Contact or online? Moving away from binary approaches

12 Nov 2021
12 Nov 2021

COVID-19 has disrupted and displaced current orthodoxies, providing an opening to fundamentally reshape the relationship between teacher, student and content, both within the academy and broader society.

The emergency response to the pandemic highlighted technological and digital inequality, and at the same time presented opportunities to explore permeable boundaries between contact, online and distance teaching and learning, and the potential that this permeability allows.

Unfortunately, many in the higher education sector simplify this transition and surmise that, as we think of our return to campus, we have only two options from which to choose – contact or in-person teaching and learning, or virtual online options.

In this piece, I argue that we need to move away from this binary approach, consider our contextual realities, and start with the end goal in mind.

The modern university is binary

I am mindful that so much about the modern university is binary. While binaries are useful tools to help organise our thinking and our practices, we use them to grasp, understand and order complex contexts in the first instance.

Binaries are also useful for observing opposites in teaching methods or modes of delivery. These observations may be enough to understand what is happening in a story or in a context, but it is not sufficient to complete the story, or to forge a new path in higher education.

A more complex, inclusive, nuanced view incorporating multiple factors, including pedagogies, platforms, contexts, practices and research, needs to be synthesised if we are to shape a new teaching and learning journey in a post-COVID environment.

It calls for us to learn from our history and experience over the past 18 months, to appreciate present contextual realities and environments, to embrace new ways of learning and teaching, and to understand how students learn, and want to learn.

As we plan for the return to campuses in the new academic year, we should think of how we can reinvigorate the social engagement in learning, irrespective of the mode of provision. But how do we do that?

Returning to campus

First, we need to review the university as an aspirational site nested in local, regional, and global realities, which provides students with the best opportunities to excel, be it academically, or through nurturing change-makers, leaders, innovators, and active social citizens that transform society for good. Herein lie possibilities, too, for university teachers as agents of change themselves.

Next, the post-COVID university must re-commit to providing a platform for diverse people, voices, disciplines and ideas to be heard, incubated and integrated in multi-, cross-, and transdisciplinary environments.

This is the start of lifelong relationships, the formation of networks, and the partnerships that students will carry into the future.

Third, student success ought to take up much of our time as we rethink what it means to return to campus.

Universities must first determine what we would like to see in a successful graduate – for example, the ability to access, digest, engage, interact with, and ultimately critically evaluate academic and other content; the support and tools to complete the academic programme in the allocated period; the soft skills required to exist in a large, diverse community; the democratic values to advance society; the critical skills to develop the economy; and the willingness to serve humanity.

Is this aspiration only advanced in a bricks and mortar classroom? Are there possibilities that go beyond the physical classroom?

My sense is that returning to campus will require a commitment to strong institutional support and systems; innovative thinking; and access to a range of available services and facilities that make learning possible – irrespective of the mode of provision.

Seven key learning and teaching areas

At the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I am based, the senate has embraced seven key learning and teaching areas.

It has committed to increasing flexible and lifelong learning opportunities; enhancing academics as university teachers; strengthening institutional capacity for curriculum development and renewal; diversifying assessment methods; expanding postgraduate education; developing innovative formal and informal learning spaces; and using data analytics to promote student success.

Aligning our learning and teaching objectives with suitable modes of instruction and making use of the best research and technologies available to offer quality education, be it in-person, online, or a mixed or blended approach may offer a way forward as we plan for the next academic year.

This comes down to the intentional design of our courses, including the most suitable modes of delivery for a particular course and thoughtful ways of facilitating student engagement. The conversation should thus move away from online versus contact teaching and learning.

What have we learned in the past 18 months?

The bigger question is how do we utilise what we have learned over the past 18 months to intentionally design academic courses in ways that allow flexibility, engagement, and excellence?

The creation of reusable educational resources and a repository for such resources is essential as staff and students return to campus.

Similarly, the consideration of innovative formal and informal learning spaces on campuses must be considered for students to engage with their classmates both in-person and online.

Ultimately, it is the convergence of ongoing research, good course design, pedagogy, diverse assessment methods and our commitment to supporting students that will enable success and a meaningful learning journey.

There are numerous narratives about the growing digital divide on the continent, which are often used to discount the ability to adopt blended learning approaches.

These realities of student life and these inequalities are not new and have, in fact, been part and parcel of the inadequate, unequal socioeconomic reality of life for the majority of South Africans.

As in previous years, responsive teachers in higher education have been taking these contextual realities into account as they design and plan learning and teaching encounters.

Finally, our current context has demonstrated the need to monitor and measure student learning and engagement in ways that we did not have to do before. There is a rise in online plagiarism, cheating and dishonesty among students globally, with no effective technological solutions available to tackle this phenomenon.

Cheat industries are on the rise, making it easier for students to engage in misconduct. Some effective interventions like diversity in assessment tasks, education, courses on ethics, positive peer pressure, and appropriate student support, could help to ameliorate the effects of the flourishing cheating industry.

In conclusion, in whatever way we think about how we return to campus in the next academic year, our commitment to being a contact university with a vibrant institutional life and culture remains intact. After all, all educational exchanges, in person and virtual, are human exchanges in the first instance.

Professor Ruksana Osman is the senior deputy vice-chancellor: academic at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and is the UNESCO chair in teacher education for diversity and development.