Following a presentation on findings of two studies, Students’ Access to and Use of Learning Materials (SAULM) and Staff Experiences of, and Perspectives on Teaching and Learning and its Future (SEP-TLF) at a senior academics’ symposium on 28 June, a rich discussion ensued. We share the comments made and questions asked, as well as the responses offered by Professor Francois Strydom, the lead researcher and his partner, Dr Sonja Loots, below. Professor is a Senior Director at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), and Dr Sonja Loots is a Researcher there.
Dr Tshepo Teele (left), a Researcher in the Council on Higher Education’s Research, Monitoring and Advice department asked the UFS researchers whether the SAULM study compared students’ performance during the pandemic to same before 2020? In other words, are we able to identify what changed along the way, that we could learn from?
Professor Strydom responded that the SAULM study had not asked students about their performance. In the SEP-TLF component, staff had complained about higher performance related to cheating. “Yes, dishonesty was real; but students and staff also became very focused on completing the academic year. It is difficult to distinguish whether students’ increased success was attributable to increased focus on completing the academic year and what role cheating might have played.”
Dr Loots added that there were a lot of contradictions in the student responses. While others were stating studying in difficult circumstances but acknowledged lecturers’ patience and leniency, others said the pandemic had helped them to focus better and to engage better with the study material. “We also heard staff mentioning that teaching online ‘challenged me in how I do my assessments.’ So, it is difficult to ascertain how much of the student success could be credited to their enhanced diligence.”
Professor Robert Balfour (right), Deputy Vice Chancellor, Teaching and Learning at the North-West University asked: What are the implications of these findings for the conceptualisation of university education and access? What, in your view, are the risks to an uncritical reversion to the “the way it was”?
Professor Strydom: For the first part, I believe this is an opportunity to think of a better way of being. If we’re serious about blended learning and think about access more, we need to talk of an equitable environment that is inclusive and takes into consideration, preparing study materials for a blended learning environment. We cannot go back to the way it was. Many universities have bumped up their infrastructure and made ways to secure data for students, even though the latter is diminishing now.
Professor Lis Lange, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning at the University of Cape Town, said “we need to think of the cost of quality education at this time. What are the risks posed by an uncritical embrace of the “new normal?”
Professor Strydom (left): Technology is not a panacea. It’s still possible to cheat in well-resourced environments with, for instance, proctoring software. It is very difficult to argue against summative assessments that take the form of sit-down exams. On the question of cost, we have to drive down the cost of data massively, as it is prohibitively expensive for the poor. We also have to have a coordinated national conversation with textbook publishers to reduce textbook costs. You cannot have an equitable teaching and learning experience if you do not have a laptop, a tablet or smartphone.
Ms Nikki Korsten, a PhD candidate and Researcher at Stellenbosch University, asked the researchers to address the mental health side, given the massive impact of the pandemic on mental health of students and staff.
Dr Loots: Over 70% of academic staff members were aware of mental health support provided to the universities but only 17% made use of that. Why did they not make use of the available resources? Was it not the right resources? Was it stressful but not so stressful that they needed help? People were aware that help was available.
Professor Strydom: Our SASSE [South African Surveys of Student Engagement] include questions mental health. Health sciences experts say that as a result of the last two years, we can expect a mental health pandemic. The question is, to what extent do we make provision for our students to access resources?
Professor Ahmed Bawa, Universities SA’s CEO, added that an excellent report was available on findings of a USAf students’ mental health study that was funded by the Medical Research Council and completed in 2021. He said 70 000 student respondents had participated in that study, the biggest of its kind done in the world. Findings showed that 18% of students had serious mental challenges – anxiety, etc. “One of the most concerning things was that 10% of students were seen to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A whole range of work is now being done to try to understand this. Higher Health has created an online facility for students to connect with counsellors and psychologists. Indications are that the facility is being heavily used, even though I do not have data to demonstrate that.”
Dr Caswell Ntseno, Quality Assurance Officer & Senior Lecturer at the South African Theological Seminary: Would it be too ambitious to consider online learning as a modality of the future considering that blended learning appears to be a bridge?
Professor Bawa (left): We have to understand that the role of universities is not just to provide students with materials and get them through exams. It is also to create a nation and build responsible citizens. It is difficult to achieve the latter through the online modality, but it doesn’t mean that there won’t be a bigger role for online learning.
As is being seen in the World of Work Strategy Group, there’s increasing pressure for new forms of credentialing so there might well be a bigger footprint for online learning. But it’s very difficult to understand how we will completely replace the kind of face-to-face learning that takes place in our universities. That doesn’t mean there won’t be more enhanced, better use of technology.
We need to think of working towards a national digital teaching and learning platform that provides every student with all instruments required for online learning, and a national LMS which segregates into institutional units so you would have a national system that universities could use. If we want to move towards a more equitable social justice framework, you can’t leave that to universities; you have to develop a national approach. We hope the government will prioritise this as we head into the future.
Professor Strydom: What we see in the data is that academics are concerned with engagement, vital in developing the kind of graduates we need to build the society. But there are limitations to online teaching. If we had excellent bandwidth, we could switch on our cameras and you could learn some of those critical skills. We learn a lot from people’s non-verbal interactions just standing in front of them which I wouldn’t get from purely online. Can you really just replicate what you learn face-to-face, online? We need to discuss it very seriously.
Professor Lis Lange (right) pointed out what she called fundamental constraints to offering quality education in South Africa. “Quality education has ceased to be just tuition. Our institutions provide health services, housing, food and psychological support. Those elements, added to the teaching and learning work we do, is part of quality education that is not funded. Our biggest structural constraint is the inequality that plays out at the socio-economic level. We can go all out to implement the changes we’re proposing to get us to a blended learning environment, but six-hour power cuts are not going to help us get there. Neither will the allocated block grants that get cut to fund this or that other project. Ultimately, the structural constraints caused by the failed development project are our biggest obstacle.
“For me, before we go into the ‘new normal’, we need to understand what we mean by the new normal and be clear on what elements of it we do not want to take into the future.”
Dr Phethiwe Matutu (left), Group Executive: Strategy, Planning and Partnerships at the National Research Foundation, highlighted what she called the impact of the absence of social interaction among students. “Social interaction is a very important aspect of what students learn on university campuses. I am looking at my own personal situation of two households, where one child in the first household attends physical classes and interacts with other students on a daily basis. The other, who is isolated in the second household and studies on her own, only steps out to write tests and examinations. By limiting students’ interaction with one another, we are creating social dwarfs. Online teaching and learning are convenient but let’s find creative ways to facilitate student interaction. Unless we do that, we’re creating humans who are happy to be isolated, will hardly accommodate other people and want to do things when they want to do them, whereas those who intermingle become sociable, responsible citizens.”
In his welcoming address at the 28 June symposium, Professor Ahmed Bawa had said there was a lot that the Higher Education community must learn from the pandemic period. “It’s very easy, now that we’re over the disaster, to think that we will get back to normal. Well, we will not go back to normal,” he said.
“A lot of emphasis is being given to issues of access and social justice, not just in South Africa but also in First World countries. That is what we should preoccupy ourselves with. We must, most importantly, consider how we might improve the quality of Higher Education and how we might improve student engagement and active learning. These are all the big questions that we’ve picked up from this period. We have not done enough yet, to properly understand the full spectrum of the impact of the pandemic.”
Professor Bawa said one of the most disconcerting consequences of the pandemic, being witnessed in the United States, is that students do not want to be on campus anymore. “The question is, what do they get up to? What does that suggest about the demand for higher education as we head into the future? The changes might also have to do with the changing labour market trends which might have implications on demands for higher education.”
The USAf CEO said that if anything came out of the pandemic era was “the importance of working together, bringing in our different strengths and orientations to bear in our pursuit of a better and successful higher education.” He therefore urged senior academics heading into the future, to “continue thinking about how we can work together.”
More on the two studies’ implications for future planning, funding and quality, as higher education gears itself up forblended teaching and learning, will follow, on this platform.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa, and
‘Mateboho Green is USAf’s Manager: Corporate Communication.