Picture: 123RF/KE BOX
Picture: 123RF/KE BOX

The disruptive nature of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe caught many people and sectors off-guard, including educational institutions.

The subsequent lockdown regulations and need to maintain social-distancing to contain the spread of the virus forced institutions to find innovative ways to accommodate a “new normal”, at least for the foreseeable future.

Most universities and colleges pivoted to online learning solutions to maintain academic continuity and avoid deferring the academic year. While success stories have emerged around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic created challenges for SA’s higher education system.

SA faces a two-pronged challenge in higher education due to limited physical capacity, and a lack of access to online learning. Finding solutions to both requires creativity and innovation, with digital solutions a vital avenue to create more capacity and broaden access, particularly at a time when state resources are severely limited.

The pandemic’s immediate impact was a dramatic shift from on-campus to online learning, which exposed the disparity among students in access to the devices and internet connectivity required to facilitate such learning .

Online learning models also pose other challenges. They require teachers to up-skill to teach effectively online. A diverse student population with varying levels of technological competence makes the traditional one-size-fits-all teaching approach less likely to succeed.

Looking beyond Covid-19, institutions will need to continue supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds that lack access to finance and struggle to travel to university or find accommodation.

Capacity remains a significant challenge facing the state. There are currently 26 universities nationally. However, the number of places in these traditional institutions already fail to meet the demand from the enterprise sector for graduates with the skills required in the modern workplace. These factors have placed a high degree of pressure on learning institutions, but investing in more bricks-and-mortar universities is an unaffordable expense given the state’s current fiscal constraints.

Fortunately, there is a solution. SA’s higher learning institutions can address all these challenges by embracing a blended learning model that transforms the traditional face-to-face teaching experience with a digital learning platform for course delivery, engagement and collaboration, and activity and assignment completion.

These learning platforms serve as a hub for students to collaborate virtually with tutors and fellow students to support face-to-face teaching models and methods

A hybrid learning model would help meet SA’s education and skills needs through feature-rich, scalable online courses tailored to deliver better learning outcomes. This model opens up studying opportunities by reducing the amount of time students need to spend at university. Through virtual learning via a learning management system (LMS), students may attend university only one week out of four. In this way, capacity becomes four times what it would otherwise be.

This approach broadens inclusivity by providing opportunities for students in remote areas to access courses and support those who struggle to travel to university.

Importantly, digital learning programmes enable students to learn at their own pace through flexible, personalised and engaging learning journeys, which they can access from a range of devices, not just a PC or laptop.

Responsive web design should adapt layouts according to the device screen size so that students can access the entire learning environment from any browser, including mobile. Also, course content should include a range of document types, which students can view on all devices without the need to exit the platform to use separate document viewers.

Self-paced programmes ensure students do not get left behind and provide a range of supported content formats that offer feedback and reward and recognition, which may help to increase course completion rates in SA.

A modern LMS can also plug knowledge gaps by linking to additional resources, and present the right content to each student at the right time to optimise learning outcomes.

Rather than lectures being the main or even sole source of content in the course, students can explore the online environment first to review and digest the lecture content beforehand. This would enable lessons to take a more engaging, discussion-based format.

Furthermore, these learning platforms serve as a hub for students to collaborate virtually with tutors and fellow students to support face-to-face teaching models and methods.

And a hybrid learning model, if approached in the right way, can deliver better outcomes for technical subjects, which require a blend of classroom-based teaching for practical skills development and virtual learning for theory and knowledge application.

An LMS also creates opportunities for timely feedback and the ability for tutors to check that students understand concepts, which are all critical factors to progress when teaching is all or partly online.

In addition, technology supports progress-monitoring and continual learning by enhancing student assessments through sophisticated, automated analytics tools and artificial intelligence diagnostics, which can provide real-time granular feedback to inform actions.

Analytics takes the guesswork out of assessing learning processes, courses or styles, giving teachers unparalleled insights and an instant overview of what is working and what isn’t, while machine-learning can quantify behaviours and accurately detail skill progression from end to end against set metrics.

The resultant timely and targeted learning interventions can make a significant difference in learning outcomes by keeping students on track.

To realise these benefits, hybrid learning models, enabled through modern learning platforms, applications and cloud technology will need to become far more prevalent in SA’s higher learning education models.

As students return to the traditional model in some capacity, SA institutions must build on the work done to migrate to fully online courses during the lockdown and apply any lessons as they work towards the long-term vision to digitally transform learning.

The actions taken to facilitate online learning in this manner will give the country’s education system the agility and resilience it needs to address its current and all future challenges.

• Watts is vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at educational software company D2L.

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