/ 9 November 2020

How to create a new and better normal in the education sector

Graphic Edu Digital Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

Covid-19 has forced change on the world, and as our pandemic reality continues, there’s less wish to return to normal. Instead a demand for a new “better normal”, in which we bring about much-needed and long overdue transformation, is growing more intense by the day.  

The pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the faultlines across every sector, in every country in the world. The inadequacies, inequalities and injustices of our society have been laid bare. It has been harrowing and, often, excruciating. As awful as the past months have been, Covid-19 is presenting us with a rare opportunity for reinvention and redesign, reformation and revolution.  

In South Africa, the education sector has an opportunity to be at the forefront of change. There are dialogues that need to be fired up to find real, sustainable solutions, not just to the havoc Covid-19 has caused this generation of learners and students, but to some of our country’s broader issues and challenges in which education has a key role to play.  

Now that we are thoroughly disrupted anyway, it’s the ideal time to address the long-standing challenges that continue to erode quality of life across South Africa so as to create better opportunities for all, particularly the younger generation.  Here are three strategies for creating higher education’s “better normal”.

1. Bridging the digital divide

Covid-19 has exposed the digital divide in a profound way. I have a daughter in matric in a private school that closed its campuses before the lockdown was declared. Within 24 hours, she was studying online with her teachers and classmates. She had the devices she needed, unlimited high speed data and a conducive home environment. For sure, she had to make the necessary adjustments to online learning but, in terms of keeping her matric studies on track, she didn’t skip a beat.  

Contrast that with about 80% of her matric peers around the country who had close to zero education in nearly three months: limited (if any) devices, no meaningful data and schools ill-equipped to teach online. 

It’s been impossible to hide the country’s overwhelming dependence on face-to-face education, where the only learning resources available to students are inside physical buildings. There’s a rush to play catch-up, but most young people in South Africa will be doing that with one, or both, hands tied behind their backs. 

To bridge the digital divide, high school learners and tertiary students have to have access to their own reliable devices and cheap data. As a developing country, it is absurd that South Africa still has among the highest data costs in the world.  

According to a recent report by Cable.co.uk, a UK price comparison website, South Africa ranks 148 out of 228 countries on the price of mobile bandwidth. South Africa is a good deal more expensive than large parts of Africa, including Nigeria (58th), Kenya (41st), Tanzania (23rd) and Rwanda (64th). The picture is even worse on the lower end of the economic spectrum. The data cost for small data bundles is exceedingly high compared with larger data bundles. Thus the digital divide is reinforced rather than mitigated through the pricing structure of data.

Tech and digital connection is a major enabler of growth, development, collaboration and innovation that poorer countries can use to leapfrog disadvantages. As South Africans, we like to think of ourselves as the most technologically advanced African country, yet Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt all enjoy higher internet penetration than we do and have vibrant startup ecosystems.  

There is good in Covid-19 highlighting our digital shortcomings.  We need to look at it with clear eyes. It’s time to sort this out, and we know what we need to do in education: devices in hands and data everywhere. Government, network providers, tech companies, edtech enablers and the education sector need to come together and finally bridge the digital divide. The long-term economic and social benefits of doing so will more than compensate for the short-term costs.

2. New modes of learning

Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of the online campus. Some institutions already had well-developed online platforms and seasoned online educators prior to lockdown, and were, therefore, able to pivot to online classes for all students quickly and effectively. However, other institutions have spent the past months grappling with getting online education working for the first time. 

Before the pandemic, most tended to see learning modes in terms of either pure online or pure face-to-face education. Like face-to-face learning, online learning has its unique pros and cons. But we don’t have to be committed to a false dichotomy. Blended learning combines a range of online asynchronous learning activities, with prescheduled synchronous real-time classroom engagement (either on campus or through a webinar).  

The advantages of asynchronous activities are numerous. Students have greater flexibility in balancing studies with other commitments. They are also able to be more reflective and think more deeply about the subject matter in their engagement with their educator and fellow students — a practice that real-time classroom engagement often inhibits. Advancements in educational technologies have greatly enhanced the range of asynchronous activities that students can engage with.  

It’s no longer just about watching a video, doing some readings, and participating in a discussion forum. New technologies enable students to collaborate and engage with a variety of media while not being bound to the same time and space. Online learning also broadens the available content and resources.  Options are limitless and so the educator becomes a curator of resources that can enrich the learning experience.

At the same time, many learners value and benefit from direct real-time (face-to-face) engagement with their educators and fellow students. Real-time interaction can be stimulating and inspiring, facilitate closer rapport, address issues more quickly and enable collaborations that require more immediate response.  

Borrowing from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow we can understand real-time engagement as the “fast” thinking element, and the asynchronous components of the blend as the thinking “slow” elements. The two combine in flexible pedagogic designs for optimal learning results, while retaining a person-centric approach.

Blended learning will also give institutions greater flexibility in the requirements for their built environment. There is a significant opportunity to rethink campus design for a blended learning mode. Covid-19 has thrust online learning on us, even those who were previously reluctant or sceptical. As we design our post-pandemic “better normal”, we need to harness the full potential of edtech and online learning together with real-time classroom interaction. The power is in the blend.

3. Educating for the 4IR

The education sector is under pressure to deliver work-ready graduates with relevant skills. It’s a monumental challenge when technology and societal shifts are so rapidly and dramatically redefining and reshaping workplaces. The Covid-19 disruption has brought these issues into even sharper focus. The world has been turned upside down, and the skills required to endure and thrive can’t be learned from a textbook.

In 2016, the World Economic Forum commissioned a report on the future of jobs. It asked chief human resources and strategy officers from global employers what the current shifts mean for employment, skills and recruitment across industries and geographies. The researchers identified the top 10 skills that they believed would be required for workplace success in 2020 compared with those required in 2015. The new 2020 list gave greater priority to critical thinking, creativity, and judgment and decision making than in 2015. The new list also included emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility, which didn’t appear on the 2015 list. 

What’s clear is that so-called soft skills are becoming more relevant for future success. The top skills required in a fourth industrial revolution (4IR) workplace are manifestly different to what has been demanded from older generations of workers. Organisations have realised that to build enduring value, they need to unleash the creative power of their human capital. “Soft skills” enhance emotional resilience, agility, adaptability and resourcefulness, precisely the attributes needed in a changing world.

Just as Covid-19 will act as a catalyst to blended modes of study, so too should it energise the higher education sector to rethink its curricula to ensure that we are not only blending online and face-to-face learning, but also hard and soft skills, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the humanities. This approach will prepare graduates for a dynamic workplace environment and ensure lifetime employability.

As we take stock of the effects of Covid-19, it is clear South Africa’s higher education sector has an opportunity to adopt strategies that empower learners with enhanced resources, best practice pedagogy and relevant skills, to prepare them to adapt to an unknown future. Covid-19 may be just the catalyst the sector needs to unlock the potential of South Africa’s student population to themselves become agents of change for a new better normal.

Lance Katz is chief executive of the South African College of Applied Psychology