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By the Digital Learning and Teaching Project Team (Shanali Govender, Daniela Gachago, Greig Krull, Nicola Pallitt, Simone Titus)

The first digital dialogue organised by HELTASA’s Digital Learning and Teaching Project Team on 28 May 2022 focused on the question, “What’s happening at your institution now?”. Starting with this piece, the project team aims to write a short reflective piece after each digital dialogue for a recap and further engagement.

On 28 May, more than 50 participants from a wide range of institutions met online to share their experiences and knowledge about how their institutions were emerging from or working towards emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency remote teaching and learning. Our goal for the session, in addition to information sharing, was to create opportunities for individuals to interact with others who also contribute to digitally enabled education in the higher education context in South Africa, and, over time, to build networks and relationships that connect our diverse institutions and contexts across the country.

After small group conversations in breakout rooms, we asked participants to feedback key ideas that had surfaced in their conversations. Three key ideas emerged from the discussion:

  1. The process of returning to face to face teaching is complicated
  2. Assessment is currently a focus for attention in a number of institutions
  3. Digitally enabled spaces are far from homogenous, across and even within institutions, and staff and students need more support for learning and teaching in a wide range of digitally enabled spaces.

Returning to “normality”?

There seems to be a general consensus that returning to face to face teaching was in most instances, a complex process. Participants surfaced assumptions about whether face-to-face should be the norm and some people are now questioning this. While many participants reported a sense of joy in returning to face-to-face interactions, that was by no means everyone’s experience, with staff and students experiencing challenges in the return to the classroom. For example, some felt a bit lost in being back in the classroom after getting used to an online environment. At least in part, this sense of uncertainty and discomfort has been exacerbated by rapid, and sometimes poorly communicated, COVID mandate shifts at a national level, leaving little time for institutions and the communities that they serve to transition between COVID protocols and the relaxation of these.

National lockdowns in 2020 closed most face to face institutions of learning, requiring that students return to their homes, or make alternative housing arrangements. This shift in the geographical location of learning out of classroom communities and into homes with their varying levels of conduciveness to learning, contributes to producing in our students an enthusiasm for returning to physical campuses, a reluctance to do so, and, in many instances, a complex ambivalence. Students report positive experiences as a result of studying from home: being able to study at their own convenience, being able to dress casually, move and conduct themselves physically in a variety of ways while learning, time savings through avoiding travel and “empty” hours on campus, and risk reductions in terms of avoiding public transport, extremely early starts to the day and extremely late homecomings. At the same time students reported negative experiences as a result of studying from home: family disruptions, additional responsibilities, limited access to physically conducive spaces in which to study, and limited access to adequate resources for studying such as stable and cheap internet.

The complex emotional response to returning to campus is true for both students and staff. In addition to the positive and negative experience noted by students, some staff commented on the joy and excitement of returning to face to face teaching, while others have noted the loss of flexibility in their own schedules, and commented on a reduced ability to manage family and other responsibilities in a more integrated way with their work responsibilities.

Assessment in digitally enabled contexts

Interestingly during the conversation, it surfaced that more than seven institutions had over the last year adopted, or were moving towards adopting new assessment policies. In part, this seemed to have been prompted by both challenges and opportunities that surfaced during the emergency remote teaching and learning period. Institutions’ inability, particularly in 2020, to conduct fully face to face assessment, combined with conventional forms of physical invigilation, required that lecturers moved away from conventional examination conditions to create assessments that were less reliant on invigilation practices to successfully assess a student’s learning. Lecturers in some disciplines experienced this as a liberation from the constraints of examination conditions, allowing them to explore multimodal and increasingly personalised and open forms of assessment. In other disciplines, this caused serious concerns about the reliability of student results as a measure of student learning. In many institutions such disciplines, driven in part by the requirements of their professional bodies, were at the forefront for queries about individual invigilation, which raised its own challenges in relation to student privacy and comfort during assessments. The conversation about constituting a learning-oriented and trustworthy assessment of our students seems to be developing with institutions needing to navigate increasingly varied assessment needs and wants from different disciplines and different parts of the institution. Interestingly, the return to face to face forms of assessment has faced some resistance on some campuses from student groups who, while by no means speaking for all students and no doubt for a variety of reasons, seem to have found the online assessment process a more conducive to successful assessment than conventional invigilated examination procedures.

Towards digitally enabled contexts: Aspirations and support

Across the South African higher education landscape, it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic and higher education’s emergency remote teaching response to it brought to the surface a heightened awareness of the possibilities and risks of teaching and learning in predominantly online spaces. For participants in this dialogue, this was expressed as a strong awareness of the various inequalities that create radically different learning contexts for students, especially when they’re learning in their home contexts. This was coupled with a concern for the implications of complex inequality for teaching staff, and for supporting the professional learning and development of teaching staff. Emerging from the pandemic, while many participants reflected that their institutions wanted to embrace digitally enabled opportunities for learning, this was constrained by particular policy and funding structures that currently shape higher education offerings, and by the readiness of students and staff to function confidently and competently in digitally enabled environments.

Nonetheless various institutions have, in response to and emerging from the particular context of the COVID-19 pandemic, made changes (to various degrees) which affected learning and teaching practices:

Changes in mode: This has included hyflex or hybrid teaching where some members of the class are online at the same time as others are gathering in a face to face space. In most instances, reports on this practice are mixed, suggesting that this can make learning more accessible in relation to time and travel constraints, while keeping classroom spaces accessible to those who find that the boundary of the face to face classroom supports their learning. Some participants reported that successfully creating equally engaging and meaningful experiences for both face to face and online participants required deliberate pedagogic and technological choices and often required additional support such as a teaching assistant or a carefully primed participant from the classroom to act as a bridge between the online and face to face space. For others however, hyflex modes can be overwhelming, especially in large classes and even more so in those instances where there is considerable variation in digital literacy and academic readiness in the group.

Changes to teaching practices: Participants noted that the shift to emergency remote teaching produced learning experiences that were of varying quality. In some instances, learning designers and educational technologists noted that emergency remote teaching activities produced very limited or constrained learning opportunities for students, resulting in the practice of “content dumping” in online learning spaces. In contrast, one participant reported that in their experience, ERT nudged lecturers to move away from thinking of online spaces for learning simply as repositories for resources, and began to think of these spaces as having potential for pedagogy and engagement.

Supporting readiness for digitally enabled learning: An interesting thread in the discussion took us towards thinking about what support students and staff would need in order to both successfully teach online and learn online. One institution reported the use of large scale online courses to orient students to the LMS, with live sessions being used for students to surface specific challenges.

Looking forward

General feedback at the end of this first digital dialogue was enthusiastically positive, with participants reflecting on the value of connecting with colleagues working in different institutions. Participants noted that despite the diversity in institutional foci, cultures, locations and demographics, many institutions seemed to face similar challenges and discussing these within a community was a fruitful opportunity for connection. Our next dialogue sessions will focus on student inequalities and assessments.