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Monday, November 29, 2021

OPINION| Transitioning To Online Learning: Let’s Not Forget The Perspective Of The Post-graduate Learner


THE year 2020 saw major disruption as a result of the diverse impacts of the global pandemic, COVID-19. Many countries, including South Africa, implemented lockdown measures, which resulted in citizens having to “stay at home”.

This had a severe impact on education, especially for Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) in South Africa, which resulted in learners suddenly having to depart their institutions of learning.

During this crisis, online learning was considered the best way to support the academic program in most HEIs.

Many students and HEI staff were confronted with the harsh reality of how online learning is impacted by data costs, Internet access, connectivity, technological capabilities, and having a conducive space to work from home.

While much of the emphasis has been on the plight of undergraduate learners in the South African context, our research explored the attitudes of postgraduate students in a South African university, who had to suddenly transition from traditional face-to-face to online learning in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Postgraduate learners are typically more mature, tend to have higher levels of motivation, and may also be in full-time employment.

Classes are smaller, and learning is often group and project-based, emphasising high levels of engagement.

Networking is also important, especially for working postgraduate students, who are often taught with adult learning theories in mind.

The emphasis is on trying to make theory as practical as possible, especially for those who work.

Working postgraduate learners also appreciate going to a campus to study in order to have time away from the demands of work and home.

Those who work may be funded by their employers and may have access to a computer/laptop and Internet connection. So it may be assumed that this cohort of students should, in theory, be in a better position to transition to online learning.

Our study has shed light on the diverse experiences of the postgraduate students in the COVID-19 era, and how multiple demands on their time impact their ability to fully engage and embrace the online learning experience.

Our research revealed that postgraduate learners have to balance multiple responsibilities relating to work, family, and studies.

The results highlighted how mature adult postgraduate learners had to sometimes share devices in the home with children and/or a spouse/partner during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of those who did not work were concerned about future employment and personal financial worries.

Our research revealed, as depicted in Figure 1 below, how the critical elements of continued support from lecturers as well as the support from course administrators were in facilitating learning.

Some learners also had to assist school children with their own online learning, which was related to schools being closed for a few months during the lockdown period in South Africa.

Figure 1: The Emergency Online Learning Model (EOL) for Commerce Coursework Postgraduate students at a
South African University

Postgraduate learners may require more support from their lecturers, given their multiple demands. Having a private space to study at home is important, as well as being technologically competent to master online learning, more so, for those who are older.

Some students also valued networking with study peers and studying together, which largely disappeared during online learning.

The impact of COVID-19 on their studies led to some experiencing difficulties communicating with other students, no access to the library, increased work pressure, anxiety in respect of the disease, an uncertain future, reduced salary, and for some, complete upheaval in respect of the plans that they had pre-COVID. 

The transition to online learning did however have benefits, with some postgraduate students enjoying having to travel less, saving petrol money, and the ease with which they can log in from anywhere at any time, and access recorded lectures.

It is also clear that there are differences between postgraduate learners who are based in campus residences versus those who are off-campus. Some thus highlighted that while it was difficult to initially transition to online learning, that they were not comfortable in this mode.

Our research emphasised the need for postgraduate learners to be adaptable and engage a new mindset to ensure survival in the era of online learning. Postgraduate learners need to be equipped to become technologically competent and able to balance the multiple aspects of their lives, given that online learning may increasingly become part of the ‘new norm’. 

Our study has led to a few recommendations to facilitate online learning for postgraduate learners:

●     Postgraduate learners require a dedicated laptop, reliable internet connection ideally with uncapped data, and conducive working space. They also require relevant training to assist with transitioning to online learning. It is important that learners are flexible, adaptable, self-motivated, and willing to embrace change, specifically in a crisis.

●     Adult learners need to be disciplined and able to manage their time, given that some may have children and/or are in relationships, and/or have to care for elderly family members and an extended family, which is often congruent with the nature of the collectivist culture that many find themselves in. If online learning continues, then HEIs will need to explore ways to provide support, given the changing context.

●    The timing of the live online lessons with postgraduate learners needs to be carefully considered, given their work and family commitments. This also points to the need for a shift of approach from teaching towards learning where content pacing and engagement are more learner-controlled than lecturer-controlled. 

●     A more personal level of timely contact appears to be the preferred mode of communication when assisting postgraduate learners, rather than generic institution-wide broadcasts. This is both because it enables the addressing of unique needs within a school as well as providing a level of personal contact that is missing in online teaching and learning.

●     Possible future plans regarding the adoption of online learning in HEIs should further explore and incorporate the diverse, lived experiences of postgraduate adult learners, and how best to make online learning work, given the challenging situation that many are in with respect to their time. Postgraduate learners are generally more driven, motivated, and desire self-actualization, but may now perhaps find themselves having to reassess personal goals, with the pandemic having negatively affected many personal objectives and ambitions.

Understanding the diverse perspectives of postgraduate learners can assist HEIs in making adjustments to curricula and teaching pedagogies, to ensure better learner outcomes for both future online learning and planned online learning scenarios.

The perspective of 100% research postgraduate students deserves attention as well. This research also illustrates to policymakers and leadership that a one-size-fits-all approach has limitations.

Emergency measures called for rapid action to be taken; however, moving forward, more attention needs to be paid to the multiple differences in the study body. The Department of Education has called for increased postgraduate enrolments and for South Africa to be a knowledge economy. Given our challenging circumstances, how do we make this happen at our HEIs, in light of online learning?

This research expands the horizon into the implementation of online learning for postgraduate learners during rapid change, characterized by high levels of complexity, to allow continued access to quality Higher Education.

Students are regarded as a key stakeholder or even as a “customer” in some instances in HEIs. As such, understanding their perspective of the transition to online learning is imperative. 

Our research also poses questions for further consideration. Students with disabilities could become invisible online. This means that more care and thought needs to be put into employing in developing online learning material. 

How can networking, peer support, social interaction, and group engagement best be achieved for postgraduate learners in the online environment? Now that online teaching and learning may be here to stay, how do the key stakeholders, including academics, support staff, and parents, actually feel?

We also need to remember that academics themselves faced major transitions, such as remote working and decreased support, so how do academics in particular, who are often the only face the students may see, best serve postgraduate students in the new norm?

  • This article was written by Cecile Gerwel Proches, Upasana Singh, Cristy Leask, Craig Blewett and Simon Taylor from University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
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