The COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant change to all sectors and spheres around the world, and the higher education engineering field has not been spared. Any form of disruption gives one pause to rethink how things are being done, as you cannot play the same game by the same old rules.
While there is no need for concern regarding the state of engineering education at universities in the developing world, there remains a need to innovate by constantly promoting disruptive approaches to higher education in an effort to stay relevant for the future world of work.
With the rapid spread of COVID-19, academics the world over were impelled to embrace remote teaching and learning. Taking classes online was a challenge: lecturers had to prepare material for online purposes, be adept in engaging with students remotely, assess them online, and prepare online-based tests and exams. At many African universities in particular, there were students who didn’t have laptops or access to the internet; in such cases, universities had to step in to ensure that these students could continue with their studies so no student is left behind!
Engineering studies also generally involve laboratory work, and with students not being able to physically work in labs, academic staff had to reimagine ways to do this sort of work online. One way amongst various approaches in which the University of Pretoria (UP) achieved this was by students making video recordings of experiments in which they described the process or could do simple experiments at home. They would then engage online with their lecturers and peers.
Preparing students for a new world
Fortunately for UP, the transition to remote teaching and learning was less onerous than expected. In fact, the University is regarded as a leader in the integration of educational technologies – UP has since 1999 progressively implemented a system-wide hybrid approach to teaching and learning. The aim was for each undergraduate module to include up to a minimum of 30% of teaching and learning engagements online. When COVID-19 reached South African shores, the University was able to take classes fully online with relative ease, as faculty members did not need to be trained from ground zero.
As academics, when we encourage students to embrace disruptive technologies such as online learning we are preparing them for a new world beyond university, one that has been shaped, amongst other factors, by the forces of COVID-19, which has changed the way we live, work, educate and socialise. This unprecedented shift has offered us an opportunity to embrace best practices associated with the fourth industrial revolution. Trends to look out for in this regard include data science, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and data analytics.
In terms of the future success of students, it is vital that we teach them to be entrepreneurs in order for them to create jobs, as opposed to simply looking for jobs. To this end in 2017, TuksNovation, a fully owned UP non-profit company, was established as an incubator and accelerator to support students in starting their own businesses. This has already produced a few success stories in this short period.
Engineering students also need to understand the fundamentals of problem-solving, impact on the environment, and how to work as part of a multicultural and diverse team.
Human contact is still important
In Africa, the biggest challenge facing institutions is inequality among students. There are those from more privileged backgrounds who enter the engineering stream with good skills and knowledge, and others who basically have no knowledge of a computer. As lecturers, we do not have many years to bridge this gap, and so our challenge is to fast-track students who enter university on the back foot. We need to have the appropriate infrastructure to train all students in Africa.
Whether we continue with online teaching and learning or go back to contact or hybrid education post-COVID-19 will depend on the way individual programmes are structured, and our appetite for innovation.
However, human contact and interaction is important. People interacting and sharing knowledge, touching and sharing views – the “soft skills” we talk about – is an integral part of a rounded education. Increasingly, everything we do demands multidisciplinary work. To get a certain task done you need different skills, and though collaborative work can largely be done via remote means – and these ways of working have taken a forced huge leap forward over the past year – there will always be certain types of collaboration that work best with what now seems like “old-fashioned” human-to-human interaction.
COVID-19 may have shaken up the way we teach in some dramatic ways, but as we begin the first act of moving beyond the pandemic and assessing the changed world we’ve landed in, there is much that is exciting and points us toward new horizons that demand exploring.
From a human and especially a technological standpoint, engineering faculties around the world are perfectly placed to be at the forefront of expanding on the lessons learned during the pandemic. I look forward to being part of unleashing all the spectacular skills inherent in our colleagues and students globally as we continue to strive towards the peaceful and sustainable world we dream of. The future is in our hands.
By Professor Sunil Maharaj, Dean of the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology and 2021 Chair Elect of the Global Engineering Deans Council.
This article first appeared in University World News on 4 March 2021.