Humanising pedagogies to facilitate digital learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has had particularly adverse repercussions for Africa.

While online education providers were generally better positioned to adapt to periods of national and international lockdowns, the entire higher education landscape was affected by the unavoidable necessity to rethink ways of educating, researching and working in general.

In South Africa, as in many emerging economies, tertiary institutions have increasingly been adopting digital technologies as mediating tools for learning, teaching and assessment.

Therefore, once the pandemic struck, some universities had a form of institutional support infrastructure in place to enable periods of remote learning. Despite the preparedness of institutions that had access to financial resources to support blended learning, issues such as accessibility and different learning and work experiences were observed.

These matters were, as expected, only heightened during universities’ shift to emergency remote teaching. The sudden onset of a period of emergency remote teaching also necessitated continued awareness of the need for a humanising approach to learning and teaching – especially in the digital era.

As with many other South African higher education institutions, we at Stellenbosch University (SU) aimed to address these emergency issues by attempting to secure mobile data for students, lending laptops to those who required them and assisting both academics and students through offering targeted webinars focusing on a range of topics such as the rethinking of online learning activities, demystification of data light resources and being responsive to student inputs in the online space.

A humanising approach

Such an awareness of a humanising approach was also one of the recurring themes in many of the chapters of a collaborative open educational e-book project at SU in which academics and colleagues from SU’s division for teaching and learning enhancement were invited to share their reflective experiences in terms of teaching, learning and assessment during lockdown.

The reflections of teaching academics showed that they wanted to better understand the lived experiences and unique contexts of their students, as they endeavoured to connect with their classes across the boundaries of digital devices and the digital divide.

It should be pointed out that the notion of humanising pedagogies is not unfamiliar to those interested in, especially, the work of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, who tried to understand the social world from a student perspective.

In a recent webinar, Professor Denise Zinn from Nelson Mandela University pointed out that humanising pedagogies attempt to underline a “consciousness and understanding of the socio-political, economic and historical context and its impact on people, as well as a commitment on the part of educators to the transformation of unjust and inequitable conditions in that context”.

These principles are, arguably, even more valuable in a historical moment of large-scale digitalisation in higher education.

However, as Drick Boyd reminds us, Freire’s pedagogical concepts were developed in a pre-digital era in which a situated pedagogy formed the basis of his work.

Freire’s observations of learning and teaching occurred in a shared place, and in person. In contrast, the virtual classroom involves remote communication, mostly via smart devices.

Freire in a digital environment

How, then, can the principles of Freire’s work be translated to the digital learning environment? Boyd’s guiding framework could be a potential starting point to examine this question.

He highlights the key principles of Freire’s work that can serve as a generative lens for educators interested in adopting a humanising approach to the facilitation of online learning.

These principles include the recognition that problem-based learning, dialogue, embodied learning and democratic access to information aid a transformative education.

There is still much to explore about the core principles of humanising pedagogies in a digital learning environment. There are also merits to the critique that the key principles of Freire’s work cannot fully be applied to the virtual classroom context, since his theories were formed in relation to a classroom context that fundamentally shifted.

We are, for example, still grappling to understand how social proximity and rich dialogue – both enablers of a humanising educational approach – can be facilitated in the context of fully online learning.

A further question remains how such an approach also translates into the unique circumstances of African-based higher education institutions.

These questions, however difficult, form part of a period of reflective institutional learning at SU.

To sustain this trajectory of critical reflection for practitioners and scholars, we cannot lose sight of the fact that learning, whether augmented through digital technologies or not, remains a process of human transformation.

A humanising perspective could, therefore, add value to our expanding understanding of how we can, or rather should, facilitate online learning.

Dr Sonja Strydom is the deputy director of academic development and research at the Centre for Learning Technologies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Miné de Klerk is a hybrid learning project manager in the division for teaching and learning enhancement at the same institution. This commentary is based on their chapter in the 2020 book Responding to the Necessity for Change: Higher education voices from the South during the COVID-19 crisis.