A blended teaching and learning environment cannot succeed if students and staff do not all have access to reliable devices, network, internet connectivity and adequate data to engage fully in teaching and learning. This is where the findings of two research projects undertaken to explore student and staff experiences during the CoVID-19 pandemic intersect.
The surveys – Students’ Access to and Use of Learning Materials (SAULM) and Staff Experiences of, and Perspectives on Teaching and Learning and its Future (SEP-TLF) – were undertaken by the University of the Free State’s Centre for Teaching and Learning — one at the peak of the national lockdown in 2020, and another in 2021, respectively.
The two studies’ findings were presented to senior academics, policy makers and stakeholders at a hybrid symposium hosted by Universities South Africa in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education and the University of the Free State on 28 June, at the National Research Foundation’s headquarters in Pretoria.
Professor Francois Strydom (left), Senior Director at the CTL and his research partner, Dr Sonja Loots (right), presented the findings, first explaining that 24 out of the 26 had participated in the SAULM survey that attracted nearly 50 000 student respondents, 69% of whom were funded by National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). The SEP-TLF study, for its part, had attracted 1851 academic staff respondents, representing 3,4% of the total teaching staff within the sector. Professor Strydom said although staff response was disappointing, it was understandable given the extent of data collection that was going on at universities at the same time, for purposes of reporting on various other issues to the Department of Higher Education and Training.
SETTING THE PARAMETERS
The two main research questions for the SAULM survey, which placed particular focus on NSFAS-funded students, were:
- To what extent are students able to access and use different forms of learning materials?
- In what way, if any, did the students’ access to learning materials differ before and after the national lockdown?
SEP-TLF, the staff equivalent, had explored staff experiences during the pandemic, focusing on their wellbeing, support they needed, training received, their resilience and adaptability, access to resources and the challenges they faced in teaching, and challenges they perceived their students to be experiencing. Academic staff were also asked how the pandemic would impact the future of teaching and learning, and what changes they thought would be needed to ensure quality, while academic leaders were asked about the experiences of their staff and how they could best be supported in the “new normal.”
The two studies’ findings were distilled into the nine themes summarised below.
THEME ONE: Enhancing blended learning and teaching infrastructure: access to devices, data and connectivity
The SAULM survey found a vast difference in device ownership between NSFAS-funded students and others, with 53% of NSFAS students owning either a laptop or desktop computer, compared to 75% of non-NSFAS funded students who reported similar devices ownership. Almost equal numbers of NSFAS funded (89%) and non-NSFAS supported students (90%) also reported reliance on smartphones for study purposes – not ideal, considering that 50% of the respondents reported difficulty in using smartphones for study purposes.
It was evident, though, that NSFAS students had better access to connectivity infrastructure, as they could afford to buy data bundles more than the rest of the respondents while also enjoying free connectivity access through the university and also accessed Wi-Fi hotspots from elsewhere.
However, staff in the SEP-TLF study painted a grim picture of students’ engagement with technology-based teaching (see below), which, according to Professor Strydom, “speaks directly to equity of access to the infrastructure environment.”
Notwithstanding the traumatic effect of the emergency teaching and learning in 2020/21, both students and staff also acknowledged positive experiences from the same period. Some of the narratives from the qualitative responses are captured below:
Staff and students therefore agreed that to create an equitable blended learning and teaching environment, appropriate digital and basic learning infrastructure (including a stable network internet, data and devices) are essential.” Students also urged that flexible content delivery platforms be considered for textbooks, institutionally developed materials as well as Open Education Resources.
THEME TWO: Enabling innovation and quality blended learning and teaching.
The SEP-TLF study found that, for the future, university teaching staff expect their roles to change dramatically as they make more of their lecture recordings available to students; as they use learning management systems (LMS) better in teaching; as they include more blended learning in modules and as they use a wider range of online learning materials.
These therefore necessitate institutional guidance of teaching staff to ensure quality blended learning and teaching. Staff respondents also said for successful integration of pedagogy and technology, guidance needs to be developed on best practices and the philosophy of teaching in technology-based spaces. From the SAULM study, students said institutions could learn the benefits of technology-infused learning from the pandemic and therefore, use the crisis to reimagine learning and teaching.
Professor Strydom said the pedagogy-related questions and the need to re-imagine learning and teaching required the sector to “think differently about the subsidy assumptions we have. Will future subsidies differentiate between face-to-face vs distance teaching?”
THEME THREE: Empowering students with digital and blended learning skills
Although there was huge diversity in students’ responses in this regard, over 80% expressed a need for guidance in using library resources, the Microsoft Office package, how to conduct internet searches including how to use learning software, how to use e-books, recorded lectures, the university’s LMS and email. While over half of the respondents expressed a need to be taught to use social media for learning purposes, over 70% desired to be trained in basic computer skills, in the use of smartphones for academic purposes, and instant messaging as a learning tool.
The graphic below describes students’ experience of digital learning as expressed in the qualitative study:
While encouraging universities to consider training students in basic typing, Professor Strydom said not knowing how to use online resources could be blamed, at least in part, for academic dishonesty (also discussed in theme 5 below). “It relates to students not knowing how to deal with resources in an ethical way.”
THEME FOUR: Enhancing the capacity of our academic staff
It emerged from the SEP-TLF study that teaching staff were more preoccupied with delivering quality work than whether they had a laptop. In Professor Strydom’s words, “They asked: Can you help me facilitate learning better?” Lecturers said they needed support in creating, administering and marking online assessments and in designing blended curricula. They also needed lecture venues enabling recording; training in Open Educational Resources and in the ethical use thereof; as well as basic computer literacy.
“It is well known that there is a shortage around the world of instructional designers in higher education,” Professor Strydom added. “We need to know what the minimum standards are for blended learning and teaching. How can we upskill our staff? How can we do research on quality in blended learning? We need to reconceptualise what academic staff development means, especially in a blended learning environment.”
At this disjuncture, Dr Sonja Loots stepped in to present the last five of the nine themes.
THEME FIVE: Safeguarding assessment integrity
Dr Loots began: “In the SEP-TLF study, lecturers raised concerns about assessment integrity. Cheating in online assessments was a nightmare for lecturers, particularly with the lack of support from institutions.” She said disciplinary bodies were overwhelmed and there were concerns about a drop in standards and integrity in course offerings.
She also said staff reported rife plagiarism, with students copying and pasting from the internet. “This raised concerns about quality,” the Researcher said. “It also made it impossible to evaluate reliably if students had achieved the necessary learning and understanding of the work.”
On the implications of these challenges for a more blended learning and teaching environment, Dr Loots said “There needs to be fast tracked sharing of good practices. For instance, what has been working in what context, and for which institutions, so we can get quality and integrity of assessments in check.”
THEME SIX: Enhancing academic leadership
The SEP-TLF study had asked academic leaders or managers whether they felt supported in various aspects, and their responses are captured below.
Leaders spoke of feeling torn between having to manage their own staff situations and not getting guidance themselves, from their seniors.
So, arising from all of these findings are questions including how the sector plans for academic leaders’ current and future capacity building, the funding implications thereof and whether quality assurance and academic leadership should be fused into each other.
THEME SEVEN: Leveraging data analytics
The SEP-TLF also sought to determine how important academic staff regarded specific data packages.
- 86% said it was very important to have data on student engagement with blended learning and teaching.
- 82% said yes it was very important to have a record of blended learning and teaching.
- 86% said it was important to have institutional data to monitor module success
It became evident that data analytics are important in enabling understanding and quality and in embracing an evidence-based culture. This meant that facilitating academics’ access to relevant, timeous and valuable data could enhance the success of a more blended teaching and learning environment.
THEME EIGHT: Enabling a scholarship in blended learning and teaching
Dr Loots said that one of the most important concerns that academic staff raised –especially in 2020– was that they had no time for research. “The year was overwhelming for most academics, whereas in 2021 people adapted better. But even then, teaching and learning took up all the time so there was none for research.
“As we move forward to a new blended learning environment, institutions will need to invest in scholarship. One way would be to encourage staff to publish on their learning and teaching innovations during this pandemic time,” she said.
THEME NINE: Expanding student financial aid
It was encouraging that 77% of NSFAS-funded students felt they could charge their electronic learning devices whenever they needed to, during the 2020 lockdown. However, they fared a little poorly in comparison to their non-NSFAS peers, at 86%. Less than half (40%) of NSFAS-funded respondents reported having had a quiet place to study during the pandemic, compared to 58% of their non-funded peers, and only 43% of the NSFAS students reported having had good network and internet connectivity at their places of study, in comparison to 62% of their non-funded peers.
However, ability to charge one’s electronic learning device did not spell utopia, as some students lamented data shortages, poor faculty communication and inconducive study environments at home, as the excerpts below demonstrate.
All in all, the SAULM study spelt the need for enhanced and more creative financial aid with a focus on the missing middle students (those whose households’ income is above the NSFAS threshold but is still too low to cover university tuition and all other related expenses) to enable them to engage better with technology-based learning in the new normal.
The researchers’ presentation of findings was followed by a robust discussion as the audience commented, asked questions and made their own contributions to the debate, which is captured in a separate article titled Audience reactions to the survey findings; comments, questions and answers.
Background to the SAULM and SEP-TLF studies
According to Professor Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer at Universities South Africa, the SAULM study was inspired when textbook publishers and booksellers approached USAf in the in 2019, complaining of a decline in the buying of textbooks buying by students since government revised the student financial aid system. “The question arose, about how students were accessing their learning materials. After numerous deliberations on this issue in the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group, we approached the Department of Higher Education and Training and they agreed to fund the study. I am pleased to see that the findings of the two studies have led to a much broader suite of themes.”
The study, SEP-TLF on staff experiences of teaching in the pandemic, was indirectly inspired by the reports USAf began to get from mid-year to December 2020, and into 2021, to the effect that students were performing much better using online platforms than previously with face-to-face learning. What was going on? Professor Bawa says questions that arose around quality and staff experiences of teaching in the pandemic, gave the impetus for this study, which USAf went on to fund in partnership with the Council on Higher Education. The University of the Free State, through its Centre for Teaching and Learning, came in as the implementing partner who conceptualised the survey instrument and went on to administer the study.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa, and
‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication.