Pandemic shows what the future might hold for universities
As part of our University of the Future series, we spoke to leading institutions across South Africa to understand their vision for the future, and how they plan to realise these ambitions.
In this selection of interviews, we hear from our contributors about what’s on the horizon for higher education post Covid-19.
These are extended interviews that were conducted as part of the research for our University of the Future whitepaper. Read more from the University of the Future page series or download the whitepaper – What’s driving the vision for the South African University of the Future?- to explore how universities can embrace the opportunity to reimagine the university of the future.
These are extended interviews that were conducted as part of the research for our University of the Future South Africa whitepaper. Read more from the series or click here to receive a copy of the whitepaper.
Professor Thea de Wet, Senior Director, Academic Development & Support, University of Johannesburg
What has your approach to blended learning been, pre and post the Covid-19 outbreak?
The University of Johannesburg had already made huge improvements to its blended learning offering since the Fees Must Fall movement. We accelerated this even further after 2017, so by the time the pandemic struck there were less than 100 out of 6,000 modules still to go onto the Learning Management System (LMS). We had four weeks to make sure that 100% of courses were up and running smoothly.
This period has been hugely challenging for the sector, but we were very fortunate to be a long way down the road on our digital transformation journey to online learning.
What have been the big successes of the past year?
The fact that we managed to complete the academic year on time and have been able to get our students back promptly in 2021 has been a huge success. The experience has also shown us how different things can look in the future. Students will want to come back, for cultural activities and some elements of face-to-face learning, but we can now be much more flexible and allow students to complete elements of work online if they prefer. Technology also frees staff up from being on campus full-time, which will be a big change for them.
What ongoing challenges does the sector face to realise its vision for the future?
The country has an infrastructure problem, and this is a huge issue for the Higher Education sector. This lack of connectivity can’t be resolved without support from the government, which is why rural communities are lobbying for change. During the pandemic we couriered 5,600 laptops across South Africa, we provided our students with data, we recommended the best SIM cards for them to use and offered as much support as we could, but that doesn’t solve the fact that they often struggled to get online.
That’s why, when we asked the question, 5,000 students wanted to come back to campus. For many, living in crowded houses, in rural areas and with poor connectivity, the home environment wasn’t conducive to learning.
How do you plan to improve student outcomes and success in the future?
We actually had the fewest drop-outs ever last year, and only a few of our students are doing supplementary exams. Technology inadvertently became an intervention tool while our students were learning remotely. We could see exactly when people were logging on and what they were engaging with best. This insight was hugely valuable, enabling us to monitor who was online, and for how long, at faculty and university-wide level.
This ability to spot the early warning signs meant we were able to act quickly, sending them personal emails to see where they might need support.
It’s vital that we continue to move forwards and don’t go back to the old ways of doing things. As well as improving engagement and student success through analytics we have many other pilots underway to improve the learning experience – including providing law students with VR glasses to help them understand a live courtroom scenario better.
There’s real momentum building to use technology to support teaching and learning. It was quite difficult to get staff on board initially but they’re in a completely different place now and there is enthusiasm to do more.
Our focus, as we move forwards, is to improve the overall support we provide students, beyond their learning. This includes wellbeing and employability. Our UJCaresForYou programme enables us to identify and rectify any problems that our students might be facing. We have also integrated more work-based learning programmes to improve employability skills. This includes everything from practical work within individual courses to broader business and finance courses.