Dorris Mgengi- Gweva
HELTASA Executive Team: Membership Co-ordinator
Manager: First Year Student Support in the Centre for Learning and Teaching Development at Walter Sisulu University.

Covid-19 hit the world at a very critical time because higher education is facing massification and new dilemmas growing in the higher education curriculum in a context of increasing processes of digitisation with emerging discourses like “unbundling higher education”. For higher education in Africa, high student enrolment in higher education is a challenge in relation to infrastructure (or lack thereof).

The timing of this fatal disease in the first semester of the academic year of higher education in South Africa is problematic. It means that first year students entering the university, who face many challenges such as the transition from basic education into higher education, adapting into a new environment where they are starting to learn to be independent for the first time, living away from the comfort and safety of their parents and extended families, some leaving their province for the first time, are fast forwarded into a bigger crisis. Long before they could orientate or transition into their first year at university and the new environment, boom!! Covid-19 strikes and more changes are announced by institutions of higher learning in response to not losing time during the national lockdown.

The HE sector, which comprises 26 universities nationally, has had varied responses to the outbreak and management of the spread of the disease. The institutionally differentiated universities are made up of historically disadvantaged institutions and former white universities which are further categorized into universities of technology, research-intensive, comprehensive universities and traditional universities. While some universities are driving the response and change, many other universities show a limited and unrealistic response to Covid19.  The limited response is possibly due to some institutions still reeling from real issues on the ground such as student protests over fees and accommodation; issues that were far from resolved before the announcement of the national lockdown. In some universities, registrations go on for many months due to student protests. Some issues relate to the transition from HEQC to HEQSF aligned programmes, where some of the programmes are still waiting for the South African Qualifications Authority to issue registration numbers so that students can be enrolled.

Flipping the classroom to online learning is somewhat unrealistic for rural based institutions, ill-equipped to deal with the issues of connectivity themselves but also draw students from villages that do not have good network connectivity and electricity. Some students travel to town to charge their cell phones because there is no electricity in the village. If the universities could not afford student access to free Wi-Fi in classroom and residences before lockdown, how are they going to afford online resources and access for all students now, in the crisis?  Apart from data access and connectivity challenges, first year students might be at a slight advantage and better able to engage with new classmates online due to their social media experience, compared to their seasoned professor, who, most probably is not a digital native, but has to now quickly learn how to facilitate online learning. 

Historically disadvantaged institutions appear to be very silent about their strategies and responses to Covid-19 and many academics and students who are disrupted by the virus, are struggling to find their footing at a time when everything is so shaky. There may be many good reasons for this silence, but these are not articulated clearly so the silence may easily be interpreted as non-involvement. The absence of communities of practice or simply lack of experience in some universities of using the relevant platforms to discuss issues, and/or not being exposed or used to the culture of discussing issues, could also be a constraint leading to the silence.

Whatever the reasons for the silence, the effect is deafening. I want to break the silence by asking some critical questions about our position right now and our role in the differentiated higher education of South Africa:

  1. How do we offer socially just learning and teaching for first time entering students?
  2. How do we create a conducive learning platform for a new student with anxiety of being in a new learning space called higher education, dealing with new literacies like faculty, student number, lecture room, lecturer not to mention discipline literacies and learning management systems? Now they have to learn under extreme conditions where touching surfaces may cause disease, making physical contact life-threatening.
  3. How do institutions of higher education accommodate FTENs in their response plans to Covid-19, let alone for foundation provision students. How is geographic location and affordability considered in the move to for remote learning?
  4. Are the lecturers involved in discussions and plans for remote learning? What is the response of lecturers who are computer illiterate and technologically challenged?
  5. Are all universities ready for remote teaching?
  6. What is the role of academic staff development (ASD) in enhancing quality learning and teaching in time of remote teaching? Can lecturers successfully teach when they are fully staying at home? 
  7. Are academic staff developers technologically prepared to work remotely? If ASD and lecturers are technologically challenged, is moving to online learning for institutions possible and realistic? 
  8. Is online learning simply about lecturers loading slides and videos onto the Learning Management System? 
  9. Can the move from being a discipline specialist to becoming a university teacher (pedagogy) and now a technology expert, occur successfully within this crisis? 
  10. Can online learning resources be procured within the short space of time?
  11. Is introduction of remote learning inclusive of diversity of students enrolled in universities of South Africa? Can students really learn when they are fully staying at home? 

Covid-19 is not just a physical life threating pandemic disease but it hits hard on Higher Education teaching and learning. Covid-19 resulted in a national lockdown of 21 days which is three (3) weeks of thirty weeks (30) of teaching and learning time when translated into notional hours (approximately 120). The universities are exploring alternatives to respond physical distancing and they are considering online learning. 

I do not think that all universities are ready for online learning because it was never part of their academic planning. The integration of technology into learning and teaching does not happen only on the internet but needs prior pedagogical skills and innovation too. Are South African universities ready to facilitate remote learning or will we have to consider shifting the 2020 academic year? How is online learning going to be inclusive given differentiated higher education based on differentiated resources? Inequality is real in South African institutions of higher education so response to Covid-19 can never be a one-size-fits-all solution. I am challenging silent institutions and lecturers about their plans for Covid-19 response by asking them to break the silence by beginning to address some of the questions I have raised in this piece. 

What else, besides online learning, can institutions offer in response to Covid-19?