Home Opinion and Features ‘Days of packed varsity lecture halls are over’

‘Days of packed varsity lecture halls are over’

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What will the ‘new normal’ for universities look like?

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WHILE South Africa awaits guidance from the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, on plans for a return to campus as the Covid-19 lockdown eases, one of the country’s top academics has warned that the days of seeing 300 to 400 students in a packed lecture hall are over.

“In the short-term, it is very unlikely that there will be an immediate return to large-class teaching,” said Professor Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive officer of Universities South Africa (USAf), the body that represents 26 heads of tertiary institutions, who said it is too early to determine whether this (smaller classes) is what some refer to as the “new norm”.

“Higher education is in a state of flux throughout the world. There are many uncertainties and many dimensions to its possible reimagining. This will be one of them,” he said.

Bawa said that even if the pandemic was brought under control, until a vaccine is found it is very likely that the universities will have to keep in place the necessary public health measures to ensure there aren’t further outbreaks.

He said that the 2021 academic year will begin between the beginning of March and the beginning of April because the vast disruptions to the 2020 academic year means that some institutions end the academic year later than usual this year and others between January and March.

This considers the fact that the National Senior Certificate (NSC) results will be released by the Department of Basic Education on February 23 – allowing the universities to complete the academic year by the end of 2021.

Highlighting the key challenges for 2021, Wits University deputy vice-chancellor: academic Professor Rukhsana Omar said the university moved to remote online teaching and learning from April, and most students continue in this mode.

She said that most students have access to devices, data and learning management systems (and content).

“It is envisaged that many students will complete the academic year by December 2020. Final year students, students who need to meet professional requirements, those who need access to laboratories and studios, and those who cannot study from home, have been prioritised to return to campus this year. Those who require additional assistance, will participate in boot camps, more lectures and receive additional support if required.

“The almanac has been adjusted to accommodate for a slightly later start in 2021,” she said.

But it is clear, according to Omar, that the new priorities include exploring new pedagogies for learning, teaching and assessments, including blended learning options (in person and online teaching), securing a new learning management system, ensuring that students have access to good quality content (even remotely).

University of Free State vice-chancellor Professor Francis Petersen said UFS did “not let the Covid-19 crisis go to waste”, but instead used it as an opportunity to create an innovative, evidence-based approach to learning and teaching, which is informed by data analytics.

“In 2021, the UFS will use the lessons from the pandemic to implement an improved blended teaching and learning approach, which will provide students with the opportunity to benefit from the flexibility and innovation that online learning platforms provide, complemented by well-structured face-to-face sessions. The key challenges were student access to data, networks, and devices, as well as the lack of a conducive learning environment for some students at home,” he said.

Petersen said it appears that it would be a long time before lecture halls return to full complement.

“I do not think that going back to the ‘old normal’ should be the aim,” he said.

Zandile Mbabela, spokesperson for Nelson Mandela University, said part of its learning and teaching strategy is to continue expanding and enhancing a blended learning approach.

“The 2021 academic year, which will start in March, will, see us continue to implement a flexible blended learning approach in which we blend contact, online and experiential learning and teaching in various ways.

“Using a flexible blended learning approach also enables us to be agile and adaptable. Should there be a second wave that requires a ’hard’ lockdown, we will be in a far better position to move fully online for as long as is needed,” she said.

The spokesperson for Sol Plaatje University, Kashini Maistry, said that the university successfully completed the first semester of 2020 at the end of August and commenced the second semester on September 14.

“We are one of 14 institutions in the country that has been categorised as low risk, in terms of how we have managed and contained the spread of Covid-19, and we are on course to complete the academic year in 2020.”

Maistry said should students opt to remain at home, particularly if there was a mixed mode (blended mode) of teaching available with 30 percent of any module offered online, it would impact on residence occupation and could have an impact on the financial bottom line.

“We might also have a drop in registration and be unable to reach our agreed enrolment target,” she said.

Professor Rob Midgely, vice-chancellor of Walter Sisulu University, said universities would have to reconfigure service delivery methods which will entail having to develop different infrastructure.

“In a sense, the changes were going to happen anyway, but these expenditures have now been brought forward. Examples are that students will have to be provided with electronic devices to participate in flexible remote learning methods, and we would need to fast-track ubiquitous connectivity. There will be cost recovery to some extent, but it is unlikely to be 100%.”

University of Johannesburg deputy vice-chancellor Professor Angina Parekh warned that planning for the 2021 academic year would have to consider the possibility of a second wave of Covid-19 infections.

“As experiences across Europe have shown, these are possible, and surges in infection rates and their impact on institutions of higher learning will need to be managed.

“South Africa has managed the pandemic well, and will no doubt continue to do so. The experiences of 2020 will provide a template should we have to revert to contingency plans,” she said.

“Overall, funding for education may be negatively affected, with the result that university fee payments may be impacted. There will be a need for financial austerity and careful management of resources over the next few years,” she warned.

Professor Wim de Villiers, vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University who serves as vice-chairperson of USAf, said, that the coronavirus pandemic has plunged the sector into turmoil, forcing universities to re-examine their current situation and future.

On the one hand, he said, universities’ income is under severe pressure. This affects all five income streams – state subsidies, student fees, research contracts, philanthropic donations and commercial income.

“And while there have been some challenges, the transition to the new teaching mode has generally been so successful that it is bound to have a lasting effect going forward on what we offer to whom, and how. At Stellenbosch University, we have several factors that count in our favour.

“Firstly, we are not completely new to e-learning. We have been steadily increasing our e-learning offering for several years.

“In fact, before the coronavirus crisis, this was one of the priorities for my second term of office, which commenced in April.

“Now, Covid-19 has simply hit the fast-forward button,” he said.

Edwin Naidu asked several tertiary institutions their plans for the coming academic year:

Sol Plaatje University: Kashini Maistry, spokesperson

“We have had a major pedagogical change in how we provide teaching and learning at SPU and the benefits of moving to online education over the last few months will be to our advantage as a digitally-enhanced university.”

Stellenbosch University: Professor Wim de Villiers, Vice-Chancellor

“The switch to emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment is an interim emergency measure. We will be resuming contact tuition as soon as we can, but this does not mean that we will simply return to business as usual when the current crisis is over.

“E-learning is here to stay – in whatever form: from doing everything fully online to combining online and contact teaching (hybrid learning) and utilising e-learning in the classroom (blended learning).

“The reasons for this are simple. On the one hand, it broadens access to knowledge and development. Many more people can be accommodated online than in lecture halls. On the other hand, it also enriches the learning and teaching experience.”

University of the Witwatersrand: Professor Rukshana Omar, Deputy Vice-chancellor – Academic

“It is envisaged that the majority of students will complete the academic year by December 2020. Final year students, students who need to meet professional requirements, those who need access to laboratories and studios, and those who cannot study from home, have been prioritised to return to campus this year.”

University of Free State: Professor Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor

“In 2021, the UFS will use the lessons from the pandemic to implement an improved blended teaching and learning approach, which will provide students with the opportunity to benefit from the flexibility and innovation that online learning platforms provide, complemented by well-structured face-to-face sessions. The key challenges were student access to data, networks and devices, as well as the lack of a conducive learning environment for some students at home.”

Nelson Mandela University: Zandile Mbabela, spokesperson

“We have learned from the first six months of the lockdown that the evolution of the pandemic is such that you have to be careful not to run too far ahead with planning. The 2021 academic year, which will start in March, will thus see us continue to implement a flexible blended learning approach.”

Walter Sisulu University: Rob Midgley, Vice-Chancellor

“Universities will have to reconfigure their service delivery methods which will entail having to develop different infrastructure. In a sense, the changes were going to happen anyway, but these expenditures have now been brought forward.”

University of Johannesburg: Professor Angina Parekh, Deputy Vice-Chancellor – Academic

“In addition to the national management of the pandemic, universities face the ongoing challenges of connectivity in certain areas of South Africa, the relatively high cost of data especially for economically disadvantaged households, and the unreliability of the electricity supply.”

Central University of Technology: Seithati Semenokane, spokesperson

“Our greatest challenge is how to reach out to students in remote areas with limited access to e-technology, as not all of them are in the position to migrate to online learning seamlessly.”

* Nzimande is set to brief the media on the regulations relating to the Covid-19 Level 1 restrictions at 2pm on Monday.