Worrying trend in Universities: Online throughput shoots up

Independent Analyst Khumbulani Mngadi. Image: Supplied

Independent Analyst Khumbulani Mngadi. Image: Supplied

Published Feb 21, 2022

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By: Khumbulani Mngadi

The relevance and importance of technology in the education space is indisputable. In fact, it has been identified as one of the shortcomings of the sector for quite some time.

However, the forced and fast paced introduction of online teaching and learning at university level is something less to be celebrated. This may sound pessimistic but let’s agree to disagree, I believe the online frenzy may bear undesirable results for universities in the long run.

Let’s not forget the fact that the sudden turn of events was not foreseeable, needless to say, planned.

Covid-19 took the world by surprise. Nearly all sectors including the education sector reacted with shock and they were literally forced to find means of survival on their feet otherwise the system was on the verge of collapse.

There are a million points that need be ventilated at length on this subject, but for the purposes of this article I will confine myself to these pressing ones including the training of both the teachers and the learners, the infrastructure to cope with the demand, controls for examinations, credibility of the sector and the level of preparedness of graduates.

These elements are by far not exhausted, the debate can be started using them as points of departure. There is some level of agreement amongst the scholars that South African universities have been very slow in blending technology in their teaching and learning methods.

In the last ten years, we have witnessed a very slow pace in blended learning until the country was hit by the unfortunate global pandemic. Suddenly, everyone was forced into panic mode leaving us with only one viable option - online learning in order to avoid widespread pandemic.

Education purists will agree that online platforms provide ample opportunities for innovation and effective teaching than learning in class. It also allows for much needed international collaborations and skills transfer. However, if there is no proper and long-lasting strategy to online possibilities it may go south very quick.

In the South African context, the most worrying point is that of the level of preparedness, on one hand i.e., lecturers and on the other hand, the learners. Honestly speaking, most universities did not have time to prepare instead they opted for quick and half cooked training sessions that were hurriedly administered to lecturers so that they can keep up with these sudden demands.

This lacklustre reaction presented a lot of challenges for students and they felt isolated and discriminated at times. A few universities experienced disruptions especially from student representatives demanding better ways of handling this transition.

Their grievances included lack of resources, connectivity issues, and the allocation of data to name but a few. This resulted in a pandemonium teaching and learning time was lost in the process.

The lack of infrastructure proved to be main bone of contention in the student’s resistance. Universities had to re-budget for this and it proved astronomically costly.

The cost of data is yet to be felt by the universities. It became clear that Universities had to use at least 70% of its budget to working tools for both lecturers and students, monies to be spent on PPE, deep cleaning, and related expenses.

The notable demand for gadgets came with the exorbitant data costs considering their enrolment numbers proved insurmountable. Government came through with its structured grants to curb the situation but the big question is, did all this work? Was the money spent equal the throughput?

It would be very interesting to see financial statements of all universities so that one can make an informed observation on this subject. However, it is safer to observe that the inability of universities to explore blended learning is partly to blame.

Had this been done earlier, a different reaction was possible, perhaps it could have saved the fiscus.

Stringent examination controls are very key in keeping the integrity of the examination process fair and credible, ultimately the credibility of the institution. Students who find it easier to pass at a particular institution automatically frown upon that institution on credibility grounds.

It would be very interesting to see how students have performed between 2020-2021 Covid break periods. A worrying narrative is finding resonance in the higher education circles that the pass rates improved drastically during this period. How is this possible, one may ask?

A number of things come in to play: one being SA is notorious for its connectivity problems. Two, the lack of familiarity between lecturers and online teaching methods. Three, students not being monitored or invigilated during online examinations.

These and other issues pose a serious threat to the credibility of the universities if not carefully planned. There is a lot to be worried about. Yes, online teaching and learning trajectory is desirable but equality the quality of education in its entirety should not be compromised.

The consequences of this trend are far reaching, universities run the risk of producing graduates that are not sufficiently trained for certain jobs.

At worst, the universities may lose funding from the private sector simply because the quality of graduates they are receiving is not comparable. There is quite a lot that go into ensuring that universities are kept competitive both locally and internationally.

This then means there is a need to revisit the manner in which universities administer their online courses. If these unconfirmed results are anything to go by, the trend is really worrisome and it has to be stopped. If it means lecturers must be re-skilled, so be it.

This so to avoid discussing the quality of graduates post Covid-19. Blended teaching and learning methods are the way to go, there is no turning back. I agree Covid-19 effects are complex and unpredictable but online learning as one of them is here to stay.

*Khumbulani Mngadi is an independent analyst based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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Higher Education