A more accessible world; lessons to learn from the pandemic

15-06-21 USAf 0 comment

The current pandemic has had some positive effects that will outlive CoVID-19 and be built on for future generations in the learning and teaching environment. This was the view of Professor Ylva Rodny-Gumede, Head of Internationalisation and a Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

She was speaking at the 6th biennial Research and Innovation Dialogue that was hosted by Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group last Friday. The virtual conference, attended by academics, researchers and policy makers, was themed Research and Innovation in the Post-CoVID Period.

Professor YIva Rodny-Gumede is also a Senior Associate Researcher with the Stanhope Centre for International Communications Policy Research at the London School of Economics.

In her presentation titled: CoVID-19: International Partnerships, she encouraged delegates to look to the health scientists and observe the networks that they had established since the start of the pandemic. She said health scientists had been “crucial for us in the teaching and learning environment because they’ve been very good at outcomes-based learning and exploratory learning from research engagements. We have lots to learn from them. They were also the first to go global in this environment because of their knowledge and insights into the specifics around the pandemic.”

Researchers and those working within the health sciences, she said, had had to communicate with big research entities around the world. “It is fascinating to watch how researchers have come together to share research, how they are thinking innovatively about how to collaborate.”  However, she advised that there were practical issues that arose when facilitating international partnerships, forming new networks and engaging in collaborations within the current context.

“We need to consider the immediate issues that shape higher education, but also the broader issues that shape us, as a society. We also need to consider the global discourse about where we are headed and the future of humanity.” She added that in the current context there are certain challenges that affect us directly.

“As the head of the UJ International Office, I facilitate partnerships and assist the broader university community, its leadership and researchers in forming partnerships. There are challenges, but also innovation and fantastic opportunities that have come out of the current context.”

She said she had seen a huge growth in international partnerships and fears about losing students have not materialised.

On the contrary, Professor Rodny-Gumede said, UJ had taken on the challenge and done very well in both teaching and learning, and in the research space. “We have embraced the technological disruptions that are here and tried to reach out to our partnerships and to our students.”

Strategies implemented during CoVID-19

She also said that thinking out of the box had meant coming up with strategies that would last beyond the pandemic and be built into the model going forward. Not only did UJ engage current partners and leverage off existing partnerships and networks; they also looked for partnerships in areas that they might not have had, pre-pandemic.

“We tend to look towards big partnerships, particularly to the global north, forgetting about partnerships that are in our immediate reach. In this current context, where we have been working mainly online, where we have not had to travel and where we have been able to save time, we have been able to engage new and different partners we would normally not be able to talk to. That is a good thing that has come out of the crisis.

“Also, we have found new ways of engaging our African partners, African universities and African research partners. Until now, we have neglected our immediate partners in the region.” She said that despite technological issues and problems with access to technology, once those hurdles had been overcome, it was easy to reach out. While she acknowledged that there were funding issues, she said that resources saved in the current environment could be redirected elsewhere.

She also added that “while we’ve had to leverage off existing networks, something new has arisen in the space: the idea of thinking through university consortia, to a different degree, and in other ways. This is compelling and talks back to the idea of resource constraints and the sharing of resources.”

She then delved deeper into the formation of African partnerships and being able to reach out to new colleagues and new interesting networks on the continent as “speed dating”. “In the online environment, it is easier to reach out to people without the kind of pressures of travel, costs incurred and so on.” Being able to do quick turnaround and exploratory meetings has shifted the set old ways and been instructive for charting the way forward.

“This speed-dating / reaching out to new and more partners makes it easier for more meetings, smaller meetings – quickly being able to reach out and talk to each other online.”

The UJ professor believes that this disruption has also seen increased opportunities for research and student mobility.

Meeting online with a lot of the university’s big funding partners, foreign delegations and missions and development agencies has been easier with the bonus of being able to involve students in the meetings – easily. There has been an improvement in thematic faculty-to-faculty researcher engagement.

“We’ve been forced to think in a different way. Instead of broad ideas and interests we have centralised them around themes. Of course, foremost in our mind has been the pandemic and how we fight it, but also how we work towards sustainable goals.”

She further said the online environment had opened the potential for capacity building, especially that of involving junior faculty members and university students in the work that is being done. The Head of Internationalisation said that was critical for survival, going forward.

She then drew attention to the issues below, which she said warranted more thought:

  • Considering who to meet, when and who to involve in these engagements;
  • The practicalities of engagements – such as the tools used and quality utilisation of technology;
  • How we provide for disruptions and interruptions;
  • How to provide for our colleagues in terms of technology, and how to make it easier for other people to work in an online environment. “As we know, we have access to very good facilities in South Africa. However, some of our students, and colleagues on the continent, might not have the same resources and access.”
  • The scheduling of meetings in this online environment needs to be given more thought.  “We often overload our diaries and schedules. We need to space out meetings and provide for a different pace to how we do things.
  • Time zone issues related to international engagement need consideration.
  • The quick turn around times (if online space is used well).

Practicalities of this new environment

In summing up, Professor Rodny-Gumede said: “In a moment when higher education is in crisis and disruptions are seen throughout the system and society as a whole, and many researchers are experiencing a loss of control over the conventions of their discipline/s, it is important to differentiate reality from representation.

“Such a task can be driven through applying older and newer concerns to post-pandemic education, research and collaborations. A consideration of inequities and ethics must lie at the centre of conversations regarding the transformation of education disciplines, research and collaborations as higher education is challenged and transformed.”

Professor Ylva Rodny-Gumede was one of six experts lined up to speak on the broad Dialogue sub-theme: The Impact of CoVID-19 on Research and Post-Graduate Studies. Six other experts were lined up to address the second sub-theme: Ethical Research and Integrity.

Every two years, the RISG R&I Dialogue assembles delegates from the university sector, science councils, civil society and government to deliberate on the most pertinent issues of concern to the sector within the context of research and innovation.  At its peak last Friday, 140 delegates were virtually linked to the 2021 Dialogue. The biennial event is much credited for robust discussions and future thinking.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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