By Professor Mandla Makhanya
As we close close what has been a fascinating and unprecedented year, Unisa is leading the higher education sector in the field of open distance and e-learning. Our institution is the largest open distance e-learning institution in Africa and the longest-standing dedicated distance education university in the world.
Over the years, our existence has been premised on the long-standing logic of delivering learning materials to students through the post and complementing this with online platforms. However, the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic compelled us to think differently.
Before the pandemic, our vision was to become an open-distance e-learning institution, but this was not reflected in our systems or processes. When the pandemic ravaged the world and its systems, we found ourselves plunged into an environment where we had no choice but to flourish as an e-learning institution.
True to form, I saw great resilience and strength in students and staff who were and are still under immense pressure due to the pandemic. This accelerated development has given us a chance to strengthen our model and exposed the gaps in our infrastructure.
Furthermore, this pandemic has forced the higher education sector to depart from the traditional model of contact learning to a more modern method of remote learning. While implementing the changes has been challenging to universities globally, this is the future of higher learning.
Higher education will morph into a blended system that combines contact learning and remote learning. Gone are the days of lecture halls filling up beyond capacity in order to accommodate students. I foresee a future where smaller classes will be held on campuses while most students will benefit from remote learning.
Unisa has, over the years, operated as a distance learning-institution and this model worked for Unisa all this time; and it went through various transitions as a result of the sophistication of technologies that it used in being accessible to its students as well as interacting with them. Universities will benefit from the migration.
Transitioning from contact learning to e-learning is not easy. It is a complex and costly affair. Over the years, Unisa has invested millions into infrastructural upgrades and digitising systems and processes, but it remains inadequate. We need to invest further to build systems that can perform under immense pressure.
In our case, it became obvious that we could not continue believing that the large numbers of students who had begun to find their way into Unisa, putting a huge strain on our resources, could be accommodated at our university. It then became necessary for us to embark on strategy 2030, thus transforming the institution into an open distance-learning university.
This has resulted in a situation where we no longer have to use facilities primarily for face-to-face contact with students. This helps us to double up on the technology that we are investing in and reflects a university that is progressive and ever evolving.
The future requires that we begin to think differently and implement new systems. Accordingly, as a sector, we need to accept that the Covid-19 pandemic has been the catalyst we needed to further advance the sector.
Unisa is geared up to make a success of this development.
Professor Mandla Makhanya is the principal and vice-chancellor of Unisa.