News and Opinions

Covid-19 and its impact on higher education: A personal reflection

Zwakele Baldwin Ngubane, Director Advancement and Alumni Relations, Durban University of Technology

Much has been written about the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on various sectors and aspects of our lives, including the economy, health, social and education. The higher education sector has also suffered significant disruptions and, as a result, there had to be some major maneuvering on the part of institutions of higher learning to ensure continuity during the pandemic and the concomitant restrictions.

Education at universities is traditionally characterised by large lectures consisting of 50 to 200 students in a lecture hall, gathered to draw pearls of wisdom and intellect from an all-wise and knowing professor. Such an arrangement became impossible during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Such would be considered, as we later came to know, a super-spreader event and imagining hundreds of such lectures taking place within universities around the country, would certainly have been cause for sleepless nights for the Minister of Health and the President. But how then were universities to continue operating if this traditional mode of teaching is what characterised education in institutions of higher learning?

Fortunately, the idea of online or remote learning had long been considered and dabbled with by some universities by then. I recall as early as 2009 when I was a junior lecturer attending a training programme 

designed to equip us to facilitate online learning using Blackboard (an online learning platform). We were advised that this was an essential component in the arsenal of a lecturer’s tool kit and that, while we were not an online or distance education university, online learning would serve to supplement face-to face teaching. We were excited at this prospect and imagined how this technologically progressive mode of teaching would obviate some of the challenges we were already experiencing at the time. Some of which being students living far from campus and, as a result, often missing lectures and even assignment submissions. This new technology would allow such students to access recorded lectures they had missed, from the online classes without the necessity of scheduling separate catch-up meetings. Assignments could also be submitted online.

Little did we know that, roughly ten years later, this mode of teaching would be our saving grace during the Covid-19 hard lockdowns. Of course there had to be much training for lecturers and students so as to acclimatise to the online space. Fortunately, at my university, this was an ongoing exercise long before Covid-19, since online learning, as an educational innovation, had gained traction and had become associated with progressive education, particularly in lieu of the then imminent 4IR and increased digitalisation.

Online teaching and learning during Covid-19

During Covid-19 and the attendant lockdowns, online learning became the obvious solution to the question of how we were supposed to keep the academic programmes going. Of course, it must be acknowledged that, for the first few weeks into the pandemic, universities, including my own, were faced with the challenge of navigating how to actually implement remote learning and working. It was not only about the students and lecturers, but also about support staff who provide critical support services to the academic programmes.

Questions around data, connectivity and devices came to the fore. My university quickly put in place a programme of providing data and devices that would facilitate remote working and teaching and learning. Staff (both academic and support) were not much of a concern because many staff already had laptops, however, those without had to indicate as such so that these could be provided. Connectivity resources such as MIFI devices also had to be rolled out so that staff could have the required tools to execute their duties from home. The university engaged the various mobile network operators to purchase data in bulk for staff and students.

While it was not possible for the university to purchase laptops for each and every student, a number of projects and initiatives mushroomed in response, to assist in providing students with necessary devices to access online learning. NSFAS-funded students, for instance, were encouraged to use their allowances to purchase laptops. There were also philanthropic initiatives geared towards assisting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access laptops during this period. My university also undertook a campaign in 2019 to raise funds to assist in providing, inter alia, laptops to students. These multi-faceted interventions were consolidated to form a reasonable response that ultimately saw the academic programme back on track, thus saving the academic year, which was a major concern for academic institutions.

Whilst I may have presented online learning as a solution to the challenges brought on by Covid-19 in the higher education environment from a teaching and learning perspective, we must note that it was not without its complications. As already alluded to, online learning meant that both staff and students would have to have the necessary means to access online learning materials from home. A mammoth exercise on the part of the university had to be rolled out to equip staff and, to some extent students, with the means. This involved great costs as well.

Over and above the provision of devices to facilitate connectivity, some students were located in areas where internet connectivity is poor and this meant that they struggled to access online lectures and learning materials. This would become further pronounced when it came to participating in online assessments.

Online assessments, tests and examinations in particular, also proved to be a challenge in that it was difficult for examiners to ensure the integrity of the assessments remotely. Ordinarily, students would write tests and exams in a hall under strict test conditions with invigilators walking around to ensure that students were not bringing in unauthorised notes to assist them during the assessment. This type of invigilation was not possible with online or remote assessments and so examiners had to find creative and resourceful methods of curbing cheating during assessments.

Mental health and wellness during Covid-19

We cannot neglect the importance of the provision of support and assistance to students and staff when it comes to mental health. This was particularly felt during the Covid-19 lockdown, with an increase in the number of reports of feelings of isolation and as a result, in some instances, depression. The number of students and staff who lost family due to Covid-19, would also be a contributing factor to the increase in the need for mental health support. Ordinarily, universities offer student counselling services for students who need support in this area. However, during the pandemic, the university had to come up with ways of offering these services online while trying to maintain the same level of care and compassion that would otherwise be offered in a face-to-face consultation. The student counselling unit had to reorganise and set themselves up in such a way that they could offer their services telephonically andonline. The unit concerned also had to communicate these service offerings accordingly, so as to make the student population aware of their availability. Again, this was not a complete solution as some would’ve struggled with connectivity due to being located in remote locations with poor connectivity, or even lacking the necessary resources to access these services. Nevertheless, efforts were made to ensure that such services were available, notwithstanding the abovementioned challenges. Similar interventions were employed to assist staff as well.

The adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant lockdown restrictions on all spheres of life, including higher education, are undeniable. However, we adapted to “a new normal” and found ways of living, surviving and thriving under these difficult conditions.

It was a stark reminder of our vulnerability, as is the case whenever we are struck by some natural disaster or, as in this case, a major public health crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic. We were reminded of the importance of continually conducting risk assessments and analyses and to put in place measures that could mitigate against such risks. The pandemic also reminded us of the need to be resilient, agile and adaptive. This allowed us to weather the Covid-19 storm in the higher education space as outlined above through the various interventions that were employed. Most of all for me, however, it reminded us of our humanity and the enduring spirit of ubuntu that we all share.

We were able to come together and pool resources through philanthropic initiatives to respond to the crisis and assist one another. It reminded me that although we are a country with many seemingly insurmountable challenges, our humanity – ubuntu bethu – is still very much alive.

 Originally published in our 2021 Annual Report


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