What is the future role of the traditional Learning Management System (LMS) currently being used as an online tool at South African universities? This question was posed by Mr Boeta Pretorius (right), Managing Director, Higher Education Information Technology South Africa (HEITSA) and Chief Director: IT at North-West University.
He was addressing Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference that was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) recently. The conference was themed The Engaged University.
During a World of Work Strategy Group breakaway session sub-themed Universities and the new Technology Moment and Society, Mr Pretorius began: “I am wearing two hats today; the primary one as Director of IT at North-West University and secondarily as Managing Director of HEITSA – that serves as a unitary voice for the South African IT profession.”
He recollected when, in March 2020, CoViD-19 struck – necessitating a rapid response in higher education. “We were in crisis mode; but it was crucial that we recover and restore what we had, and that we rebuild and renew.” The rapid response entailed enabling emergency learning, which meant enabling a work-from-home system for students.
Creating new spaces for at-home learning
“The first thing we had to do was to make the LMS available to 20 000 students 24/7. It was a huge responsibility, from the IT side, to keep everything going. We had to provide new e-assessment platforms that we had never had before; the virtualisation of applications for students working from anywhere on any device, provide training, produce videos and capture lectures. All of these were things we had not done before.”
He said security was a big issue, and a priority to enable work from home. “We had to make virtual environments available like VPN; we had to support people remotely and provide technology platforms that people communicate with these days: Zoom, Teams and so on.”
Improved efficiency and productivity
Pretorius said now that the sector is in recovery, every university is on the X-axis – albeit in different modes.
“Recovery means you improve your efficiency and productivity and you look at business optimisation. The era we are now in is strategy reset, business model changes and digital business strategy. It’s an opportunity for us, but also a risk.”
He quoted the Harvard Business Review: “Education is one of the least digitised and most people-intensive economic sectors — suggesting that the opportunity for and risk of technology-driven disruptions is strong.” And so, following the slow march towards more digital business models, higher education technological transformation was rapidly accelerated by the events of 2020. He added that this calls more than ever for technology and analytics-driven online learning experiences and new business models.
“We have to ask: what has changed and what is changing?” Using Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Higher Education, he explained how most technologies go through phases: an innovation trigger, a peak of inflated expectations and a lot of hype.
“Then it goes through the trough of disillusionment – when you have hype and must implement something, you encounter problems, hence disillusionment. Active learning platforms dynamically adjust the way instructional content is presented to students based on their response or preferences,” he said.
Regarding the future role of LMS, Pretorius said: “The digitalisation of traditional diplomas, micro credentials, certification and other qualifications via secure frameworks to capture and present achievements that are verifiable is in the future.
“We all know about education analytics, and digital assessments. Blockchain is an interesting development as it could optimise and transform our education record keeping. It could put learners in charge of their own portfolios without a third party having to verify them,” he said.
An important new teaching development
He also mentioned the Hyflex Classroom as a very important new development, where collaborative teaching spaces allow faculty to teach students on campus and online at the same time, all seen and heard synchronously. Pretorius said as IT leaders, HEITSA had been responsible for delivering access. Diversity, equity and inclusion in society, he said, is key.
“In the past year, we were responsible for the writing of data packages; zero rating and reverse billing devices, making devices available to students, virtual applications, support centres, VPNs…work on the improvement of access is on-going. We want to expand free access to the SANReN (SA National Research Network) to all public libraries, working with TENET (the Tertiary Education and Research Network). Our goal, going forward, is to build partnerships, provide shared services like security scorecard – and make software affordable and accessible to everyone at every university through collaborative procurement.
“We have lots of plans and ideas and have executed on many of them. If we don’t move now, we will become irrelevant,” he concluded.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.