Coronavirus created huge disruption for higher education around the globe and, in South Africa, it added to the challenges universities were already facing. Among them, the need to tackle high numbers of students dropping out of courses, and to overcome a range of socio-economic factors that can disrupt student learning.
In our latest eBook, we explore how online and hybrid learning models – a necessity during the pandemic – can help South Africa’s higher education institutions address these challenges. We explore some of the topics covered in the eBook here.
Barriers to learning
According to a 2015 report, 50-60 per cent of students in higher education in South Africa drop out during their first year of study. In 2010, under a quarter completed their degree courses within three years and only 56 per cent graduated by the end of year six. Improving retention rates is therefore a key objective for South African universities – it’s costly to keep trying to replace students; engaging and supporting those that have already been recruited is by far the most cost-effective way of improving graduation rates.
Added to that, recent years have seen student protests, university shutdowns, issues with student finances and high competition for places. All of which contributes to a challenging environment in which learning must take place.
What’s more, students and universities must grapple with:
1) Diverse student needs
Undergraduates aren’t all at the same level of understanding when they enter university. They have a wide range of knowledge and capabilities built up in earlier education. What’s more, many are mature students and have dependents to provide for.
2) Financial challenges
Students often have to work to support themselves or even end up leaving education because they cannot cover living expenses.
3) Varying infrastructure
Not all students have access to adequate network connectivity or equipment such as laptops to help them with their studies.
An online and hybrid learning model that blends distance and in-classroom study can help address these, and other, issues. It reduces the amount of time students need to physically spend at university, thereby cutting down on travel costs. It enables learning to take place in students’ own time, and at their own pace, from a range of devices including mobiles.
The modern learning platform can help with engagement too by supporting a range of content formats, enabling timely feedback, and facilitating collaboration and student reward and recognition. All these enablers help universities striving to improve student retention and wanting to optimise learning outcomes.
The learning platform also enables:
- Customised learning paths tailored to meet individual students’ needs
- Rules that automate when course materials are released so that students stay on track
- Tutor and peer feedback in formats that include video
- Automated and personalised communications to keep tutors and students connected.
Student success plans
Student success plans can also help retention rates and learning outcomes. These plans, which help with goal setting as well as identifying any concerns, should begin before students start their courses. They should be comprehensive, covering career development, life skills, student wellbeing and financial wellness as well as academic plans. Here, the learning environment can help again by providing students with the means to manage their plans and maintain their schedule of appointments.
The platform also helps tutors support students as they progress through their plans by, enabling interventions for at-risk students if indicators suggest this is necessary. A student might stop logging in, or start spending less time on course material. These are signs that a student is struggling, and this will be apparent from the data. Tutors can contact disengaged students to help get them back on track by, for example, providing additional learning resources to plug knowledge gaps or by instigating additional support.
Data provides a rounded picture of student progression and the status of the cohort year as a whole. In fact, this is a key benefit of technology-based learning – it enables data-driven decisions to be taken in support of student success and continuing improvement of the institution’s offerings.
Technology can play a pivotal role in the provision of learning experiences that help tackle the challenges of higher education in South Africa. It supports fully online course provision and enables a hybrid model of part distance learning, part classroom-based tuition. It provides flexibility where infrastructure challenges exist and for students who also work and support others. It also enables learning pathways to be tailored according to diverse student needs to, ultimately, maximise student retention and success.