South Africa

OP-ED

Remote learning is set to dramatically change the academic landscape

In continuing the roll-out of digital infrastructure to back online learning, universities should be careful not to amplify the digital divide among students, says the writer. (Photo: Unsplash / Sergey Zolkin)

The future of work has been irreversibly altered. Some version of a hybrid remote-office-industry working model is here to stay, depending on the industry. Universities will do well to create curricula that nurture the next level of skills to allow students to succeed in a hybrid working environment.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic during the 2020 academic year saw almost all contact universities around the world faced with an urgent need to swiftly transition to an online, remote or blended approach to teaching and learning if there was to be any hope of salvaging the academic year.

In doing so, institutions had to be cognisant of the needs and requirements of all stakeholders, including technical and academic staff, regulatory bodies, advisory boards, auditors, and many others. Most importantly, of course, were the needs of their students, who were presented with all manner of challenges, leading many to finally realise the multitude of difficulties that students are really faced with.

Remarkably, the mammoth task of building capacity for online engagement among staff and students, developing training workshops, distributing hardware, software and data, delivering printed copies of lecture notes in some instances, and completely designing a remote teaching, learning and assessment plan for all levels of university study was accomplished, on average, in less than two months – far sooner for some institutions. This happened amid lockdowns, isolation, quarantine, and in many instances, childcare, frail care, and personal trauma. With some extensions, the objective of saving the 2020 academic year was or will soon be achieved for all institutions in South Africa.

But implementing a relatively unfamiliar teaching and learning strategy under already unpredictable, challenging conditions has raised many questions around the veracity of the academic project and the extent to which deep learning took place. Conversely, the Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande, in his address to media on 26 November 2020, hailed the academic year as a success, stating that student performance in the remote mode even surpassed that of the traditional contact model.

This statement, based on a single data point (ie pass rates) from the suite of success indicators, prompted calls to explore taking universities online, a sentiment that was met with opprobrium by many senior ranking academics. In a published letter, the group of academics outlined their concerns, citing the minister’s claim as an inaccurate and myopic view of what constitutes success.

While the concerns are certainly legitimate, one cannot ignore some of the other successes that emerged from the 2020 academic year. For one, it highlighted critical areas where universities are required to invest in the coming year/s towards the development, capacity building and infrastructure that is required for meaningful remote pedagogy. Given the global adoption of hybrid work models in many industries in response to the pandemic, universities will do well to seize this opportunity to advance pedagogy in line with societal needs, or risk becoming obsolete.

A shift from the traditional contact pedagogy to a novel remote pedagogy should be accompanied by a concomitant shift in the interpretation of student success. Put another way, the measures of student success in the traditional mode requires adjustment for a remote mode of teaching and learning, where engagement is different, expectations have shifted, independence and responsibility are favoured, and agency is transferred. Essentially, the characteristics, attributes and qualities of students who populate the area under the “student success” curve of the traditional model have been rearranged in the remote model.

Redefining student success

The traditional approach to teaching, learning, assessment, and evaluating overall student performance has primarily been designed around the capabilities of the “standard” student, or average learner. With very few exceptions, students are deemed to have met outcomes and succeeded if they conformed to standardised notional hours of learning, attended standard hours of lectures, and engaged with standard pedagogies. When typically assessed, if students can correctly answer as many questions as possible in a standard amount of time, in high-stakes tests and exams, and meet the standard minimum mark of 50%, they are deemed to have succeeded. This traditional model appears to favour students who have a predilection for following instruction, who can train for tests and exams, and who fit the profile of the standard student envisaged for the qualification or industry.  

Underpinned by ethics of care, flexibility and empathy, the remote model has in many ways called such success indicators into question. The majority of students who have found success in the remote model are those who have shown adaptability to swiftly migrate to online engagement, resilience in the midst of a pandemic, ability to manage their own time, independent learning, capacity to create and thrive in virtual learning groups – either instructor or peer-led – and competence in taking responsibility and ownership of their learning through the agency afforded to them. These are qualities of grit, fundamental for future success, and are some of the attributes of students who populate the area under the student success curve in the emergency remote mode of 2020.

Naturally, there are many lessons we still need to learn before we get remote teaching, learning and assessments right, and numerous improvements will be made based on experiences from the past year. Much of the advancements will come through better technology, such as more sophisticated software and AI to manage plagiarism, programmes to offer students a more immersive online learning experience, and opportunities for lecturers to improve their engagement with students.

Crucially, through robust academic dialogue and shared student and lecturer experiences, remote pedagogy must expeditiously improve. This will represent a major shift in the structure of higher education, driving up demand for online courses and qualifications, attracting students who would not have previously considered higher education for reasons such as residence accessibility, cost, and availability of suitable qualifications that could be remotely delivered.

Among its many advantages, it grants students the ability to engross themselves in recorded lectures of basic content at their leisure, affording lecturers the benefit of then using contact sessions to engage students in deeper, critical learning and thinking. It also frees up time for experiential, practical learning, and other forms of immersive learning practices.

Data generation

An essential feature of the widespread use of online platforms for remote learning is the accumulation of data on various parameters of student engagement, types of data that were not previously available. Institutions will be in a position to extract numerous data on student learning and can interrogate how, when, duration, time of day or night of online engagement, and myriad other indicators of student success (and shortcomings). Already, analytics from current online learning platforms paint a very dynamic picture of student engagement in the remote model, and this can be used to inform, design and deliver far more effective content, with the ability to customise and adapt pedagogy as data and feedback is received in real-time.  

Smarter curricula

The future of work has been irreversibly altered. All indications are that some version of a hybrid remote-office-industry working model is here to stay, depending on the industry. Companies have quickly realised the benefits of (responsible) flexibility and will be seeking talent that aligns with their adjusted industry practices, to capture productivity gains from new hybrid working models.

And as industry confidence in hybrid working models continues to grow, students will need to be maximally prepared to segue into and benefit from, this new organisational structure. Universities will do well to create curricula that nurture the next level of skills to allow students to succeed in a hybrid working environment. The remote teaching and learning model is ideally positioned to explore such flexible and future-proof curricula.

Courses or parts thereof can be developed across learning domains, drawing from expertise across faculties and in fact, institutions. Students in science and engineering, for example, can easily register for credit-bearing essential courses in the humanities. These can be packaged and delivered in smart ways that cultivate the holistic attributes necessary for the future of work. When correctly designed, remote pedagogy has the potential to eliminate faculty, college and institutional silos.

Inter-institutional collaboration

This also then presents an opportunity for our institutions to collaborate and lend expertise in the development of undergraduate curricula. Through remote pedagogy, expertise need not be confined to certain universities. Qualifications can be designed in a manner that allows for inter-institutional, shared virtual classrooms and partnerships among subject specialists. This will usher in new prospects of transformation in higher education, creating spaces for rich conversations among university students that would not otherwise have been available.

The history of inequality of higher education in South Africa has not yet been satisfactorily addressed. The prospect of virtual classrooms with students from previously favoured institutions together with students from poorly resourced ones, being guided by expert lecturers from various backgrounds and experiences, is tantalising.   

With the Covid-19 virus still with us, the coming academic year will rely heavily on remote pedagogy or some version of it. In continuing the roll-out of digital infrastructure to back online learning, universities should be careful not to amplify the digital divide among students. Support for digital literacies needs to urgently and equitably be accomplished. Remote teaching and learning are poised to present transformative opportunities for all stakeholders in the higher education landscape. These need only be identified and harnessed. DM

Muhammad Nakhooda is an Associate Professor of Biotechnology at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). He also serves in the capacity of Curriculum and Academic Development for the Faculty of Applied Sciences at CPUT. His academic interests span various areas of plant biology, language in higher education, curriculum development, and teaching and learning in higher education.

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