Letting the light into higher education

There is something rather tone-deaf about the aphorism, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. If anything positive has come out of the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, it is surely despite the crisis, not because of it.

It is also impossible to attribute anything much – let alone anything positive – to the ‘online pivot’ and its associated technologies.

Firstly, the shift online has been only one factor among many that have been endured by students and academics over the past 18 months, including illness, death, family economic crises, change of responsibilities, change of modes, loss of educational communities and different pedagogies. These cannot be teased apart.

Secondly, what has been called online learning has largely been emergency remote teaching and learning. Due to haste, deep fatigue, trauma, global unevenness and uncertainty about the future, there has been insufficient time for the considered planning needed for fully online programmes.

Yet, somehow, some aspects of higher education have gone right, and, in the spirit of appreciative enquiry, it is worth articulating what these aspects might be.

Now that inequality and inequity have been seen, they cannot be unseen

Inequality is a social scourge, inevitably infiltrating higher education. It is almost a decade since former United States president Barack Obama described it as the most serious challenge of our time.

Nothing has changed and, until COVID-19 hit globally, it became inescapable only when the entire higher education sector sent their students home.

The pandemic made it impossible to ignore the inequalities hidden on residential campuses where connectivity and student residences appeared to level the playing field. Those brick-and-mortar spaces hid other forms of unequally distributed economic and cultural capital.

The pandemic has made visible what should have never been ignored. Now that the impacts of inequality are clear and visible, they must never again be rendered unseen.

The classroom has been made strange

By shifting mode, academics and educators have had to look with fresh eyes at their learning environments; the classroom, as Shanali Govender describes it, has been made strange again.

For many long-standing educators, the foundations of teaching had become opaque, lost in familiarity.

While the initial panic saw a frantic rush to upload content in a bid to salvage the academic year, as the pandemic has inexorably worn on, it has become clearer what learning involves. Going online has made the supporting skeleton of pedagogy, of community and of curriculum explicit.

Since the onset of the pandemic, attention has turned to rethinking time, reconceptualising space and learning environments, mapping pedagogy in new ways and reconsidering curricula.

After the initial panic, online learning design has seen shifts to enabling interaction and designing new forms of assessment, challenging taken-for-granted practices and at times improving those historically practised in face-to-face teaching environments.

Thus, while catalysed by the pandemic-induced pivot online, the fundamental issues of good teaching have received more sustained attention, no matter what the mode.

Collaboration against the odds

Universities are competitive institutions fostered by rankings and metrics that reflect a marketised culture of consumer choice. Research collaboration crosses borders deeply located in disciplinary knowledge.

However, teaching is considered a solitary undertaking with academics rewarded in promotion criteria that privilege individualist behaviour. If anything, collaboration in the teaching space has been disincentivised.

Yet, over the past 18 months, there have been myriad examples of informal mutual assistance. And at speed. Formal collaborative arrangements have sprung up and have been consolidated.

This generosity is evident in the collection of examples crowdsourced by Alexandra Mihai showing the numerous inter-institutional partnerships in academic staff development.

These include professional development courses designed across and for multiple institutions nationally and internationally, teaching and learning consortia and the creation of openly licensed toolkits and resource hubs.

In short, the ‘not invented here’ barrier was broken, and that is surely something that has gone right.

Rules got broken

The higher education sector is notoriously slow to change. Despite there being hubs of innovation in different disciplines, universities at an institutional and often at a national level are governed by regulations designed to serve previous outmoded dispensations, many of which were on the way out even before the pandemic began.

Rules were broken to prevent sectoral collapse: the multimodal approach to saving the year, combining analogue forms from paper, to radio and television – and digital forms including flash drives, pre-packaged tablets, mobile internet vans, cellphones and, of course, laptops with Wi-Fi.

This has meant regulatory categories were understood as overlapping and categories of provision porous.

Strictly demarcated rules specifying what is and isn’t distance education, what can or cannot receive state funding, what can or cannot be defined as ‘presence’, ‘hours spent together’, ‘hours in a classroom’ – these all got broken to save the academic year. And to save the life chances of students whose futures depend on the academic year being completed.

Deeply imperfect as this has been, policy frameworks and the regulatory environment, usually glacially slow to change, were adjusted to protect institutions and for the greater good of students. This flexibility, made possible by breaking the rules, shows what is possible and what needs to continue.

Addressing barriers and structural problems

To go full circle, many of the persistent structural challenges shaping the higher education sector are now in plain sight and can no longer be wished away.

Some of the fundamental socio-economic issues shaping the deep inequalities which characterise the higher education sector have started to receive attention.

There has been recognition of how many students face enormous barriers to learning. The diversity of learning settings and their associated challenges have started to receive proper attention.

Importantly, there has been a renewed emphasis on the importance of good teaching and the benefits of collaboration, both for equity and knowledge sharing.

Leonard Cohen could have been talking about teaching offerings in his song Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.

Laura Czerniewicz is a professor in the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, the Centre for Higher Education Development at University of Cape Town in South Africa.