The South African government’s admirably rapid response to the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that educational institutions have had to keep pace to take learning online and maintain momentum. In the immediate term, this has been a challenging shift for a country with students at all economic levels, whose needs are diverse and unique. But in the long term, could an acceleration of the gradual move to online learning be beneficial for students who have had the odds stacked against them in the traditional tertiary environment?
Like remote work, remote learning has the potential to provide increased opportunities for those who face long travel times and dangerous journeys that are the legacy of spatial apartheid and a society that is notoriously violent toward women. Other notable barriers to access include the lack of purpose-built infrastructure for disabled staff and students, many of whom are now experiencing the inclusion they’ve always wanted. A broadly optimistic look at online learning has suggested that it also remedies gender divides in academia to some degree, by allowing easier management of the childcare responsibilities that still fall disproportionately on women.
In the South African context, interventions at various levels are essential to enable remote access to learning materials. Here, too, stakeholders are doing an impressive and necessary job of identifying and addressing needs: from universities providing the devices and data that students require for online classes and assignments, to the zero-rating of websites deemed educational resources, many current emergency measures are showing just how effectively this kind of assistance can be implemented.
A question on the minds of many is whether an online education can match up to classes conducted in person. From those already enrolled who feel that they would be somewhat shortchanged by taking their classes online, to the parents of prospective students who can’t imagine higher education without the “university experience”, there’s a significant perceived value attached to a traditional tertiary education. Gatekeeping aside, there’s plenty of research to suggest that some areas of learning — and some students — really do function better when face-to-face interaction is involved. But, as tends to be the case in most academic matters, the answer to the question is more nuanced than it is clear-cut: yes, there are some aspects of higher education that work better in person, but no, it’s not necessary to do everything offline when the digital alternatives function well.
The application of our learnings from this unprecedented response to the pandemic should be similarly considered: when the need for extreme measures passes, we can enjoy the best of both worlds by weighing up which teaching practices make the most sense for the wider population and for which specific purposes. Blended learning — some classes conducted in person and other lessons and assignments done online — may well serve to promote a balance of inclusivity and valuable person-to-person teaching.
It’s been said many times over the past weeks that after the pandemic, there is no “back to normal”. In every sphere of society, standard and default modes of living have been questioned, upended and irrevocably changed. Now we must discern which changes work better — and keep them.
Fortifying healthcare for the future
Even prior to the pandemic that is now taking its toll throughout the world, there has been a frightening lack of support for those who might’ve helped South Africa prepare. Medical doctors, epidemiologists, and geneticists form a front line against viral outbreaks that can forever alter a nation’s social and economic status.
Financial support is plentiful in fields such as engineering and computer science, in the form of either needs-based or merit-based funding, as well as grants for research. What sets these fields apart is that their students are often sought out by corporates that will pay for their continued education, should they sign a contract that commits them to work for the company immediately after graduation. This makes sense in economic terms, given the high demand for graduates in these fields from corporations that dominate global markets. On the other hand, those who seek a career in medicine or scientific research are often dissuaded by stringent requirements for acceptance into these programmes, as well as the far-from-ideal working conditions and pay grades of doctors who serve the public.
Given the rapid change the education system is being forced to undergo due to Covid-19, perhaps medicine can become a more accessible field to study, while retaining the academic rigour required of those who intend to practice it. It’s worth hoping that in the wake of the current pandemic, working conditions for the medical professionals who’ve been lauded in recent weeks will finally see long-sought improvements. What is abundantly clear is the need to make healthcare a more appealing career path for young people.
Support systems must be created for people who wish to research or practice in fields relating to pandemics and other disasters. The logical first step towards this is the creation of funding for fields such as epidemiology and pathology. These must be further fortified by lucrative employment offers, ideally in the form of guaranteed public positions for exemplary students. Increased research funding may also mitigate the loss of skilled professionals to other countries. South Africa would have to commit to the creation of new jobs in these fields and the construction of research institutions to employ these graduates.
There is little doubt that this pandemic will inspire a new generation of professionals dedicated to ensuring such a human tragedy never recurs. All that remains is to offer them the support and structures that will allow them to fortify our nation against future outbreaks. — James Nash
Time to upskill?
Not everyone has time on their hands during the lockdown period: between keeping up with remote work, added childcare responsibilities, and the pressures of keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances hosting Zoom cocktail parties, some feel busier than ever. But allegedly cleared schedules aside, for those who do have the time and resources, there are many reasons why now is a better time than ever to learn online.
More learning content is available than ever as cultural and educational institutions move their resources online; there are benefits to having additional skills and areas of expertise in what will be a tough economy for some time to come; and if it’s a welcome distraction that you’re after, look no further than an engaging new area of study.
For those in search of learning with immediate, practical benefits, an online short course in business strategy from one of South Africa’s universities might be a well-timed choice, particularly if it has options that focus on such vital skills as strategy, resilience and leadership. Organisations such as Future Females, which have sought to combine online learning with a supportive community, have moved their events online alongside their three-month, virtual Future Females Business School, making this a useful holistic option.
For something slightly more escapist, museums and galleries around the world have opened their doors to digital visitors with online tours, and some are offering a little extra in the form of online learning opportunities. New York’s MoMA is providing many of its short courses digitally — for free — making them well worth a peek, whether for pure appreciation or for actual application in the creative fields.