OPINION: Covid-19 will accelerate digital transformation in higher education sector
Professor Mandla Makhanya
Due to the demands imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, South African universities that were previously dependent on face-to-face contact with students have turned to online and remote learning almost overnight.
While this has been a culture shock, I believe that this different way of learning will bring an element of flexibility and dexterity to the learning process. Equally so, it will accelerate digital transformation in the higher education sector.
The University of South Africa (Unisa) is a pioneer of the open distance e-learning (ODeL) model and a leader in this field on the African continent. Our track record has proven that technology can be used as an effective tool in teaching, distance learning and as a change agent.
The road to where we are today has certainly not been an easy one, but it has also seen us achieve milestones that we could not have imagined at the onset.
These are the key lessons that Unisa has learnt from operating as an open distance learning institution for more than 145 years, which we believe are worthy of sharing with our sister institutions.
1. In a world riddled with inequalities, be careful not to marginalise students in the process of transitioning to an ODeL institution
When the Covid-19 pandemic began to rear its head earlier this year, it took an already vulnerable youth and placed them at further risk of being left behind, with regard to both education and economic opportunities.
Therefore, as universities begin to adapt and adjust to this new normal imposed by Covid-19 and the national lockdown, we should remain alive to the reality of existing inequalities in our country.
Students come from varying socio-economic backgrounds and universities, therefore, need to make a concerted effort to ensure that no student is marginalised or left behind.
2. Collaboration is key to giving a leg-up to students
Henry Ford once said: “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” This adage rings particularly true at this point, where we are faced with a myriad challenge.
This is the year in which collaboration has proven to be the panacea for resolving existing issues that have been exposed by the global pandemic.
As things unfold, it has become clear that collaboration between the public and private sector enables a lot of successes in many areas in the higher education sector.
Imagine if we leveraged our relationships with one another to further the agenda of social change?
How would our students fare if civil society collaborated and invested in their education and, by extension, their future?
The challenge of improving higher education in the country cannot be left solely in the hands of the public sector.
While the government continues to do what it can to plug the gaps, there is an opportunity for the private sector and civil society to step up and make a meaningful contribution that will shape the future of our country.
3. Transitioning to ODeL is a costly affair
As universities adjust to the current landscape, it should be noted that transitioning to open distance e-learning can be very costly.
In the last decade, Unisa has invested a significant amount of money that runs into millions of rand to boost infrastructure so as to succeed in making this transition.
4. Transitioning to ODeL requires the training and upskilling of employees
When transitioning from a contact teaching and learning model institution to an ODeL model, change can be intimidating, especially for employees. Therefore, I implore all leaders to continually upskill and reskill their employees in order for them to function optimally.
Having buy-in from employees is vital to any process of implementation. And what better way than to all grow together.
During this lockdown period, we have had to also encourage our teaching staff to continue to focus on the impact of their work on the students, even as they themselves encounter daily challenges.
Looking to the future
We are learning some hard lessons from the major disruption in higher education caused by Covid-19. Key among these is the integral role of technology for the continuity of both operations and scholarship.
The extent of the uptake and use of technology in higher education in the future will in all likelihood be shaped by institutional typology, sustainability imperatives and student and parent preferences.
There can, however, be no doubt that all institutions will be changed to a greater or lesser degree by this global disruption and the realisation of our dependence on technology for sustainability, and that the new demands placed on both staff and students in adapting to such changes will require fortitude and acceptance.
We are all on an unprecedented learning curve that will require re-learning, reskilling and resilience.
Professor Makhanya is the vice-chancellor and principal of Unisa.