Promoting digital transformation with a 12-point agenda

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many African universities faced serious challenges pivoting to remote teaching and learning, research, and administration using online platforms.

Many suffered from limited digital infrastructure, capacity and connectivity which made the transition difficult.

According to a survey by the Association of Commonwealth Universities prior to the pandemic, only 16% of African respondents indicated that online teaching had occurred in all or most departments.

By May 2020, 74% said that all or most teaching and learning was online.

However, respondents identified many challenges, including accessibility by students (83%), staff training and confidence (82%), and connectivity costs (89%). In response, they developed ameliorative measures whose success varied quite considerably.

There were, of course, national and intra-institutional digital differences and divides.

African educators came to appreciate more keenly the digital inequalities in their societies and institutions based on class, gender, location, age and other social markers.

They became keenly aware of the need to make significant investments in technology infrastructure and promote digital fluency among faculty and students.

African universities, like universities everywhere, will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly changed, although they are likely to pursue different strategies in managing the future.

Some will try to restore the pre-pandemic past; others will seek to evolve by incorporating the impact and lessons from the pandemic; yet others will embrace and embark on institutional transformation. In reality, many will combine elements of all three.

In this essay, we propose a dozen strategies that are worth discussing among African universities as they chart their respective post-pandemic paths.

Embed digital transformation

First, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced transition to remote delivery of education must turn to the development of a long-term digital strategic framework that ensures resilience, flexibility, experimentation and continuous improvement.

Digital transformation must be embedded in institutional culture, from strategic planning processes and organisational structures, to administrative and daily operational practices, while avoiding exacerbating existing digital poverty for historically, socially, and spatially disadvantaged communities.

Invest in digital infrastructure

Second, universities have to make strategic and sustainable investments in digital infrastructures and platforms by rethinking capital expenditures that historically favoured physical plant, and by increasing spending on technological infrastructure.

Their budgets must not only support a more robust online learning ecosystem, but also build in flexibilities to reallocate resources in the face of unexpected crises.

Develop online design competencies

Third, African universities have to develop online design competencies both individually and through consortia with each other and overseas institutions that are committed to mutually beneficial partnerships.

Such collaborations should encompass sharing technical expertise for online instructional design and pedagogy, curation and content development, and training of faculty, students and university leaders.

This will ensure quality online education that will enable these universities to participate in what is likely to become fierce global competition for online students.

Technology-mediated modalities of learning

Fourth, universities need to entrench technology-mediated modalities of teaching and learning. They ought to embrace face-to-face, blended, and online teaching and learning.

Digital transformation promises to diversify students beyond the 18-24 age cohort, maximise learning opportunities for students, and open new markets, increasing tuition revenues for universities.

Blended and online teaching and learning offers much needed flexibility for students, who increasingly find it appealing and convenient for its space and time-shifting possibilities.

Pedagogical changes

Fifth, digitalisation provides opportunities for beneficial pedagogical changes in terms of curricula design and delivery that involves students as active participants in the learning process rather than passive consumers of knowledge.

It helps faculty to rethink learning and teaching practices, to see themselves less as imperious sages on the stage and more as facilitating coaches.

An important part of this agenda is for universities to promote research that enables them to stay current with the changing digital preferences, expectations and capabilities of students, faculty and professional staff.

21st-century skills

Sixth, universities should develop curricula that impart skills for the jobs of the 21st century.

Such curricula must be holistic and integrate the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces.

They should also promote inclusive, innovative, intersectional, and interdisciplinary teaching and learning; embed experiential, active, work-based, personalised, and competence-based learning; and instil in students a mindset of creativity, enterprise, innovation, problem-solving and resilience.

Holistic support of students

Seventh, universities have a responsibility to embrace and use educational technologies that support the whole student for student success going beyond degree completion.

Holistic support encompasses access to advisers and to helpful advising technologies, such as course-related alerts, nudges and kudos that are positive and offered early.

Surveys show that regular, constructive, targeted and personalised feedback makes a big difference in student success.

Digital divide and inclusivity

Eighth, universities need to develop effective policies and interventions to address the digital divide and issues of mental health disorders and learning disabilities.

Resources and new investments are required to provide opportunities to those trapped by debilitating digital deficiencies.

An inclusive agenda for digital transformation must also include using the universal design for learning framework to ensure access for all learners.

Moreover, as universities seek to expand access to mental health services, they need to leverage technology-based interventions that do not just introduce new ways of offering services but also enable scaling of those services to multiple students online.

Digital safety and security

Ninth, as learning and student life move seamlessly across digital, physical, and social experiences, issues of data protection and privacy become more pressing.

Protecting personal data requires the provision of safe storage options and development of policies and practices that are transparent and ethical.

Students need to know and have confidence in how the institution collects, stores, protects and uses their personal data, and be able to view, update, and opt out.

The proliferation of online harassment, especially against women and people from marginalised groups requires institutional protection.

This includes creating codes of conduct against clearly defined online harassment, fostering an anti-harassment culture and developing a centralised system of reporting and tracking.

The growing dependence on digital technologies increases cyber security risks that require robust mitigation capabilities, including conducting information security awareness campaigns.

Unique barriers of international students

Tenth, in so far as the market for online programmes is transnational, it is essential for universities to pay special attention to international students who face unique barriers that require special redress in an online learning environment.

The key barriers international students face in the virtual classroom include time differences, hard deadlines, limited connectivity and access, lack of learning space, lack of scheduled support, lack of language support for non-native or secondary speakers of the language of instruction, remote class culture, invisible support, social isolation and racial discrimination.

The solutions include adopting asynchronous learning, allowing flexible timelines, providing connectivity support, offering safe learning spaces, replicating the class structure, providing language support, setting digital expectations early, building cultural bridges, providing remote support services, and practising micro-inclusions.

Collaboration and partnership

Eleventh, universities must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders, including digital technology and telecommunication companies.

As the demands for return on investment increase from students and their families, as well as the state and society, pressures are growing on universities to demonstrate their value proposition and social impact.

This translates into the question of graduate employability, closing the much-bemoaned mismatches between educational qualifications and the economy.

This entails strengthening experiential learning and work-based learning, which requires strengthening connections with employers.

Virtual learning not only necessitates and opens new ways of engaging industry, the economy and society, it also creates huge demands for digital skills for the emerging jobs of the 21st century.

Research anchored in technological infrastructure

Twelfth, COVID-19 has raised the stakes for research for African universities.

Prior to the pandemic, they were expected to actively produce both basic and applied research and generate innovations that address the pressing problems of African communities, countries, continent, and the continent’s place in the world.

However, levels of research productivity have remained generally low.

Following the disruptions and digital opportunities engendered by COVID-19, universities will increasingly be expected to anchor their research and innovation in the technological infrastructure that supports and enhances the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa.

African universities cannot, of course, undertake these digital transformations by themselves.

They need the support of governments, the private sector, and other critical actors, including international and intergovernmental organisations, and domestic and foreign philanthropic organisations.

In a report published by the International Association of Universities in late 2019, Higher education in the digital era: The current state of transformation around the world, only 19% of African respondents found national regulatory policies supportive for higher education transformation in the digital era; 26% mostly supportive with some exceptions; 37% variably supportive and constraining; and 19% mostly unsupportive.

African countries must step up if their universities and countries are to become active players, not passive bystanders, in the digital transformation unleashed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is professor of the humanities and social sciences and vice-chancellor of the United States International University-Africa and Paul M Okanda is the director of ICT at the United States International University-Africa, Kenya. (This is a Commentary.)