/ 17 November 2020

Teaching cannot live on technology alone

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A teacher gives an online class at Politecnico di Milano in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)

Educators in South African higher education constantly have to deal with new challenges. In an effort to truly transform our society by enabling access to and facilitating success in tertiary institutions, we often face what appear to be insurmountable obstacles, many of them systemic in nature. When Covid-19 shook the world and educators were required to make the rapid transition to Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT), a great many claims were made that the pandemic was driving a long overdue revolution in education and that educators have at last been forced into the 21st century.

Our South African research, however, does not jump on to the “technology-as-saviour” bandwagon. A large collaborative multi-institutional study on the rapid shift to online teaching, sees the assumption of digital fluency for both students and staff as the biggest threat to a socially just education system. Whereas most of the available studies, such as the University of Cape Town study, have focused on student needs and experiences of ERT, there has been little formal focus on the effects of ERT on academics, particularly in fields requiring practical technologies for learning and research, such as engineering.

Stellenbosch University partnered with the South African Society for Engineering Education and conducted a national survey on the effects of ERT on engineering academics and postgraduate students. The survey takes a holistic approach and considers the incontestable relationship between three key facets of the educator’s mandate: to facilitate the development of knowledge, citizenship and skills, by providing cognitive, affective and systemic support aligned to the epistemological, ontological and praxis dimensions of the curriculum.

Simply put, if education is the holistic enactment of the age-old “head-heart-hand” philosophy, then the survey sought to determine how ERT has affected academics and postgraduates (in many cases, they are one and the same) in their professional, personal and practical lives. It asked four key questions about the effect of ERT on the working environment, the implementation of communication measures, and comments on challenges and successes. These responses were analysed using the broad categories of cognitive, affective and systemic dimensions of academic work.

Systemic, cognitive and affective dimensions

To begin with the systemic: common references were found irrespective of institutional type with regard to questions about the change in working environment. The key issues (as were expected) revolved around practical access to devices, data, equipment and appropriate working spaces. Respondents appreciated data stipends and laptops, for example, but were particularly concerned about “access to digital tools and the skills to use them”. In most cases, staff were required to “refocus projects” if they required experimental data generation or physical access to laboratories and workshops.

The shift to “virtual” or “simulated” practical work was not without challenges, as this form of teaching requires significant computing power or access to software that is not necessarily available off campus.

It is here that we see the inevitable impact on the cognitive dimension: without the physical and/or online tools to enable applied learning, the question is how effective can more theoretical projects actually be in a professional education context? An added complexity here is the assessment burden for academics in the case of individualised projects requiring continuous assessment in large classes.

The systemic features of the communication measures put in place by academics and their institutions reveal both a great deal of innovation as well as a sharp digital divide. Although the survey lists every possible synchronous and asynchronous approach and an impressive range of communication technologies, it seems clear that a significant number of academics were required to adopt the simplest possible form of data-light communication, not only as a result of student access, but also their own internet access constraints.

Both staff and students expressed being “overwhelmed” by the sheer volume of information being distributed. One remark succinctly described this feeling: “It was like drinking from a firehose!”

A second systemic communication issue is the use of forums, with many academics bemoaning students’ lack of engagement on forums. If forums are meant to provide a space for peer learning and a means for academics to address common concerns, then their claimed inefficacy is seriously problematic, particularly in large classes.

Heartfelt testimonies

The survey responses to the challenges and successes questions were possibly the most illuminating. It is here that the affective facet of the educator’s role was most evident. Across the board, academics reported variously being “emotionally exhausted”, “burnt out”, “overwhelmed”, “constantly fatigued”, and “struggling to balance work with parenting”. While, on the positive side, many also spoke of having been able to spend quality time with their families, a significant number of academics (and particularly postgraduates) experienced ERT as isolating.

The heartfelt testimonies shared by these respondents bring into sharp relief the disparities in our society, but they also bear testimony to an indomitable human spirit driven by the very essence of Ubuntu. In sharing this research at the recent Central University of Technology scholarship of teaching and learning conference, what became abundantly clear was that “we are in this together”.

Conference participants shared their experiences, which echoed those in the data. The message is clear: in order for education to be successful, there needs to be a recognition of the synergistic and interdependent relationship between the cognitive, affective and systemic dimensions of learning. So too, however, does there need to be cognitive, affective and systemic support for the very academics upon whom the higher education sector depends.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.