The novel outbreak of COVID-19 that was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and by January 2020 declared a global pandemic has redefined our normal way of life socially, economically and politically. With its transmission attributed to sneezing and coughing, the virus has rapidly spread in all the continents claiming over 21.2 million confirmed cases and 761,777 deaths as of 16 August 2020. South Africa, as of the same date ranked 5th in the world with 587,345 confirmed cases, 472,377 recoveries and 11,839 deaths. The impact of COVID-19 worldwide is undeniably gruesome such that they brought the world to a standstill with only survival as the main agenda in pursuit. The heightened effect of COVID-19 and its epidemiological transmission mechanism necessitated the implementation of strict measures such as social distancing, quarantine and lockdown strategies to control the spreading as well as minimize its effect. On 26 March 2020, South Africa commenced a strict national lockdown that saw higher learning institutions, among others halting their operations with only essential services remaining operational.
The national lockdown of all regarded non-essential higher education operations saw the suspension of academic and administrative activities on campuses. Thus students and non-essential staff relocated to operate from their homes. Accordingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a significant disruption in the world of education, consequently forcing higher learning institutions to re-think their strategies for continuity amidst the epidemic, as the epidemic seems to linger on for a while. Moreover, higher education institutions’ leadership and managers have realized the need to empower both students and teachers to be prepared and become adaptive of any future disruptions that might become a part of the daily teaching and learning arena.
The Online Resumption of Higher Education Activities in South Africa
The phased easing of the lockdown restrictions announced on 1 May 2020 resulted in the gradual reopening of administrative activities and eventually academic activities mostly in an online mode. Various business continuity strategies have been implemented to circumvent the COVID-19 hurdle in facilitate delivery of education. With social distancing restrictions still in force, Information, Communication Technology (ICT) has taken a central role in these strategies. As a result, higher education institutions are becoming more digitally focused, shifting to online platforms. Correspondingly, we have witnessed the migration of learning from physical classrooms on campus to virtual online classes with most higher education institutions undertaking the responsibility of providing routers, laptops and data bundles for their staff and students alike to facilitate learning amidst the crisis. Moreover, the government in support of such initiatives has urged telecommunication companies to zero-rate, that is to charge zero rands to accessing some informational and educational websites. However, these efforts to operate under the new ‘normalcy’ pose challenges, beg the question that, are the higher education institutions and the constituency that they serve ready for online mode of service?
Migrating to online operation has exposed not only higher education institutional Information Technology (IT) readiness but also the nations’ readiness that impacts the connectivity of the corresponding stakeholders, specifically the students. The state of emergency as a result of the pandemic has led to a change in the mode of operation, leaving higher education institutions struggling for both equipment and technical skills to facilitate the transition. Higher learning institutions have been forced to conduct crush-courses to both staff and students on how to use digital platforms such as zoom, Microsoft teams and Moodle for teaching, learning and administrative activities. Likewise, the online mode came with additional operational costs, including the purchase of equipment and data bundles to facilitate connectivity to the Internet, thus constraining the already meagre higher education institutions budgets. Additionally, the redirecting of budget funds at national level towards first response activities such as purchasing of COVID-19 test kits, personal protective equipment (PPEs), medicines and the recruitment of health care staff and volunteers has further heightened the financial burden of higher education institutions. With the uncertainty on when South Africa will be COVID-19 free, the sustainability of the online arrangement for HE provision is questionable.
Furthermore, South Africa’s Internet connectivity problem, especially in rural areas, is still a challenge yet to be resolved by the government and other relevant stakeholders. Despite progress made in expanding Internet connectivity, achieving an Internet penetration of 62% in January 2020, connectivity in rural South Africa where majority resides is still low. The sporadic and unstable Internet connectivity has students and staff alike struggling to locate stable network either away from their residences or to areas of high altitude in order to perform any online teaching and learning activities.
Also, the loss of or limited human interaction that online platforms permit has proven overwhelming to HE teaching and learning. With the limited human interaction in online teaching, some students find it challenging to cope with learning. Likewise, the abrupt transition to online teaching and learning has taken a toll on the psychological readiness not on HE students and staff but the community at large. Lockdown restrictions required one to be confined to their residencies cohabitating with other family members, which may not be conducive for teaching or learning.
Lastly, students undertaking courses that require laboratory or collaborative work, such as chemistry lab work or clinical session for medicine students, for which virtual infrastructure supporting these tasks is are not yet available in most South African higher education institutions, were left behind in the first phase of reopening. These students were on a standstill and their academic time lost until when lockdown restrictions were eased and access to campus facilities was permitted. The higher education institutions made no adjustments whatsoever on the academic calendar for the lost time in which such students could not access the requisite facilities and platforms necessary for their learning process. The guidelines for the phased higher education institutions’ reopening in level 3 of lockdown, stipulates that at any one phase only 33.3% of the population is to be allowed on campus. Consequently, the first phase of reopening that commenced from 1 June saw most higher education institutions permitting only final year students with clinical practice requirements and those using laboratories as well as the corresponding lecturers and lab technicians. However, subsequent students who were not on the final year suffered the loss of semester time for which most universities did not adjust in the respective students’ academic calendar.
A Post COVID-19 Scenario in Higher education institutions in South Africa – Carving the new normal
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the weakness of higher education institutions’ business continuity strategies and consequently necessitating re-thinking. The reliance on face-to-face teaching has been disrupted with the calamitous effects of COVID-19. Therefore, higher education institutions’ business continuity strategies must align and account for scenarios of a total shutdown of contact classes to pave the way for continual operations. The following are some considerations that higher education institutions should take into consideration moving forward post COVID-19.
Blended teaching and learning at all levels:The COVID-19 pandemic has re-emphasized the need for a blended learning approach, whereby face-to-face teaching and learning is complemented with electronic and online media. Blended pedagogies have been in higher education institutions agenda for a while; however, its implementation has been sluggish for a number of reasons including lack of capital, limited/lack of students’ access and also in some cases just the lack of willingness to implement. The learning experience that the crisis provided makes it impossible to return to purely contact learning ultimately. The future of HE learning is marked with increasing digitization whereby technologies such as Zoom, Moodle and Microsoft team are invading the learning space in South Africa.
Modular teaching and learning: Migrating instructional materials that were designed for contact teaching and learning to an online outlet has proven a challenge to some students’ learning. The loss of human touch that would have complemented explanation has frustrated student’s understanding and their learning process. Therefore, the future of HE teaching needs to adopt a modular teaching and learning approach, which entails instructional designs, that uses development instructional materials based on students. Modular approach stimulates independent studying by encouraging students to work on exciting and challenging activities to engage their focus and attention.
Simulated research activities:Equally, in the area of research, the use of simulations and technologies for data gathering are expected to dominate that space. Applications such as Google form, Survey Monkey among other applications have proven popular in contact-less data gathering. At the same time, the use of secondary data for research is highly encouraged to minimize the for field research activities.
Social media as a teaching and learning tool:Learning amid the pandemic has seen instructors exploiting other un-official means to engage students. For instance, WhatsApp functionalities such as voice note recordings and groups have proven resilient, especially in areas where Internet connectivity is scanty and thus tremendously facilitated teaching and learning. Higher education institutions need to exploit these avenues and see how such technologies can be formally integrated into the teaching and learning approaches.
HE financing challenge:Blended teaching and learning comes with a significant increase in cost, both initial investments as well as operating expenses. Correspondingly, with the subsidy cuts from the state and the inability of students to pay fees as a result of the COVID-19 economic crisis, higher education institutions are faced with a significant financial challenge. Thus, higher education institutions’ strategies must identify sources of stimulus packages, whether from the government or other stakeholders to reverse the impact of COVID-19 and ensure their sustainability.
Declined enrollment of students: A decline is students’ enrollment is anticipated due to the catastrophic economic effects of COVID_19. In South Africa, an increase in the ‘missing middle’cohort that is those who are too poor to afford university by themselves but not poor enough to meet government criteria for funding, is anticipated due to job losses. Therefore, going forward, HEI strategies need to focus on providing financial support to students in this category.
Customized learning: The online environment provides flexibility that the physical or contact learning could not afford both students and teachers alike. When working online, analytics empowers us to determine various behaviour patterns for both success and failure. With such knowledge, learning can be tailored and necessary suggestions made to ensure improved students’ success rate, a distinctive stubborn problem of most higher education institutions in South African. Moreover, through data-driven suggestions from learning management systems, students will have the ability to create their learning curriculum suiting their career aspirations.
In conclusion, South African higher education institutions apart from facing similar problems being faced by other higher education institutions across the world, they have to implement these strategies amidst deep inequalities in the society. The re-imagined future of higher education institutions in South Africa, which is highly saturated with digital solutions, is anticipated to widen the ‘digital divide’ gap and exacerbate the inability by most citizens to access education. Therefore, to sustain this new scenario, higher education institutions need to develop strong public-private partnerships to assist in their initiatives. Equally, the government of South Africa needs to re-think its strategies in order to facilitate realization of the re-imagined higher education scenario financially.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.