‘Humanise online teaching and learning’

There is a pressing need to critically evaluate and monitor higher education’s responses to the lockdown in Africa, especially in relation to teaching and learning remotely, says Daniela Gachago, an associate professor in the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

She was speaking at a virtual event that formed part of the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) colloquium series, which focused on digital transformation in teaching and learning.

“What needs to change is for institutional managements to think critically about equity and quality,” said Gachago on 4 June in her virtual presentation titled ‘Towards compassionate learning design for unsettling times’.

“But the question is, what do we know about students as we continue advocating for online learning? Do we have enough feedback of what the students want? Of what kind of trauma they have as a result of COVID?” she asked.

According to her, it is, therefore, important for higher learning institutions to “humanise online teaching and learning” and support this by four interwoven principles: trust, presence, awareness and empathy.

In South Africa, 300 academics in 2020 signed a statement challenging the narrative of university managements that 2020 was a success.

In fact, they accused managements of being blind to the damage brought about by the COVID-19 measures, saying online will have terrible consequences for tertiary education.

“Online teaching is not just transferring information but [about] creating a relationship. It is crucial to realise that students are isolated. One of the biggest challenges that has caused a lot of conversation is the lack of trust between the students and lecturers,” Gachago said.

She explained that it is the responsibility of the lecturer at the university to intentionally cultivate students’ trust by practising selective vulnerability in the online community they build with their learners.

This means that lecturers can choose to share aspects of their lives that portray them as real people – “tell a story about a personal struggle that you worked through or record a video of what you are doing,” she explained.

A shared journey

Lecturers should also ensure that their students know that they have undertaken the learning journey with them.

“Verbal and non-verbal cues add context to your communication, which are important to support culturally diverse students,” said Gachago.

She added that lecturers could achieve “awareness” in an online learning context if lecturers know who students are and how they can support them. But empathy requires you, as a lecturer, to slow down, to see things through your student’s eyes without judgment, to be flexible and to support them towards their goals, she said.

COVID-19, she said, caused one of the biggest disruptions in the history of higher education, which now needs a long needed rethink to allow for more flexible, open, accessible models. She noted that the ideals of flexible education are not just about access but also equity diversity, inclusion, retention, completion and satisfaction.

“Higher education advocates should continue to address access to technology for students to ensure their success both online and on campus. They need to raise more concerns for equity, [seek] more contextual solutions, [and] focus on asynchronous low technology solutions [and] alternatives to online learning (paper-based, radio, face-to-face).”

The biggest challenge with online learning, Gachago said, is cheating, especially with online exams and the best way to stop cheating in online courses is to teach better.

“Professors believe that students cheat more [in] online [circumstances] and colleges ramped up detection tools amid shifts to remote instructions. But better assessment and student engagement would be more effective because, at the end of the day, none of these technologies really work 100% and it is very expensive,” she said.

“One of the best approaches to this [problem],” she said, “is if lecturers forgo grades on individual assignments and rely on qualitative feedback, peer reviews and self-assessment. Engage students’ work rather than evaluate it.”

Teaching medicine online

Pedro Uetela, a research fellow at the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies, presented a paper titled ‘Mozambique: A major drift in the traditional models of teaching, learning, research and cooperation.’

“The biggest debate is how medicine, architecture can be taught online. This has not been addressed to date,” said Uetela.

The switch to online teaching and learning in the Mozambique case, he said, reveals asymmetry between institutions.

“Some institutions have been able to adapt while others are still struggling. State intervention like subsidised internet worked for only three months because it enabled most students to have access to the internet. But when the government stopped offering subsidised internet [access], [the] majority of the students were unable to access classes online,” he said.

Deborah Sanoto, a lecturer in the school of education at the Botswana Open University (BOU), said during her presentation, ‘Digital Transformation at Botswana Open University: Turning policy into practice’, that, following the COVID-19 pandemic, BOU partnered with the ministry of education in developing the national e-education policy. BOU also developed policies that anchor digitalisation.

“By 2023, BOU will be an innovative open university recognised for its technology-enhanced programmes,” she said with reference to the institution’s strategic intent.

“Now accelerated by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant protocols, BOU has developed an e-tutor model within the framework of the Strategy for Technology-Enhanced Learning, Teaching, Assessment and Student Support premised on new expectations and the role of part-time tutors,” she said.

All learning and assessment activities are conducted on digital platforms the learning management system MOODLE, and the students’ integrated system ITS Integrated Tertiary Software.

Other measures adopted by BOU to accelerate digitalisation were the training of students and staff on e-learning and winning buy-in on digital transformation. It was supported by the robust learning management system MOODLE.

An implementation committee has established an e-tutor model, redefined tutors’ roles and ushered in online assessment. In addition, part-time tutors are remunerated for purchasing of data bundles, virtual tutorials and marking.

Among the challenges that the institution faced was inadequate training and support because the Centre for Information and Technology (CIT) is short-staffed. More financial resources would mean an increase in CIT staffing and hardware for tutors.

In addition, extra funding would help with a more structured training system for staff and students on how to navigate the various information management systems. Also, embracing part-time staff’s involvement in university affairs could support BOU efforts in the digital transformation.

Despite the challenges, she said, BOU has turned policy into practice. BOU is on the path of realising its strategic mission of being an innovative university.

The purpose of SARUA’s colloquium was to consider the dimensions and aspects of digital transformation of teaching and learning in higher education; consider the enabling conditions for digital transformation of teaching and learning (policies, resources, infrastructure, capacity development, analytics); consider the barriers to digital transformation of teaching and learning; learning from institutional experience of teaching and learning in digital transformation and consider the role of institutional leadership (central and distributed) in the digital transformation process.

The last event in the colloquium series, also focusing on digitalisaton, will take place on 11 June.