The unprecedented crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has evoked a plethora of responses from philosophical, political, financial, economic, social and medical quarters.

These multipronged perspectives reflect a rich diversity of reactions, commensurate with a virus that seemingly loves diversity too: COVID-19 does not discriminate, favour, privilege or marginalise anyone in its diaspora; it has proven to be universal in its reach – anyone can get it, from anywhere and from anyone in the world; it ignores all geopolitical borders as it wreaks havoc with all our lives, instantaneously, across the world.

Never before have we had such an acute understanding of modernity, advancement, internationalisation, and our human interconnectedness in the global village.

To resist the label of (global) “village idiot”, many institutions and organisations are enacting contingency plans to contain and manage the effects and impact of the virus in the hope that the 2020 academic year can be completed with minimum disruption.

In higher education globally, the impetus has been to ensure that students complete their semester uninterrupted. Multiple online teaching guides, resources, webinars and videos are being prepared in rapid fire to this end to support academics as they upskill to migrate to remote teaching platforms or go fully online. Prolific online resources have mushroomed and the internet and social media are brimming and bursting with new tools, tips and tricks and techniques for the new (quick) fix: toe-the-line by going online.

That it had to happen, is not questioned. When the university faced the enormity of the challenge and implications of COVID-19, it had to make bold decisions to maintain public support, funding and approval by keeping the academic project on track. University management has had to show decisive leadership and robust management by responding tangibly and visibly to avert the threat to the academic year. After all, what choice does the university have in the face of such a threat and potential disaster, you may ask?

But the “go-to” position to “go online”, underscored by subtle and overt directives for academics and students to hold-the-line-no-matter-the-cost, is being contested in different ways.

This contestation does not appear to be for the sake of disruption but to assert the importance of inclusion and consultation with multiple voices and interests, which should not face an intellectual and cultural shutdown or lockdown as we embrace social distancing protocols, which are enforced by a physical shutdown and lockdown of life as we knew it.

Considering the cost

As a professional association for academics and academic developers in the tertiary sector, the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (HELTASA) has asked its members to consider the cost of “going online” in their contexts.

Members have been urged to write short, sharp and socially aware pieces to offer their perspectives on how we can shape the on-boarding to an online discourse in socially just ways, together. A snapshot reflection from a sample of these pieces posted on the HELTASA website are shared here to reflect the main tenor or our perspectives:

Alan Cliff, interim dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town, challenges us to consider individual and collective agency while enacting leadership remotely, given the unique opportunities and challenges presented to us in online spaces and in a context of enormous diversity as well as social and economic inequality.

Anthea Jacobs, an advisor: higher education at Stellenbosch University, alerts us to the need for academics to remember their humanitarian aims and purposes by reaching out and continuously communicating with our students who also feel uncertain and disrupted by this crisis.

Daniela Gachago and Xena Cupido at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology assert that online and blended teaching solutions cannot be thought of interchangeably, and should include collaboration and perspectives from all stakeholders, including showing empathy for students and their contextual realities.

Felix Maringe, head of the School of Education at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), urges us not to forget that quality and effectiveness of students’ learning are paramount and should not be sacrificed for quick neoliberal gains through cheaper online provision. We should be mindful of the maxim, “pedagogy before technology”.

Jean Farmer, academic advisor at Stellenbosch University, juxtaposes “data-lite” and “data-free” zero-rated providers and their seductive promotions against the concerning reality that right now our students and parents are vulnerable in the face of job losses, economic and financial instability and minimised essential services in this lockdown period.

Myrtle Adams-Gardner, academic developer: instructional design and development at Wits University, and Nalini Chitanand, a coordinator of staff development at the Durban University of Technology, in separate pieces, remind us that online facilitation is about reflecting on the best ways to create quality learning and improve the effectiveness of one’s teaching. As online facilitators, we need to create learning environments where meaning is created out of the experiences that learners share, to make sense of and co-create knowledge using a pluralistic approach to education theory.

Siyabulela Sabata, curriculum developer at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, suggests a departure from the dominant neo-liberal logic, which puts emphasis on standardisation and teacher-proof curriculum to be covered and tested at all costs by adopting a considered curriculum that recognises that university colonial histories and their socio-cultural powers and properties dictate who gets access to “the goods of the university”.

There is a general sense through the pieces submitted above of shared fears, uncertainties, frustrations and contestation of the exponential online solutions available now, globally and locally. There is a sense that leadership, management, academic and student choices, within South Africa, should be focused on and driven by needs shaped by institutional contexts and their differentiation. There can be no one-size-fits-all model for the entire sector.

Despite the technological advancements currently promoted in the African space, research intensive universities, comprehensive universities and universities of technology need to reconsider their unique contextual, access, resource and capacity realities to make sound curriculum decisions to the benefit of all stakeholders.

Fait accompli?

Our fear is that the sudden (and necessary) move to online teaching is gaining huge traction as a fait accompli, without consideration of the losses and gains that migrating to online facilitation and other modalities will incur for the sustainability of the academic project in all countries.

If the current dominant discourse, namely “going online is the only solution”, is not simultaneously underwritten by academic, sociological and pedagogical rigour, as a necessary if not sufficient condition for responsible migration from face-to-face to online teaching mode, online teaching could quickly become (if not already) the mode of choice in the near and distant future. This mode can easily mask or make invisible social inequality and access to the “goods of the university”.

The politics of teaching in a context such as South Africa, a post-colonial, post-apartheid and pre-decolonial space still struggling to address social and material inequities in teaching and learning across the sector, is a necessary check and balance to keep us socially aware, pedagogically relevant and collaboratively moving towards achieving a social justice agenda for higher education, locally and globally.

Using a “rinse and repeat” formula for online migration without being contextually and socially aware will mean that the marginalised voices shouting from the periphery to “leave no-one behind” will become faint and hushed whispers, as we lunge towards the new norm(al) in higher education globally. In doing so, we reproduce inequality, albeit on a different platform and in a different mode of teaching and learning.

In the interest of promoting collaborative and relational engagement among staff responsible for enhancing educational quality and scholarly teaching and learning in the time of COVID-19, we hope that a national discussion or an online convention among academics, university management, policy-makers, statutory bodies and other professional associations is encouraged urgently.

This will open up ways of thinking together and embracing diverse, pluriversal and contextually relevant ways of knowing and being in response to the crisis. Academics and students are part of the community and are highly capable of contributing to the decisions taken now.

Working in this inclusive way is redolent of African philosophical ways of responding to life, as one colleague Siya Sabata reminds us using a Southern African Nguni expression, “umntu ngumntu ngabantu” that says, “human flourishing of each is a condition for human flourish of all’. Put another way, “Ubuntu” translates as: “I am because we are”.

Individually and collectively, we are all implicated in the stances being adopted now to contain the inevitable collateral damage in higher education later, in the aftermath of COVID-19.

We might have to all “hold the line” now, but as “higher” educators, we have to also “mind the proverbial gap” between those who have and those who don’t; those making decisions and those who are decided for; those who can speak and those silenced by the inequitable schisms and fissures (always there), being resurrected now in the online mode.

“This article was first published on University World News and written by Kasturi Behari-Leak and Rieta Ganas”

Dr Kasturi Behari-Leak (PhD) is the president and chair of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (HELTASA) and interim director: academic staff and professional development and leadership at the Centre for Higher Education Development, University of Cape Town, South Africa; Rieta Ganas is the vice-chair of HELTASA and academic staff development lecturer at the Centre for Learning, Teaching and Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.