCT). My key teaching area is immunology and my ardent areas of research include undergraduate medical education and technology enhanced learning. I have obtained the following two qualifications from UCT: a PhD in Clinical Sciences and Immunology and a Post Graduate Diploma in Educational Technology. I am currently registered for an MEd in Higher Education Studies.

My classroom is certainly a pluralistic space with the dimensions of diversity unfolding both on individual and social levels. The dimensions of difference include physical, home/accommodation, disciplinary preparedness, cognitive, linguistic and socio-cultural domains. Within the physical dimension, in terms of age, most of my students are within the 20-22 age group, with a few exceptions being above that age bracket. In terms of disability, there are a few students with learning challenges. Geographically, the majority of my students come from various provinces within South Africa, including rural and urban settings, with a few of them from SADC countries. During term, my students stay in residences, digs, and both private and family homes. In terms of disciplinary preparedness, they have all passed the first year MBChB courses.

When it comes to Bourdieu’s Cultural capital, there is a spectrum of academic skills, capabilities and language proficiencies manifested in my classroom due to the inequitable schooling systems that prevail. Major barriers exist regarding access to good educational infrastructure and opportunities. In the cognitive dimension, the learning orientations of my students are also quite diverse with some that tap into the perception dimension as sensing and intuitive learners; others prefer a process dimension as active and reflective learners. My classroom also encompasses students who are visual and verbal learners who rely on input while others adopt an understanding dimension, making them sequential and global learners. My students construct their knowledge based on their cultural history, social context, language, their current educational context with their peers along with a great influence of society. Thus, my students enter Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development through both a social and cognitive process in a social constructivist learning environment with their peers in conjunction with the facilitation of the educators. In applying Cummin’s iceberg theory to the linguistic dimension, my students seem to have acquired context embedded basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) through their everyday informal interactions but still seem to grapple with context-reduced cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) due to their cultural capital. There is certainly a vast divide between my students due to their primary discourses being so diverse and the influence of them on their secondary discourses. 

The socio-cultural dimension includes race, gender, class or socio-economic status (SES), and religion. My classroom is multi-racial with predominantly black African students, in alignment with the demographics of South Africa. Gender wise, most of my students self-identify as cis males and cis females along with other minority groups. Most of them still seem to be in the process of establishing their identities as unique beings in terms of gender and sexual orientation. My classroom incorporates students from high, middle and low SES and they embrace different religions, the predominant ones are Christianity and Islam, with a few of them practising Judaism and Hinduism.

Sumayah Salie

I am a South African Muslim mom and a postdoctoral research fellow in the Division of Immunology at the University of Cape Town. I facilitate in the Human Biology course’s Supported Problem-Based Learning (PBL) for first year medical (MBChB) students. This is my third year of facilitation and I really enjoy the interactions with students and being able to develop my teaching skills.

My students are mostly 17-19-year olds, except for 2 students who are in their twenties (one male and one female) as they have already completed an undergraduate degree. The more mature students are very aware of their presence in the PBL space and try not to dominate the conversations but allow other students time to formulate a response and then answer. This helps to balance the power that these students have in terms of maturity and having a better understanding of university life. One could argue that they have more cultural capital than the other group members, but during the PBL sessions, when knowledge is being constructed, all the students seem to be working on equal footing. The more mature students even seek reassurance from the other group members.

Three students are male, and seven students are female. Of the three males, one is white and Afrikaans, one is Indian and the other is black. The latter student was born in the global North, spent his childhood in various countries in Africa and returned to South Africa toward the end of high school. The females are from various ethnicities (Indian, Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, coloured Afrikaans and white). The gender balance in my group is not equal but I am grateful that we at least have more than one male voice, as some groups are all female. As mentioned above, there a good mix of ethnicities in the group which has already contributed to great discussions on the challenges and joys of growing up in a diverse context. This is similar to what my student will find with their patients, so it is important for me to work with this rather than ignore it. We have also had challenging heteronormative discussions based on students bringing in lenses from their various positionalities. 

None of my students has any physical or educational disabilities that I am aware of; nor are they originally from Cape Town. The students either live in residence or in digs. Thus far, all students have displayed the same level of disciplinary preparedness for the course. Cultural capital, however, (in terms of university preparedness within the group) varies considerably, from those who are pursuing their second undergraduate degree to those who are first in their family to attend university. This means that I have to use different strategies when i teach to bridge the gaps. Religion and class are more difficult to discuss, as we have not touched on those areas during any of our meetings thus far. I have to be aware that this might be a blind spot for the class. Everyone in our group seems to have a good command of the English language, barring 2 of the females (one whose first language is Afrikaans and the other has either Xhosa or Zulu as her first language). In terms of cognitive ways of learning, there is a mixture of those favouring the constructive alignment approach and those leaning toward social constructivism. This latter comment is based on observations I made during past sessions. When scribing the sessions, I always encourage the students to either ask for feedback or if they feel they have a useful suggestion, to volunteer it. This gives a glimpse into how they individually build knowledge. Overall, we are a relatively diverse group (academic and students) but we are working together well. My students seem very keen to build knowledge together! I have to help them to do exactly that.

Bongani Baloyi

I am Bongani Baloyi, a Lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering at Walter Sisulu University, East London Campus. My primary teaching and research interest areas are Hydraulics, Structural Analysis and Engineering Education in higher education. I am an associate member of the South African Institute of Civil Engineering (SAICE) and Water Institute of Southern Africa (WISA). I am a Candidate Civil Engineering Technologist of Engineering Council of South Africa.

The class I teach has 58 students, 20 females and 38 males, all of whom come from the Eastern Cape. In this cohort there is 1 coloured student and 57 black students. All the students are the recipients of National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding; one of the qualifying criteria for NSFAS is that students’ household income must be less than R350 000 per annum. This tells me that most students come from poor families. This has a huge impact on their learning. Most students also come from rural areas and attended schools in the villages. Due to challenges facing rural schools, the students arrive at WSU under prepared to study Engineering. The minimum requirement to be accepted to study a National Diploma in Civil Engineering is English Level 3 (40-49%), Mathematics Level 4 (50-59 %) and Physical Science (50-59 %). Engineering is the application of science and math to solve problems and it requires students to have in-depth knowledge of Mathematics and Physical Science. In terms of the application requirements, many students lack adequate required knowledge. I have to approach my classes with this in mind and fill in the gaps where I can. Sometimes they are unable to interpret the questions because they do not understand English. Language is therefore a huge stumbling block for them and my class. 

There are no students with disabilities; most students are aged between 17 to 21 years; with a few older students who were working in the industry and decided to come back to finish their qualification. The older students who come from the industry tend to struggle more because they lack basic scientific skills, though they have working experience. Their knowledge is valuable nonetheless. Almost all these students stay at the university residence which is conducive to study as it has a study area, Wi-Fi, a study table and other resources that help the process of learning. My students learn in different ways though. Some learn through imagery and spatial understanding; others learn through listening and sound and yet others learn through hands-on and tactile interaction. I have to make sure that I consider this in the RET mode. Some students have a dominant learning orientation or a mix of many styles. I advise my students to identify and understand how they learn because that is very useful for me to assist them to learn in contact teaching, but this is going to be highly different and difficult for me to work with in the online mode. 

Lauren Petersen 

I am a 35-year-old coloured female student. I live with family in what would be termed the edge of the Cape Flats or in what we term a ‘coloured community’ and have done so all my life. As a child, I attended government primary and secondary institutions attended by mostly coloured learners and I am one of the first in my family to graduate and hold a university qualification. I have obtained the following qualifications: B.Soc Sci (UCT); BA Hons Psy (UNISA); and a DTE – PGDip in Tertiary Ed (UNISA).

I am a guest lecturer to a part-time National Qualifications Framework (NQF/N) 6 level course, hosted at a Technical and Vocational Educational and Training (TVET) institution. There is a total of 16 students, 8 of whom would be classified as black and the remaining 8 as coloured students. Thirteen students are female with the remaining three, males. The students all reside in Cape Town suburbs with some working full time in low-level income positions and others unemployed. Only 1 student indicated that she is already in possession of an N6 qualification and therefore possibly more familiar with the Discourse of a TVET context, in comparison to the other students who indicated that this would be their first full qualification at any tertiary institution. This is therefore ‘high stakes’ for them and I have to see if this motivates them more. 

The host lecturer uses scaffolding as a practice, as the students are in their final year of the overall course. This is something I must do as well. The course is taught in English and most of the students speak English as a second or third language. This highlights to me that language is an additional possible stumbling block in moving to an online teaching platform and one that I need to be aware of in my teaching preparation. Pre COVID-19, lecture time was shortened for each lesson because these students come from low-income households and more than half of them makes use of public transport to travel home. This shows how complex their situation is and I need to be aware of silences and possible non-participation in class as there might be other reasons for this. Most of the students appear to have similar primary and secondary discourses and so relate quite well to each other which is something I must strengthen and build on.

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Our reflections above as academic-LTHE students have unveiled some of the hyper-visible and invisible complexities in our students’ lives which might make inclusivity and accounting for the diversities difficult when teaching online. As South Africa is already a dual economy with one of the highest inequality rates in the world, this abrupt precipitous migration to remote teaching will unquestionably add fuel to the fire by widening the economic divide. This will also create additional psycho-social distress for our students (and us), especially for those from non-elite backgrounds. 

In sharing our reflections above, we are also cognisant that what is required of each of us in the RET mode might be far more demanding and time consuming than if our students were right in front of us in fully present ways. We think however that if we are to make gains on the maxim, ‘pedagogy before technology’, we need to embrace three levels of Presence in the online mode, already written about  by Greg Krull (2020) in the HELTASA space (http://heltasa.org.za/ready-for-remote-teaching-considerations-for-designing-an-engaging-remote-learning-experience/), that will help us to be reflexive and socially conscious when we design teaching for RET. These are: 

  • Teacherly Presence
  • Cognitive Presence
  • Social Presence

These three levels of presence, and there may be more, remind us of the importance of showing up for our students in ways that support their presence too. Since remote teaching and learning is quite a new arena for most staff and students in HE institutions in SA, it becomes critical to establish holistic mechanisms to overcome some of these challenges. Pedagogical misalignment, lack of resources and skills and a less than conducive environment for RET need to be addressed as a matter of urgency and as an activism for socially aware teaching, as we prepare our students to successfully navigate the online space.

 

References:

Dragan Gasevic (2020) COVID-19: The steep learning curve for online education. Monash University accessed 27 April 2020. https://lens.monash.edu/@education/2020/04/26/1380195/covid-19-the-steep-learning-curve-for-online-education

LTHE 2020; Assignment 2: Designing teaching for learning in the time of COVID-19