Teaching and Learning in the time of Corona Virus-19:
bringing the social into conversation with the epistemic project as we go online.
Dear HELTASA Members
We write to you at a time when the world and humanity as we know it, is under threat from COVID-19. This pandemic has disrupted our routine, compelling us into panic-buying, self-quarantining, lockdowns, company and institutional closures and physical and social distancing. It has also forced us to dig deep and think creatively, innovatively, sustainably and collaboratively about how we can rally forces and come together to fight the spread of a virus that has us in its grips, threatening our very existence.
As academics and practitioners belonging to various teaching and learning communities, we come together now as a HELTASA community. As a professional organisation, we are especially hard pressed to apply ourselves to teaching, assessing, evaluating, facilitating and engaging differently so that the academic project, as planned for 2020, is not compromised but also adopts a responsible and socially just approach to the teaching and learning solutions that have surfaced in the last week.
Despite our intense engagement with teaching and learning theories, concepts, frameworks, taxonomies, approaches and philosophies, through the various professional learning opportunities we have undertaken, some may argue that nothing yet has prepared us adequately enough for the complexity and enormity of the task ahead. This onerous task involves a process of on-boarding to online and virtual spaces, among others, where we need to engage in remote and online teaching in an effort to maintain social distancing at all costs, as per national and international protocols, to ward off spread of the virus, and the untold damage to families, communities, nations and the global village at large.
But the current moment also offers an opportunity for us to think anew about the traditional university. To respond to the demands our contexts now place on us, can we re-conceptualise and re-purpose its traditions, conventions, canonical features and its place in our knowledge society in light of crises such as this and to serve the greater public good? As a core producer of knowledge, the university has to also accept that it can no longer claim that it is the sole source of legitimate and credible knowledge. As social problems linked to grave systemic issues such as inequality, injustice and exclusion have proliferated, we have seen how entities outside the university borders have shaped and influenced social life. Social media is a prime example of a knowledge grapevine, fake news withstanding, where the public shares, generates, exchanges and creates knowledge on a daily basis via the various platforms that users inhabit. The rate of this production is instantaneous, and the breadth is prolific. Like the virus, in many cases, it cannot be adequately contained and neither should it be, because unlike the virus, it produces different ways of looking at the world and offers those marginalised and silenced by mainstream media platforms, a space to insert their voice and subjectivities, their perspectives and their sense of self. Without this interplay between formal, academic knowledge production channels and informal, indigenous and situated knowledge creation, we would continue to reproduce a skewed snapshot of academic life as we know it.
As universities prepare to move the planned curriculum to an online space, many hidden curriculum issues such as physical and epistemological access, availability of data and bandwidth, language challenges, need for scaffolding etc (issues that we grapple with in F2F mode) are surfacing here too. Moving from one mode to another while maintaining a business-as-usual approach, when all about us is shouting out that there is nothing usual or normal about the situation we are in, will not sustain us in the long run. The issues of inequality and unlevelled access in the F2F mode are amplified now in the virtual mode and we need to guard against being uncritical about what this means for the maxim ‘leave no one behind’! While a solutions-driven response to the pandemic, in an attempt to avert the panic about losing time, money, throughput, funding, etc is fully understandable as university management has to take care of this aspect too, it is our business as teaching and learning leaders and champions to make the move to online in full awareness of contextual issues that will not be invisible in the online space. After 26 years of democracy, there are still gross inequalities on social, political, educational and national levels; which have reared their ugly heads and become even more visible now in the wake of COVID-19.
Is it possible that we have not been focusing on the right questions or the relevant problems? The fact that access to education is still contingent on who has the ability (financial and otherwise) to make gains of a university education, in whatever mode and both locally and globally, is telling. Do we have to perhaps face the issue squarely now that the future is not a time capsule out there but a critical moment unfolding before our eyes. What we do about it, in the current moment, will affect our lives for many generations to come.
As a teaching and learning community, it is our business and concern to bring the social into conversation with the epistemic and academic project. Now is the time to use our embodied knowledge and awareness to infuse all online models with a pedagogy of care and methodological clarity that takes into account those learners who will still feel marginalised, alienated and invisible in the online space. As we move from face-to-face (F2F) to online mode, we should pause for a moment to engage in critical reflexive practice on what the current moment means for our students, ourselves, the university, the community, workers and the HE sector at large and see if and how we can infuse the online approach with the necessary levels of criticality so that we apply ourselves to online teaching, as best we can, in socially just ways.
Our task now, especially in the 21-day lockdown period, to think and feel together about how we can supplement the onboarding to online now, with all we know, all we are and all we have committed to do to make higher education a transformed and equitable place for all students and academics.
When we are in a post-Coronavirus-19 place, we want to be able to claim that on our watch, we did our bit to ensure that the teaching and learning project that we hold so dear, has done its best in the time of COVID-19, to respond to and offer support and suggestions to the broader academic community so that we all can move together towards a common goal; which does not mean we all have to agree on the detail. It is here that HELTASA can play role.
We are inviting you to engage in these activities to think through and create resources that take care of both content and social issues such as gender, race, language, ethnicity, positionality, intersectionality and other dimensions of difference that trip students up in their quest to be the best they can be in their courses. The teaching and learning project has thus far focused on key concepts that shape our thinking and practice in a variety of educational scenarios. These include learning theories, teaching approaches, technology enhanced teaching, SoTL, assessment, evaluation, curriculum design and change, among others. Transformation and decolonisation are dominant discourses in HE now, and many academics are aware of and have conceptualised pedagogical ways of responding to these calls very well.
We ask you now to consider your role, as an academic, practitioner or facilitator at your university and as a member of HELTASA, and your contribution as this pandemic unfolds. Wherever you find yourself in the academic hierarchy, how has the situation affected you and your students, peers and community; how have you responded, using all that you know, all that you are and all that we are trying to be; and how have you influenced your circle of peers, departmental management to think/ think differently about your context and how teaching can be done in responsible ways?
We will be opening up a space for comments and for upload of articles, papers and online resources that take account of the salient issue raised above. We want to support you and each other to do this well and to do this together – not just to get the job done and manage the COVID-19 situation but to do the job well and lead the teaching and learning project from wherever we find ourselves.
We can do this. We will do this. Together. Now is the time!
Dr Kasturi Behari-Leak (PhD)
HELTASA Chair and President
Obo the HELTASA Executive Team