/ 22 July 2020

Online learning must remain a key component of teaching systems

A number of interventions are required to enable all students to access online learning, but universities are stepping up to the challenge. (Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)
A number of interventions are required to enable all students to access online learning, but universities are stepping up to the challenge. (Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)


There is a video doing the rounds that sums up what many feel about remote teaching during the Covid-19 lockdown: a music teacher says she has composed a song to express how she feels about transitioning to online teaching and learning. She picks up a ukulele, strums a few chords, opens her mouth wide … and screams.

It is a funny video, yet the truth is: one can shriek as much as one wants to but, since the pandemic took hold earlier this year, digital online education has become a norm. 

A global survey report published by the International Association of Universities in May revealed just how widespread online learning has become under lockdown: 67% of higher education institutions have adopted it, 24% are working on solutions to get there, and the remaining 9% either cancelled all teaching or are unaffected.

Does this mean we have pivoted permanently to online teaching and learning? 

Dr Tony Bates, a Canadian e-learning guru who has consulted in over 40 countries to clients such as Unesco and the World Bank — and who will be the keynote speaker at the virtual Flexible Futures conference at the University of Pretoria (UP) next month — said recently: “I don’t think we will go back to pre-Covid-19 teaching in schools or universities, or it will be a pity if we do.”

I agree; it would certainly be a pity. Going digital means we can start personalising education. And we can do that with the help of data.

When students work online, analytics show us how they are working: we can determine the patterns followed by successful students, and the obstacles to student success. We can then identify groups and individuals’ difficulties, intervene, and mould the education to meet their needs. Ultimately, technology enables us to improve our students’ success rates, a seemingly intractable problem in South African higher education.

A recent data survey we conducted among staff and students, shows that the vast majority of lecturers and students at the institution managed to move relatively seamlessly into remote (online) teaching and learning mode. UP’s existing hybrid flipped-learning model continues to work successfully even when the face-to-face teaching component cannot take place and all learning has to happen remotely. 

A total of 639 lecturers completed the survey about their experience of remote teaching during the Covid-19 lockdown period, and 61 763 (35.9%) module surveys were completed by students. Our data for the first four weeks shows that lecturers uploaded 443GB of content to 3 158 online courses and that 34 818 out of 35 939 (96.8%) undergraduate students used the Learning Management System (LMS) actively. Students accessed their courses more than 5-million times during May.

Going forward, the ideal would be to remain partially online indefinitely. The key here is “partially”, with online teaching as one of the strategies.

This is hybrid education. It acknowledges part of our interaction with our students happens in the classroom, part of it happens online, and the third critical element — which I hope will remain with us for a long, long time  — is what we refer to as “instruction in community”. Most of UP’s students have community involvement modules, because we believe that is where important elements of teaching and learning occur.

Another plus to having an online component — and why UP moved to hybrid education in 2014 — is that working online prepares students for the world of the future, and even today’s world. No young person will cope if they are not agile in the use of technology. We would be doing our students a disservice if we give them a good academic qualification, but they stumble in the workplace. In life generally, and to navigate and influence the post-Covid future and the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, they need the skills acquired when part of the instruction is online.

What many universities are doing now, during lockdown, is not hybrid. It is emergency online teaching. Although it will help us complete the academic year  — combined with boot camps for a small segment of our student body who were not able to connect online but are now mostly back in wi-fi-enabled residences  —  100% online is perhaps not the ideal. 

And not only because of infrastructural problems. The value of a university education is not only about learning the content of your courses. Knowledge needs to go hand-in-hand with other attributes such as adaptability and resilience, teamwork and negotiation skills  —  what are generally referred to as “soft skills”, and what I refer to as essential human skills.

Lockdown is not a good example of the benefits of online learning and teaching. Remote education does not have to mean merely transferring the lecture hall to the computer screen. It should include interactive activities both before, during and after lessons.

Even without Covid-19 and the sudden move to online learning, higher education has changed. As the American futurist writer Alvin Toffler said: “Change is not merely necessary to life —  it is life.” 

One of my most vivid memories of when I studied at the University of the Western Cape eons ago,  is that the essential thing back then was to have textbooks. So the first thing I did when I got my bursary was to go to the campus bookshop and buy all those I needed. Those I prized for the rest of my years as a student, and after that as well. I felt secure with my textbooks.  

Textbooks were critically important; everything you needed to know was found within them. Now, however, we live in a society where that information is everywhere. It’s a much richer society, a much richer world. 

When I started at university, the critical skills were different. You had to understand the work, remember it, and render it in an exam. Now students need to go through all the information available, and extract what is important. Yes, students still buy books, but that is only one element of what they have to do in order to be successful.

And that is why the future of higher education, post-Covid, must keep an integral focus on online teaching and learning. Not for technology’s sake, but to afford our students a richer learning experience as well as to ensure that they can thrive in our rapidly changing world with all its challenges. 

Professor Norman Duncan is vice-principal: academic at the University of Pretoria