Alan Cliff
Interim Dean
Centre for Higher Education Development
University of Cape Town

As with all the other colleagues writing at this time, I note the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves as individuals, as Higher Education institutions and as a sector. We are all coming to terms with what it means to live at a social distance from most – if not all – colleagues and to work remotely. I believe that, now perhaps more than ever, we are called on as individuals, institutions and as a sector to enact leadership on the broad canvas that is teaching and learning. Many others in this space have recently made a similar point. 

What I guess we are all grappling with is what exactly it means to enact leadership remotely and how we go about that – especially with the unique opportunities and challenges presented to us in online spaces and in a context of enormous diversity and social and economic inequality. One thing is especially clear is that – whilst the online teaching and learning space presents us with opportunities to continue core business – we are simultaneously challenged to do this in a way that tries to avoid replicating the structural, social and economic inequalities and inequities that characterise the Higher Education sector nationally. At one caricatured end, we could take the hopefully unlikely position that going online in this time of crisis is simply a matter of transferring what we do pedagogically in face-to-face contexts to online ones. At another end, we could decide that moving teaching and learning into online spaces is ideologically dubious, pedagogically implausible or practically unachievable. I believe the current situation requires us to respond to the teaching and learning challenges in ways that understand their complexities, that appreciate the contradictions, paradoxes and social injustices within which we are embedded and seek to find ways of knowing, doing and being in these complexities.

One aspect of this complexity which I would like to focus on in this piece is the question of agency in teaching and learning, at both individual and collective levels. I believe that moving teaching and learning into online spaces calls us to think deeply about questions of agency – individual and collective – in the structural and cultural (with due acknowledgement to Margaret Archer’s substantial scholarship) that characterise and distinguish these online learning spaces from face-to-face ones. I want to be clear that I am not thinking of agency solely through a neo-liberal, humanist lens here – though I think this lens offers some insights. This is primarily why I have couched agency in individualist and collectivist terms. 

Traditionally, we have constructed agency in student learning as predominantly residing within the individual student, with the goal of the Higher Education teaching and learning context being about enabling that individual student to find and adopt that agency. In and of itself, I am not objecting to that – the point is that adopting an individualist view of agency that is located within the student does not do justice (a word I choose advisedly here) to the goal and purpose of teaching and learning. And this is especially true for teaching and learning in the South African Higher Education context of diversity and inequality – and for the online teaching and learning project which has become our current centralised focus. I also think it is unhelpful to think of student agency solely in individualist terms – again, especially in an online learning space. We are challenged to enable students to locate their individual but also their collective agency in face-to-face and online spaces. Indeed, I would argue that finding collective agency can be especially powerful in online/remote teaching and learning spaces, where learning in isolation and a focus on external attributions of agency endanger the possibilities presented by students engaging in collectivist, social learning. I am not saying social learning is not possible in online/remote spaces; rather that collectivist agency is especially difficult to cultivate and nurture. We are challenged to create enabling conditions in online spaces for students to enact individualist and collectivist agency – meaning that they take responsibility for their own and other students’ learning. 

One final point here: as Higher Education lecturers, we are challenged to understand deeply the structural and cultural affordances and constraints of online learning, again especially in the current crisis and in the context of inequality. My point is that, if face-to-face teaching and learning contexts render visible major indicators of inequality – such as language and schooling backgrounds, class, race, socio-economic disadvantage – online contexts potentially or actually exacerbate these inequalities. We will face massive teaching and learning challenges in the weeks and probably months to come if we do not as a sector, and institutionally, address the possibility that participation in online learning replicates – and possibly amplifies – the inequalities that we have worked so hard to address in face-to-face learning spaces. As lecturers, I believe we have to start by acknowledging the social and material realities of educational inequality. When then need to ask ourselves, when we design for online learning, what we need to do to ensure that we mitigate these inequalities and whether the online space presents us with special challenges that replicate or exacerbate these inequalities.