New era of online learning can be positive for higher education

There are many examples that illustrate how out of great adversity comes great opportunity: for example, human disease inspired an evolutionary leap in medicines and technologies, while Germany and Japan reimagined themselves after calamitous World War II campaigns to become economic powerhouses. It’s hoped that the Covid-19 pandemic will likewise result in lasting and progressive changes, not least of which in how we teach and learn. 

Tried and tested business and teaching models have increasingly been coming under pressure in South Africa to change, specifically to broaden access. And online learning has been touted as one of the solutions to this challenge. But making the shift had been difficult — until the Covid-19 pandemic came along. 

Residential universities and schools, after merely flirting with online education before the pandemic, had to become experts overnight. Yet even as they committed resources to building the additional infrastructure, students and parents were insisting on discounts, shrinking the institutions’ bottom lines. It was clear that online learning did not come without its challenges. 

The pandemic also poked serious holes in the belief that the fourth industrial revolution could potentially “turbocharge the socioeconomic development of the entire African continent”. Although smartphones have become ubiquitous on the continent, a chronic lack of computers, internet, and even electricity meant that most people didn’t even get a chance to access basic learning. Statistics South Africa reports that only one in 10 individuals aged five to 24 were offered the option of remote learning by the institution they were attending, and Unicef estimates that some South African learners fell as much as one year further behind. 

Powerful lessons that must not go to waste 

The learning curve has been uncomfortably steep for many of us, but our experiences of the past two years have also helped to demonstrate that, done right, the potential of online learning for South Africa is still considerable. So, what have we learned and how can we build on this to improve learning and access across the country? 

Firstly, as the World Bank points out in a recent report on remote learning, the “availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning”. The remote learning interventions that are most effective are those that find ways to match and enhance traditional learning experiences. Notably, online learning cannot come at the expense of “social connection”. A recent survey by the Intelligence Economist Unit on bridging the digital divide in higher education reports that a lack of social connection was one of the key issues that hindered student and faculty learning experiences during the pandemic. More than half of students cited limited engagement with fellow students as a significant challenge. 

Second, we’ve seen that the remarkable flexibility that digital approaches allow can be extremely positive for everything from student completion rates to the institutions’ bottom line. 

In-person and traditional online education take very structured approaches — students have to fit in with institutions’ schedules for classes, deadlines and exams, often travelling long distances to get there. That works for many students, but also excludes many more. A digital-first learning platform by comparison can allow students to register for and start a course at any time of the year, and then learn at their own pace. Students can set meeting times for classes and watch class recordings in their own time yet have the convenience of real-time interaction with educators and peers when they want it. 

Flexible learning approaches that embrace active learning approaches can also unlock greater levels of engagement between students and faculty, a holy grail for most educational institutions. One third of students surveyed by the Economist Intelligence Unit said that flexible learning and interactive methods are the most effective way to boost their engagement, and half cited flexible learning as providing the most benefit to their education experiences. This also spills over into assessments; 86% of faculty staff say they are convinced that flexible assessment and tools will continue long-term because they have proved to be so effective. 

Flexible payment methods will also become more feasible with this kind of model. Students can potentially pay per module rather than paying upfront for an entire degree. As residential and online universities face greater pressure on their bottom lines, coming up with such flexible terms may soon become a very real consideration. 

Allowing for this flexibility, we think, provides an opportunity to elevate South Africa’s development by expanding access to quality higher education. “The structured nature of [traditional contact] courses will continue to put them beyond the reach of many South Africans who did not have adequate schooling results and who may have limited time and resources for further studies,” said a study from the Stellenbosch Business School, published, almost presciently, on the cusp of the pandemic in December 2019. 

Hurdles to navigate on the road to digital learning 

There are many challenges still to navigate as South African higher education moves forward on its journey to hybrid and remote learning. Pedagogy will have to keep up with technology; lecturers will have to learn new ways of presenting courses in more engaging ways. Assessments have to be rethought and business models revisited. Cyber-security will have to be stepped up. And essential student services such as counselling and advising will have to be adapted to the virtual environment, but these should not deter us from the prize that lies ahead. 

It is of course not feasible, nor desirable, that all higher learning will or should be virtual for everyone. But the pandemic has shown us that rather than being an unfortunate bump in the road, our forced shift to online learning can be the beginning of a new direction for higher education that is good for students and institutions alike.

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

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Serame Ramosajana
Serame Ramosajana is head of the school of commerce at Milpark Education, which following its experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic now only offers its courses online.

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