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Higher Education | A Brave New World

Covid-19 has changed the world as we know it. Forget the face masks and the social distancing, we are all suffering from Zoom overload. It’s difficult to keep motivated when one call goes into another and your socialising after hours is reduced to having drinks over the internet. We will eventually get past that; the pandemic will peak and things will return to normal – or will they?

Some businesses will never be the same after the Coronavirus. The office of old is probably gone as we knew it; far more people will work from home more of the time, and meetings will be virtual or far shorter with far fewer people and more infrequently if they are in person.

Higher education is probably the one sector that will be the most affected. There are many reasons for that, chief among which is the realisation – as the virus wreaked havoc on the world economy – that it’s no longer enough to learn a lot once, but rather to continue learning for the rest of our lives if we want to stay relevant – and employable. 

Courses will change, curricula will become more fluid, and some degrees will become obsolete as we adapt to the needs of the new economies amid the turbo-charged advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There’s a brave new world out there for lecturers and students, with a lot more options.

If we haven’t already, we will witness the end of the era of the great terraced lecture hall with the professor holding forth down at the bottom. There are multiple reasons for that, not just because it’s old school and has been done that way without change for the last 100 years, but because it’s not the most efficient way to get knowledge across – or of engaging with the students. It’s also not scalable. That’s an important issue because Covid-19 will also massively disrupt the traditional funding model for legacy universities, especially the government subsidies most of them depend on.

Universities are going to have to think of new revenue models and that’s going to mean embracing a new commercial model where as many people as possible can access quality yet affordable education. This is particularly important in a country like South Africa with our ever-widening levels of inequality, where so many students cannot access higher education because of finance – and geography. Faculty have been increasingly side-tracked from their core functions of researching and teaching to doing other jobs like administration and marketing, further stressing the system.

The new online methodologies and pedagogies will allow the creation of a sustainable and scalable commercial teaching model, while freeing faculty from back office work, for one simple existential reason; you can’t scale up access to education with an administrative support staff that is also stuck in an antediluvian workflow. To make it more efficient, the administration around recruitment, enrolment and retention can be centralised or even outsourced altogether. Academics need to be assisted too to pivot their teaching into a virtual environment. 

What we have been witnessing over the last four months has been emergency remote teaching (ERT), which is basically the sage on the stage lecturing through Zoom or similar video broadcast platforms to students or learners on the other end who hopefully aren’t falling asleep. Virtual education is something altogether different, it allows for seamless interaction between the educator and the students. It positions the lecturer as the guide on the side directing students to different resources and content, from video to audio and texts, able to engage with student queries in real-time and allow the students to chat with each other as well as providing a space for assignments to be completed, submitted and assessed all on one virtual portal that incorporates a learning management system.

ERT effectively just virtualised the old-school lecture, while proper virtual education is a brand-new frontier. Critically, it’s also asynchronous, meaning students can access material and lectures when and where it suits them rather than having to log in at a certain time as if they were actually attending the lecture in person. There’s still peer engagement, there’s still faculty engagement, but there’s an unimaginably richer source of directed learning material than ever before that the student can access on a variety of different platforms from laptops to cell phones, all providing a seamless learning experience. It’s no longer about getting lost in a dusty library paging through endless tomes, but actually an innovative, enjoyable – and even fun – way of learning, being assessed and doing assignments.

Obviously, not everything can be done virtually, like laboratory assignments for students in the sciences, but for the rest, the face of teaching – especially at university – has changed irrevocably. The only question is how seamless the legacy institutions can make it, because if they fail to adjust quickly or – like King Canute keep their feet in the sand – they will consign themselves to the dustbins of history. That is the unavoidable outcome of the Fourth Industrial Revolution coming head to head with the worst global health crisis in living memory.

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