Najma Agherdien; Team Leader Curriculum and Teaching, Centre for Learning, Teaching and Development, University of Witwatersrand..
Being comfortable with uncertainty amidst a real threat to our existence presented by COVID-19, although challenging, can propel us towards action. In crisis mode, most Higher Education Institutions worldwide have moved to remote learning to ensure that students have opportunities to complete the academic year. Although well intentioned, the stark reality of inequities renders this endeavour simplistic, inadequate and socially unjust. Still, respond we must.
Taking a leap of faith, we have to believe that there is wisdom in everything He (a higher power) does and how people respond to this uncertainty is a test from Him (Umarji & Elwan, 2020). So in view of responding to uncertainty and ultimately passing this test, how can we continue the academic project considering prevailing inequalities? According to Friedman (2020), there is no evidence of inequalities being addressed during this crisis. As testimony, he cites occurrences such as panic buying, blaming government and seeing the poor as dirty.
This begs the question, is it realistic to think we can eradicate the political, social, economic and cultural injustices (barriers) at this point in time? Probably not. However, I agree with Valodia and Francis (2020) who contend that at best, we should alleviate “the worst of its inequalities, and time is running out”. A helpful framework to kick-start ‘participatory parity’ (equitable participation), is Nancy Fraser’s concepts of redistribution (of resources), recognition (social status) and representation (who can act/say/challenge).
Redistribution: Recognise that not all students have access to data and hardware to engage in remote learning. Even those that have access might have to share with siblings, parents and thus have limitations. Design learning interactions adopting a pedagogy first, technology second approach and with low tech in mind, taking into account varying academic literacies – i.e. keep it simple. Consider an ‘Adopt a student campaign’ and donate laptops/cell phones, data packages, food vouchers, etc. We can take up our social responsibility and recognise that government responsibility does not absolve us from our social responsibility.
Recognition: Getting to know who students are and what they bring to the educational landscape is core to sound pedagogy. This includes acknowledging their vulnerabilities, frustrations, anxieties and fears of contracting or living with the virus, and inhabiting crowded, shared spaces. Engage in regular check-ins via WhatsApp, email, messages the Learning Management System (LMS). Encourage a cultural shift from talking to (one way), to talking with (dialogue), whilst catering for language barriers. Thus, minimise video recordings of lectures and/or virtual lectures.
Representation: Acknowledge student voice and actively and intentionally incorporate into curricula/course design. Inculcate habits of inquiry, i.e. being discerning about what we read and how we interpret and critique. Integrate the threat of fake news in our syllabi, irrespective of discipline. Be realistic about assessment and acknowledge that these practices will need to be reimagined. Essentially, consult students during planning so that we do what’s best and realistic for all.
To conclude, at the intersection of distress and hope, embracing uncertainty can aid in responding in socially just ways to the crisis and beyond. Let’s focus attention on matters where we have agency, and keep the ethic of care alive.
Fraser, N. (2009). Scales of Justice. Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World. New York: Columbia University Press.
Friedman, S. (2020). Threat of danger brings out the worst in those who tell us what to think and do: Alarm over the coronavirus is spread on social media, none of it rooted in reality. Available from: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2020-03-11-steven-friedman-threat-of-danger-brings-out-the-worst-in-those-who-tell-us-what-to-think-and-do/ Accessed: 11 March 2020.
Umarji, O and Elwan, H. (2020). Embracing Uncertainty: How to Feel Emotionally Stable in a Pandemic. Available from https://yaqeeninstitute.org/osman-umarji/embracing-uncertainty-how-to-feel-emotionally-stable-in-a-pandemic/ Accessed: 30 March 2020.
Valodia, I, and Francis, D. (2020). To tackle the Covid-19 crisis SA must mitigate the worst of its inequalities. Available from: https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/to-tackle-the-covid-19-crisis-sa-must-mitigate-the-worst-of-its-inequalities-46350644 Accessed: 10 March 2020.
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