SAICA’s Gugu Makhanya admits that the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to wreak havoc on South Africa’s attempts to achieve quality education; an ideal encapsulated by UN Sustainable Development Goal 4. This is especially true for students at HDIs, which serve South Africa’s poorer areas. While universities did their utmost to ensure equitable access to learning, the shift to online education presented major stumbling blocks for most students, Makhanya acknowledges that since most are unable to afford devices or data, the platform itself proved problematic. Added to this was the psychosocial burden of homes where the environment simply isn’t conducive to learning. And, for those students who attempted to solve this challenge by moving out of home, new obstacles arose in the form of additional costs. Because of connectivity issues, many students had to wait for their university to deliver printed material through the post. Inevitably, this delayed their studies further, and the learning process became all the more difficult without the assistance of an online lecturer.
‘All told, the pandemic has resulted in major challenges for HDIs, including poor learning outcomes, while students are set back by delayed progression and graduations. Nor can we discount the potential lifelong harm caused by delaying the development of critical social and emotional skills and increasing inequalities.’
Faced with these pressures, Makhanya says, it wasn’t surprising that many students were forced to enter the job market rather than returning to campus when the universities reopened.
There is a silver lining, however: ‘Universities were pushed to embrace 4IR a lot quicker than expected; they have become more agile and their teaching and learning methodologies have been modernised,’ Makhanya notes, ‘and so despite the challenges, the outcomes weren’t all bad.’
The price of progress
This was the case at Walter Sisulu University, says Nkathazo Radebe, a senior lecturer in the university’s Accounting Department. But, he adds, this progress has come at a price for students and teachers alike.
Lecturers, in particular, have battled to become familiar with a platform that is, in many cases, entirely new. ‘Many teachers hail from a “chalk and talk” generation and struggle with the notion of online learning. This isn’t a platform where you can dump a lot of information and walk away, and so we have had to redesign both our courses and modules to facilitate this way of learning.’ Adding to this complexity is the tendency to confuse remote learning with online learning. This is problematic, because it assumes that learners will take greater control of the learning process – which isn’t always the case.
Radebe says that the pandemic exposed socio-economic disparities, and the lack of access to resources proved a major obstacle. Although the university provided laptops, delivery took time, and so teaching could commence only in July. Even then, most students were compromised by poor connectivity and the data provided was expended quickly, placing learners at a disadvantage if lecturers weren’t well prepared.
Radebe is also concerned about the quality of work produced during lockdown. He points out that there is no way of verifying whether students completed all work themselves, as the university simply wasn’t geared towards this way of working, and this makes assessment a highly complicated matter.
An issue of trust
The human tragedy of the pandemic notwithstanding, Saber Tayob, an associate professor in the Department of Financial Accounting at the University of Limpopo, maintains that the institution was able to fast-forward three to five years because of lockdown conditions. ‘Prior to lockdown, we had invested around R40O 000 in a digital studio intended as a venue where lecturers could produce videos, which was not optimally used. That all changed once we moved to online learning,’ he enthuses.
But while lecturers were forced to adopt a new mode, some students proved to be less quick on the uptake. Tayob notes that their reticence to embrace online learning often wasn’t their fault; data and physical location issues aside, students who found themselves trying to learn in small houses with many family members residing within naturally struggled with their situation. Female students, now expected to pick up household chores, were particularly pressured; plus, there were unforeseen fallouts like the impact of diets significantly less nutritious than those provided on campus. Not that these problems eased once students returned to campus. Often, their anxiety around contracting the virus hampered their academic performance. Lecturers also experienced their fair share of stress, with question marks hanging over whether the virus could be transmitted from, say, exam papers.
Like Radebe, Tayob is concerned about the lack of proctoring tools, which made it impossible to monitor possible incidents of cheating – although, since all universities have reported an increase in pass rates during 2020, it’s clear that this challenge wasn’t restricted to HDIs. ‘We simply have to trust the values and ethics we have tried to inculcate in our students,’ he says. In an effort to mitigate this risk, the school changed its assessment model: without invigilators overseeing students in a single venue, all assessments were prepared on the assumption that they were open-book assessments.
Tayob is worried that the COVID year will impact the perception of CAs(SA); with 4IR galloping apace, it’s possible that this will come to be seen as a dying profession where skilled individuals can be replaced by artificial intelligence. This will make it more difficult to draw people to the profession.
‘All told, this was a year of learning. We were shown that it is important to adapt, and that if we want to take all students along this journey, we have to accept that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach.’
Using what we have
There’s no doubt that the learning at Unizulu has been revolutionised thanks to the fast-tracked adoption of the university’s learner management system, Moodle. The head of the university’s Accounting Science Department, Sphelele Khomo, notes that although this was already in place before the pandemic, it wasn’t being used to its full potential – now, the university is benefiting from completing tasks with greater speed and efficiency. ‘Embracing technology has encouraged us to consider platforms we wouldn’t have thought of, like WhatsApp, and this has made it possible for us to communicate irrespective of where we’re located.’ What makes these discoveries all the more exciting is the fact that the technology was always available; it merely needed to be explored further in order to be fully exploited.
She was also encouraged by the strength in the system of accountability that Unizulu put in place: class reps were appointed for each module and acted as mediators between students and lecturers, ensuring open communication channels and providing feedback around teaching and learning processes. Students also appointed departmental leadership, which shared ideas to help the departments improve. ‘What I appreciated most about this is that students held the lecturers accountable, but they also accepted the role they had to play. They didn’t simply complain – they tried to find ways we could do things better.’
Not all discoveries were as heartening, however. Khomo admits that she was taken aback to discover the magnitude of the digital divide that remains in place and which prevented many students from submitting assignments on time. Then, again, there were students who hid behind the excuse of poor connectivity.
The question of trust came up again when students requested aegrotat exams. In some cases, these were fully justified, and Khomo says she empathised with those students who struggled to come to terms with all changes – hence the university’s decision to give them a second chance when it came to assessment. However, she worries that some students were quick to take advantage of the situation.
‘On the whole, I think of this as a useful time. It showed us that we can move quickly when we need to and that there’s no need to invest in new platforms – we just need to use what we have effectively.’