Proactively preparing staff, students for a digital future
The rate of evolution in all sectors appears to be accelerating and it is no different for higher education, and teaching and learning in particular. We have seen a digital transformation of all facets of our lives and digitisation has been one of the many changes that have significantly impacted on teaching and learning. In addition, it has become a necessity to be digitally literate to actively participate in the evolving sectors of the economy.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities around the world had to rapidly pivot to remote or hybrid learning and digital learning and teaching models to help slow the spread of the virus while still providing quality education to students. This required lecturers and students to quickly adapt quickly to new technologies and platforms for communication and learning.
New practices, new opportunities
At this point, digitisation was not a new concept. However, higher education was still preparing for new automated ways of doing things. Then came the pandemic, which accelerated the need to use technology so that teaching and learning could continue. This pivotal moment in our history has led to changes that will continue well into the future. Digitisation has no doubt had a significant impact on teaching and learning, transforming traditional educational practices and opening new opportunities.
Not only has the internet made a vast amount of information readily available to students and lecturers, but students can now also access more resources in addition to what was available pre-pandemic by way of textbooks, articles, videos and online courses, allowing them to explore topics in-depth and at their own pace.
Digitisation has also enabled collaboration and communication between students and lecturers, irrespective of their geographical locations. Online platforms, video conferencing tools and learning management systems facilitate real-time interactions, virtual discussions and group projects. This promotes collaborative learning, teamwork and global connections.
Personalised, flexible, and broader access to learning is another benefit of digitisation that has enabled students to learn at their own pace, focus on their specific areas of improvement and engage with content that matches their learning style. Students with disabilities, for example, are now being enabled to access educational materials as well as participate in online activities.
Data collection and analysis
The move to digitisation has also permitted the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data related to student performance, engagement and learning patterns. This data can be leveraged to identify areas of improvement, track progress and make informed instructional decisions. Lecturers can use learning analytics to assess the effectiveness of their teaching strategies and adapt their approaches accordingly.
In preparation for the digital age, Stellenbosch University (SU) in South Africa created new learning spaces that were custom-designed to cater to the interactive and hybrid-learning pedagogies of a digital-first world.
Our Jan Mouton Learning Centre is one such contemporary, multifunctional learning and teaching facility on our Stellenbosch campus. It houses state-of-the-art technology for future-oriented lectures, live streaming, conferencing and group work, setting the benchmark for future learning and teaching buildings on our different campuses.
Augmented learning is also part of our academic renewal strategy. The Extended Learning Spaces (ELS) project makes augmented learning a reality. With ELS, we provide all schedulable lecture venues with audio-visual equipment and systems to allow lecturers to stream their lectures to online students while also teaching to students present in class. The intention is to provide online students with an interactive learning experience comparable to face-to-face attendance, as well as to reach new student markets.
Fostering digital literacy
It is, however, important to note that digitisation also presents challenges such as the digital divide, information overload and the need for digital literacy skills in a developing country like South Africa. Ensuring equitable access to technology and fostering digital literacy are crucial to harnessing the full potential of digitisation in education. Teaching students for a job in a digital future requires a combination of technical skills, critical thinking abilities, adaptability and strong foundational knowledge.
Further complicating the matter in South Africa is continuous load-shedding [power cuts], which impacts on our ability to work, teach and learn. It forces us, once again, to consider even better and more sustainable ways of working that do not widen the already large divide between those who have access to power and technology and those who do not.
We saw with the pandemic that universities globally that had already invested in technology and infrastructure to support online learning and trained their faculty and students on how to use these technologies effectively were better prepared for the digitalisation of teaching and learning. These universities were able to make a smooth transition to remote teaching and learning without compromising quality.
On the other hand, universities that were not as prepared may have faced even more challenges. They may have struggled with outdated technology, limited resources and a lack of experience with online teaching and learning. Consequently, these institutions may have had to make significant investments in technology and infrastructure to support remote teaching and learning and may have had to provide additional training to their faculty and students.
Similarly, if South Africa wants to keep pace with the rest of the world, we not only need to keep advancing digitally, but we also need to be able to adapt our teaching methods to prepare for the disruption of regular operations and limited access to technology and instructional resources.
It is worth noting that the impact of the current electricity crisis on teaching and learning in universities will depend on its severity and duration, as well as institutions’ preparedness and ability to implement contingency plans. At SU, we have taken proactive measures, such as investing in backup power systems, promoting energy efficiency and developing sustainable campus infrastructure. These have helped us to mitigate the effects of an electricity crisis on teaching and learning while maintaining our ability to improve our digital offering.
In conclusion, universities across the world have made significant adaptations to embrace digitisation and leverage their potential in transforming teaching and learning. The rapid advancement of technology and the availability of online resources have driven universities to reimagine traditional educational practices and adopt innovative approaches. By harnessing the power of digitisation, tertiary institutions have been able to enhance access to information, promote collaboration and communication, personalise learning experiences, and provide flexibility in education.
By embracing digitisation, universities have transformed the educational landscape, fostering innovation, collaboration and lifelong learning opportunities for students, while also preparing them for the digital future that awaits them beyond the walls of academia.
Professor Deresh Ramjugernath is the deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.