Daniela Gachago, Centre for Innovative Educational Technology, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, gachagod@cput.ac.za
Xena Cupido, Fundani Centre for Higher Educational Development, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, cupidox@cput.ac.za 

Responding to COVID-19

As the world braces for an onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have taken drastic measures to curb the spread of the virus.  These measures have included government mandated lockdowns, which requires citizens to stay at home in an effort to quell the spread of the disease. Currently, in South Africa, we find ourselves in a state of suspension. The country has literally come to a “stand-still” with only essential services in operation. This has resulted in school and university closures as part of the effort to contain this global pandemic.  According to Unesco (2020) monitoring, approximately 14 612 546 South African learners have been impacted by this nation-wide closure, of which 1 116 017 are university students.

In an effort to continue with the academic project, universities across the globe are considering online solutions. While this response is a necessary consideration, greater thought and conversation is needed around epistemic access and equity.  Online solutions and becoming digitally more innovative may help to address the current situation of university closures but in the South African context much still needs to be done to ensure inclusivity, especially along class, race, gender, and geographic location (Erumi, 2017). Drawing on the lessons learned by Czerniewicz (2020) who states that technology is not neutral, the decision to go online may very well exacerbate existing inequalities within the university system. To advance social justice, design strategies would need to be “appropriate for specific contexts, but also being aware that technological decisions will be shaped in ways that reflect existing differences, alliances, discourses and perspectives in particular institutions”, as Czerniewicz writes. This would include understanding the institutional systems, structures, and processes and how this may impact on the student experience or outcomes. Most important, is a  thorough understanding of the student and staff capabilities in terms of resources. It is important to acknowledge that this may be a steep learning curve in the transition to go online, developing a shared vision and common understanding of definitions and meaning is needed to guide the work. In this article we share our thoughts and ideas about definitions and the importance of learning design in uncertain times. 


Challenging the dichotomy of blended or online and remote learning

When universities started to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, a new term was introduced: remote learning. Rather than calling it blended or online learning, institutions urged their staff to think about how to teach their students remotely. It is understandable why one would do that. Calling it something else alleviates fears of the huge step to move one’s teaching online, it helps differentiate what people call ‘bad online teaching’ (Barrett-Fox, 2020) from ‘real’ online learning, it may prevent a backfiring on blended/online learning initiatives after the COVID 19 campus closures. Laura Czeriewicz (2020) summarises this succinctly: ‘It is really hard to design well for effective, meaningful learning under those conditions and the hurried, incomplete and rushed efforts to “teach online” together with this highly charged context gave blended and online learning a bad name, forever associated with managing protests as opposed to pedagogical innovation. It is something else, so call it something else!’.

We would like to suggest a different approach. Over the last few years, at CPUT we have moved away from a narrow definition of blended learning as a combination of offline and online learning and rather focused on the pedagogy of blended learning. Here we follow Laurillard’s (2012) suggestion that good teaching and learning is about providing students a choice of teaching and learning strategies, such as acquisition, practice, inquiry, collaboration, communication and production. We define blended learning therefore as a thoughtful combination of different pedagogical approaches, drawing on a range of teaching and learning theories, using a variety of tools and technologies, to create context-sensitive and flexible learning experiences with and for our learners (Gachago, Van Zyl & Waghid, 2020).

So from our point of view, what we are doing is STILL blended learning. We are still aiming at designing a learning experience that will allow students to acquire content, to do research, to practice, to collaborate and discuss and to produce artefacts. The how we offer this has changed, not the what. So rather than rushing towards quick-fixes or how-to-guides to move your teaching online, we urge you to pause and take time to think deeply about how such learning may look like.


The importance of learning design 

This is where the importance of learning design comes in. Learning design draws from the literature on instructional design, but also design thinking. We have found it very useful to help us design learning experiences in complex contexts, responding to wicked questions. We will discuss some of the elements of learning design below.

Focus on understanding the problem

Learning design always starts with a problem or challenge. We like this approach, because rather than shying away from difficult contexts and situations, we are looking for them. Wicked problems, problems that have no easy answers, that need a variety of perspectives, are what propels us to innovate, to be creative. The more limitations, the more creative we become. How to respond to COVID-19 is such a wicked problem. There is no easy answer and it is definitely not a problem we can solve on our own.

Collaboration and the need for a variety of perspectives

Learning design foregrounds the need for collaboration. We cannot do this on our own. We need many perspectives, many skills and competencies to respond to the current situation. We need academics, departments to come together, but also instructional designers, management, the community, industry. And most importantly students.

Empathy and co-creation

Learning design starts with empathy for the user, in our case the learner. More so than ever, the current situation has put in sharp perspective, that nothing can be done without thorough, intimate knowledge about our learners. Who are they? Where are they? What drives them? How do they communicate? How do they access information? What does their learning context look like? Who is there with them? Who do they share resources with? Who do they have to care for? What are their fears? 

Learning design is a process of co-creation. We co-create with our students. We try and understand who our students are. Learning design creates personas, we design for. We will have students who have technical and epistemological access to continue learning and we will have students who don’t. We have to co-design solutions with a range of personas in mind. Solutions may look different for different student personas. For some it may mean opting out of the current academic project and resuming at a later stage. But no decision can be taken without thorough consultation with students. The better your existing communication channels are, the faster this feedback can be collected. Listen to your students, respond quickly, make changes as feedback comes in. We see the current situation as a huge opportunity for connecting with our students.

Iterative design and short feedback loops

This brings us to the next characteristic of learning design. Learning design favours small steps, small iterations, trying things out and collecting rapid feedback. Prototyping, testing, refining solutions. Experimenting until a solution is reached, that works. Even if it’s only for a while. Learning design is about constant change. About building up creative confidence, resilience, moving away from a culture of perfection, so prevalent in academia.

Making mistakes and challenging perfectionism

Learning design is about making mistakes and failing, failing often, failing fast. This is how we learn. Nobody was prepared for what is happening at the moment. There is no perfect solution. All we can do is to try things out. We have to be gentle to ourselves and our students. Lower our expectations. Remove marks, work with pass / not yet achieved. Think about the language you use. We are all learning together. We will make mistakes, but we will also learn more and faster than we have in a long time. Learning design is messy and complex and it’s something we have to become comfortable with, both us as academics and our students.

Contextualised teaching

There will be no recipe, no one size fits all. We need to accept that. It’s all about context. About understanding all the stakeholders in the picture, students, communities, industry, accrediting bodies. All of these stakeholders have to work together to find solutions that fit specific contexts, that make learning possible in these very trying circumstances. What tools and technologies do your students have access to? What platforms are zero rated by cell phone providers? How can you share content, how can you communicate, how can you engage students? 

Community-focus and engagement

Yes, there are many resources we have no more access to when our campuses are closed. But there are also resources that are suddenly in close proximity. Stories, people, communities. Redesign your projects, assignments, contents you wanted to teach and include community-based resources. What information can students collect where they are right now, usually not as easily accessible? What new information can you engage with? Change your syllabus, to include current news, current developments, the broader perspective. Engage in discussions around strategies to learn, to support each other, to keep our mental health. Introduce aspects of self-awareness,  adapting, adjusting, resilience. Take a breath and look around you, what is there we can draw from? What other conversations come up? What new emerges?

Flexibility of systems and reconsidering structure of courses

Over the next few weeks innovation will happen on the ground, bottom up. The big question is, can institutions follow suit? Flexibility is needed on all levels.


Some final thoughts

These are deeply unsettling times for all of us, none of this is easy. It’s uncomfortable, scary and stressful. We are adjusting to a completely new normal. We are fearful for loved ones, for the future of our community, our country. We don’t know what the next few weeks or months will bring. We cannot even start imagining what mid- and long-term effects this will have on us and our communities. And still, there is also a huge opportunity in all of this. An opportunity to push boundaries, to make changes, to try out things we always wanted to. An opportunity for connection, engagement and innovation, for designing learning engagements and experiences that will equip staff and students to survive and thrive in times of constant change. Solidarity is more needed than ever. How can we create learning that is not just for the fittest? The ones who have access? But provides flexibility and choice for all?


Barrett-Fox, R. 2020. Please do a bad job of putting your courses online. https://anygoodthing.com/2020/03/12/please-do-a-bad-job-of-putting-your-courses-online/

COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response. https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-emergencies/coronavirus-school-closures

Czerniewicz, L. 2020. What we learnt from “going online” during university shutdowns in South Africa. https://philonedtech.com/what-we-learnt-from-going-online-during-university-shutdowns-in-south-africa/

Erumi, R. 2017.  Technology is not neutral—it’s political. 3 NOVEMBER 2017 https://www.fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/technology-is-not-neutral-it-s-political/

Gachago, D., Van Zyl, I. & Waghid, F. (2020, accepted for publication). More than Delivery: Designing Blended Learning Spaces with and for Academic Staff. In Sosibo, L. & Ivala, E. (Eds.) Transforming Learning Spaces. Vernon Publishing.

Laurillard, D. 2012. Teaching as a Design Science. New York: Routledge.