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Monday, May 17, 2021

Emergency online learning brings a new set of issues to South Africa’s higher education institutions

Upasana Singh, Cecile Gerwel Proches, Craig Blewett, Simon Taylor & Cristy Leask|

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced higher education institutions worldwide to adopt new forms of technology and creative methods of implementing these technology-based tools, to support remote teaching in an attempt to ensure continuity of their academic year.

Very loosely speaking, this ‘shift’ was referred to as the move to online learning.

Online learning was considered as the best way to support the academic program in most institutions of higher education. For developed countries, this transition was seamless and almost effortless. However, in developing countries, there were various constraints, some of which emerged through the crisis.

South Africa, which is plagued with economic issues, even prior to the pandemic, like unemployment, poverty, and inequalities, was no different.

Students faced the expected challenges of lack of Internet access, the high cost of data, limited/no access to electricity, as well as inadequate physical and social set-up, which was often not conducive to supporting the online learning environment.

 Similarly, academics were forced to embrace this new method of delivery, almost overnight. Similar challenges were faced by academics – high data costs, limited/no Internet access, poor connectivity, and the lack of a conducive space to work from home. Research conducted identified students’ perceptions of their transition to the online experience, and how their social support, economic worry, and technological competence related to their ease of transitioning to online learning.

Prominent factors that emerged from the student perspective were the requirements of social support, at all levels – Institutional, School, Administration and Lecturer; and Conducive Study Environment – especially amid the challenges on homeschooling, the general home environment and the sharing of devices.

The lack of social interaction with fellow learners seemed to impact their motivation to study, while the additional work and family pressure, in the ‘forced’ work-from-home environment, seemed to hamper their studies.

Having technological competence in the use of technology for learning, access to devices and data, as well as little economic worry, facilitated their ease of transition to the online learning environment.

While the study focused on student perceptions, there emerged clear areas that academics need to focus on how to support students in this transition to the online environment.

Measures of support include emotional intelligence – sympathy and understanding shown by academics were well appreciated; efficient and effective communication – students welcomed the adoption of multiple platforms of communication, including the more social platforms of WhatsApp; pedagogical training – the effective use of technology to deliver online classes was highlighted as students felt the sessions need to be designed differently to the traditional face-to-face sessions, to encourage student engagement and motivate learners.

The outcomes of the research highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of online learning to better inform future processes of planned online learning.

The global shut down has changed the learning landscape of the future.Thus, for an effective online education system to be adopted, an investment is required by higher education institutions into an ecosystem of learner and academic support, and not simply just online content delivery.

The rushed move to online learning without time for careful pedagogic planning requires us to rethink the definition of this shift.

According to Charles Hodges, professor of instructional technology as Georgia Southern University, higher education institutions should avoid the temptation to equate the rapid transition to online learning with planned online learning.

We define Emergency Online Learning as distance learning delivery in response to an unexpected crisis where all the necessary conditions for effective and sustained online learning may not be present. The concept of Emergency Online Learning has never formally been defined or tested, and more specifically, in the midst of a pandemic in a South African higher education institution environment.

We believe that what has emerged is Emergency Online Learning rather than Online Learning in its true form.

The authors encourage individual and institutional-wide reflection on two important questions.

The first is when does Emergency Online Learning end?

The failure to address this could leave an institution unsure of whether their online learning is still regarded as an emergency, with the associated issues raised in this article, or planned, with the expectations of greater social engagement, cognitive and teacher presence.

The second question is what happens when Emergency Online Learning ends?

Failure to clearly answer this question could result in an institution reverting to previous forms of face-to-face teaching with little regard for the impact the Emergency Online Learning has had on both lecturers and students and additionally not preparing for the future of education which has potentially been irrevocably changed. 

While South African higher education institutions have been impacted by national strikes, #feesmustfall, and now the Covid-19 pandemic, it is critical that they seize the learnings and engage in future-proofing to prepare for the next crisis, to remain relevant.

We made the following recommendations for facilitating the transition from Emergency Online Learning to both blended learning and planned online learning.

  • Learners and academics must receive relevant training in technologies and pedagogies to assist with transitioning to online learning.
  • The sudden move to embrace technology for academics has to be carefully considered by leadership in HEIs to analyse the effects and possible unintended consequences, especially in light of the diverse tasks (teaching, research, supervision, administration, etc.) that academics are ordinarily expected to do. HEI staff may need increased support and psychosocial services.
  • Support systems need to be in place to support academics to deploy effective online content, such as appropriately trained instructional designers and assistance in preparing “well-designed instructional material” which has been found to play a role in motivation levels of adult learners who were pursuing distance education.

Dr Upasana Singh is a lecturer in the Discipline of Information Systems and Technology at the University of KwaZulu Natal.

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at the University of KwaZulu Natal

Professor Craig Blewett has a PhD in education technology and is the developer of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) model, University of KwaZulu Natal

Dr Simon Taylor is a Project Manager at the University of KwaZulu Natal

 Dr Cristy Leask is an adjunct faculty at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership; and a skilled organisational consultant at Symbiosis Consulting, and Capella University in the United States

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