The days of paging through dusty tomes are over. Picture: 123RF/FRANNY ANNE
The days of paging through dusty tomes are over. Picture: 123RF/FRANNY ANNE

Covid-19 has changed the world as we know it. Forget the masks and 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 or even discos over the internet. But the pandemic has peaked and things are returning to normal — or are they?

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

Higher education is probably the sector that will be the most affected. There are many reasons for this, chief among them 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, curriculums will become more fluid, 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 past 100 years, but because it’s not the most efficient way to get knowledge across — or of engaging with students.

It’s also not scaleable. 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.

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

Universities are going to have to think of new revenue models, and that’s going to mean embracing a new commercial model in which as many people as possible can access quality yet affordable education. This is particularly important in a country such as SA with our ever-widening levels of inequality, where so many students cannot access higher education because of finance — and geography.

Faculties have been increasingly side-tracked from their core functions of researching and teaching to doing other jobs such as administration and marketing, further stressing the system.

The new online methodologies and pedagogies will allow the creation of a sustainable and scaleable commercial teaching model, while freeing faculties 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 past four months has been emergency remote teaching (ERT) — 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 a 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 to 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, in effect, 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 cellphones, all providing a seamless learning experience.

It’s no longer about getting lost in a dusty library paging through endless tomes, but an innovative, enjoyable — even fun — way of learning, being assessed and doing assignments.

Obviously not everything can be done virtually, such as 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 change like the dinosaurs of yore who looked up to find the jungle had gone, 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.

• Kendall is president and COO of Higher Education Partners SA.

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