COVID-19 has not sounded a death knell on contact teaching as we know it, says Dr Sizwe Mabizela

If you thought that COVID-19 had sounded a death knell on contact teaching as we know it, think again, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University stated at last week's webinar titled The Impact of Universities' COVID-19 Response on Different Student Groups.

The webinar was the first in a series being organised jointly by HSRC and USAf, to facilitate academic and public discussions on matters of societal interest from time to time. This first event took place on 22 June, in celebration of Youth Month.

Dr Mabizela said if the high dropout and failure rates experienced in distance learning institutions were any indication, conversion to total remote learning would be "misguided." The Rhodes University Principal, who also chairs Universities South Africa's Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG), said by believing that digital education should replace contact teaching and learning, "we run the risk of producing highly educated people with severely underdeveloped human skills. They will just be robots," he said.

Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University.
Dr Sizwe Mabizela
Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, was in total agreement. Having stated this in a recent interview, he reiterated at the webinar that he did not believe the emergency mode of teaching that universities had resorted to, in 2020, to salvage the academic programme, mapped out the path for a new reality.

"Really, we are not in a new normal," Professor Bawa said in opening up the floor for discussions at the webinar. "We must think about this as an interregnum to allow us to think about the future, and the relationship between the universities and society," he said.

Prior experience in digital teaching and learning did little to soften the blow on UP

Professor Tawana Kupe
Prof Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal University of Pretoria.

Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria said COVID-19 had had "a paralysing effect" on the university's fundamental model of contact teaching. This was despite the fact that since 1998, the university had been experimenting with hybrid teaching and learning.

Up to "96% of our undergraduate courses have a substantive online presence," he said. "I don't mean a few hyperlinks here and there and things that are accessible online. There is a substantial presence.

"We have what we call a flipped teaching model where students must prepare before class, engage during scheduled class time and consolidate after class. At all three levels there is an online component that is embedded."

Notwithstanding that UP had invested some hundred million in updating their IT infrastructure in 2019, and despite the university's policy to not leave a single student behind, "the inequities and inequalities of the system we live in have not allowed us to do so simultaneously and synchronously," said Prof Kupe.

Furthermore, the university was still struggling to locate 2% of their international students, scattered throughout the world, with the majority coming from the African continent.

Prof Kupe rolled out some statistics to highlight online learning successes:

  • 61.6% of the students attended at least 60% of the 33 370 virtual, live collaborative classes in May;
  • 22.9% students found attending them extremely challenging because of technical problems; and
  • 72.3% of students participated in virtual student study groups.

Profit-driven network operators became a stumbling block

Students hit a problem when it came to uploading assessments and tests, as the system kicked them out. "We're not being prioritised by the telcos [i.e. telecommunication companies] because we're not a revenue-generating activity since we're zero rated," said Prof Kupe. So the university had to provide data for this use.

Like the University of Pretoria, Rhodes University had prepared learning materials and delivered them to students who could not immediately engage with remote online teaching. Even though the university had dealt with the lack of devices by procuring about 1500 laptops to distribute, affordability of data proved to be another challenge.

Dr Mabizela said the mobile network operators Vodacom, MTN, Cell-C and Telkom had "played hardball with access." USAf had negotiated a deal with them to zero-rate the domains of all 26 public universities but "of course the mobile operators were clearly not keen on this approach.

"Their strategy was to cut deals with certain institutions and once those deals were cut, others were left with no choice – a divide and conquer strategy". They had ended up with "costly and unsustainable provision of mobile data bundles and, in some cases, a risk of reverse-billing," he said.

Although UP is one of very few institutions able to complete the 2020 academic year within this calendar year, this has largely been buoyed by the level of financial investment that few other public institutions can afford. In addition to providing data to students, UP has been providing telephonic tutoring to students struggling to connect digitally. The university has also been providing online counselling services to students.

Digital learning demands specific attributes

Dr Sizwe Mabizela said his university's strength lay in face-to-face delivery, so reworking and adapting the material for online had been "nothing short of a herculean task". He added that the switch to digital delivery in such a short space of time had been traumatic to all institutions. In fact, most universities with inadequate infrastructure were placed at a serious disadvantage.

The TLSG Chair stated that online teaching required a very different pedagogic approach from that utilised in contact teaching. Merely taking away the physical presence automatically removed student-lecturer and peer-to-peer engagement and interaction. In order to participate productively in remote learning, a student needed a high level of self-discipline, a sense of purpose and highly developed time-management skills. "In short, a student must be able to take full responsibility for their learning," he said.

Dr Mabizela stated that some students simply cannot cope with the pressure of deadlines. Without the opportunity to interact with and motivate each other, some students felt a sense of isolation, which discouraged them from engaging with their work.

"One can never underestimate the emotional, mental and psychological challenge experienced by students and staff as they try to teach and learn and, at the same time, try to cope under the ever-present threat of the virus and living under the lockdown regulations," he said. The university's counselling services were trying to assist with this.

How realistic is it to capitalise on students returning to campus?

On the strength of the three leaders' (RU, UP and USAf) commitment to afford all vulnerable students a second chance to catch up and complete the year, the virtual audience had responses and comments.

Prof Bawa, for one, had re-assured the audience that universities would reconstitute the year and engage in high-intensity teaching to accommodate the students who had struggled with remote learning. Dr Mabizela, in turn, had expressed commitment to accommodate catch-up classes once Rhodes University resumed face-to-face teaching to ensure all students are at the same level.

Professor Kupe had also echoed that some students would need second chances because of their unique circumstances.

We capture some of the audience comments, verbatim, below:

"I wonder if the only way that 'no student is left behind' is if all modules are taught again when all students return to campus and can access devices and wifi (particularly in universities with high numbers of NSFAS funded students)"-- Carol Bertram

"The problem, Carol, is that not all students will return to campus given the limitations posed by the COVID19 pandemic!...So universities are returning certain students and not others, further deepening inequalities amongst students…and students that are not NSFAS funded are left behind since the outbreak of the crisis...They are expected to hustle on their own. So I am not sure if this is helping...the situation of addressing embedded inequalities within post school education." -- Fikile Vilakazi

"We need to think about continuity of education and the academic project. We will never have another 2020. What if this pandemic continues for two or maybe 3 years?" -- Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela

"When giving second chances, who will cover the expenses of this extension in the degrees of these students who already are under financial strain?" - Virusha [surname unidentified]

Other concerns raised by the virtual audience revolved around the re-accreditation of online programmes; quality of course content; the extent to which academics were receiving the support they needed in this crisis; the increased workloads and the question of whether academics' performance agreements were being reviewed in line with COVID-19 demands, etc. However, time constraints did not allow for the discussion of all issues.

Does COVID-19 signal the end to contact teaching?

Dr Mabizela said while it would seem inconceivable to talk of post-pandemic higher education when the virus infection was rising so rapidly, he challenged those who might think this is the end of face-to-face teaching to think again. The question to ponder was, would a blended teaching and learning approach provide as rich a learning environment as face-to-face teaching, as we now know it?

He reiterated that Rhodes University had enjoyed the highest pass rates on account of being a highly residential and contact institution, optimising students' opportunity to learn with and interact with peers from diverse backgrounds.

Prof Bawa said the idea of universities converting somehow to blended learning might turn out to be correct in the future. In his opinion, this time of stress was not the best time to reconceptualise the role of universities.

Furthermore, he added that "globally, the jury's out on blended learning. It is not necessarily the kind of the panacea to all the problems we face in the long term". Prof Bawa argued that "the humanising role of universities, and building the nation, is best done in the face-to-face mode."

Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf
This traumatic period is no time to reconceptualise the role of universities, Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, said.
This traumatic period is no time to reconceptualise the role of universities, Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, said.

From the virtual audience, Dr Michael Cosser, a Chief Research Specialist in the Democracy, Governance & Citizenship (DGC) work stream within one division of the HSRC, concurred with Prof Bawa from the chat platform. "We miss so much in online interaction: so much of learning happens in the interstices between formal engagement of teacher and learner... Exclusive online learning can never be a replacement for face-to-face engagement."

Rather than fixating themselves on total conversion to digital learning, Prof Bawa said universities would do well to recognise that the social compact built on the National Commission on Higher Education in 1995 had broken down. '"How do we reconstitute a social compact between universities and society? That has to be the key question, as we head into the future."

All in all, both the panellists and the audience labelled this webinar a very insightful discussion. Dr Mabizela equated universities' response to COVID-19 to "fixing a ship in the middle of a storm." He said the sector needed to work together creatively and imaginatively, to recreate South Africa's economy.

From NSFAS, Dr Angelique Wildschut, Senior Manager for Research and Policy, had spoken about how NSFAS had continued to pay student allowances during lockdown. She said this pandemic had forced NSFAS to introspect seriously and look beyond its mandate into the policy arena. To that end, they were engaging the Minister of Higher Education and Training on funding for postgraduate studies. They were also exploring the implications of a possible extension of the 2020 academic year on student allowances. As such, Dr Wildschut encouraged each player in the higher education sector to move out of their organisation's core mandates to identify and advocate for creative policy solutions to new sectoral challenges.

In conclusion, Prof Crain Soudien, CEO of the HSRC and co-convenor with USAf's Prof Bawa, encouraged continuity of these engagements on how the knowledge production sector must move forward.

Within the context of the HSRC-USAf partnership, the two organisations will draw from universities' insights and best practices shared in this webinar to influence future policy considerations. In this regard, the aim will be to enhance students' experience of learning and success.

This webinar attracted an audience of 250, representing largely academics, higher education leaders, researchers, policy makers, students as well as members of the public.

Co-written by Gillian Anstey, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa, and 'Mateboho Green, USAf's Manager: Corporate Communication.

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