When the Covid-19 pandemic began, universities thought they would have to forsake some programmes and leave some international students behind. As the end of the year approaches, and universities prepare for the final exams and the 2022 student intake, it is worth reflecting on some of the problems and opportunities the online learning environment presents, particularly for international students and the broader internationalisation project.
For international students, even though access has not always been easy, the online environment has provided many opportunities for overcoming the hurdles normally faced when studying in the country. It has allowed international students to register without having to travel to South Africa to participate in classes. This has resulted in cost saving, in terms of travel, living and accommodation, and medical aid costs.
Of course, it is in the best interests of universities for students, local and international, to experience a wide range of social interactions and cultural activities, which will not be the same if they study online. But this can be facilitated, even through a blended model of learning.
Even if we think of a scenario in which South Africa will open up for travel and greater in-person interaction, students will still benefit from blended models of tuition. This might seem easy to achieve in the context of attending lectures online, but less straightforward when it comes to practical and laboratory work, as well as clinical supervised work.
There are ways in which this can be overcome; we have much to learn from the health sciences, where virtualisation and case-based learning has long been integrated into the curriculum. This approach is interesting for teaching and learning more generally, but it also provides good practice for assisting international students, as well as growing the intake of these students.
Case-based learning uses case studies, often virtual, to pique students’ interest in a particular area of the curriculum. Through working in smaller teams of students, the case studies are used to think about the knowledge and skills needed to solve particular problems or cases. Such groups can easily be facilitated online.
There is also scope for rethinking the structure of the curriculum, for example, postponing practical work until the second or final year of study. In cases where this is not possible, there is still great scope for extending and expanding on the internationalisation project in support of our international students, as well as our lecturers and researchers.
This is where we need to use and build our international collaborative networks and connect with colleagues at overseas institutions, giving students access to lecturers, supervisors and mentors in their home countries, and in a wide array of disciplines.
For example, an architectural student from Ghana, who cannot travel to South Africa to complete or hand in a practical project, can be linked with a qualified lecturer in architecture in Ghana who can provide guidance, as well as assessment of work.
Similar arrangements can be made for our engineering, science and medical students, or any other students needing supervision of practical, clinical and laboratory work. Such arrangements provide the opportunity to form new collaborative partnerships, particularly across the African continent.
This is not lowering standards of tuition. Instead it is raising standards through innovation and creative thinking. It is also a highly transformative process, providing for greater diversity. This form of tuition can easily be upscaled to support bigger groups of students, including local students.
In light of the fourth industrial revolution and an ever-changing higher education system, we need to offer greater flexibility in the curriculum’s content, structure and modes of delivery.
It has been said often enough that we need to change our degree structures and programmes to become more reflective of a society that demands constant change, and this is one way of doing so.
We have an opportunity to create a new higher education ecosystem. Here we can use the analogy of the circular economy and think of our students and colleagues around the world as part of a global ecosystem.
To do this we need to facilitate students’ access to data by negotiating with telecoms companies in their home countries; we need a critical mass of students for this to work, which means we need to work together as a sector. This will strengthen the internationalisation project in South African universities, with long-term benefits for the sector as a whole.
This will also strengthen the economy; although we might not have an economy centred on the influx of international students, as in the United Kingdom, South Africa is still a study destination of choice for students from the rest of the continent.