Online and distance education to soar in the face of COVID-19, experts predict at UP's Flexible Futures 2020 Conference

Posted on August 13, 2020

Online and distance education will gain greater legitimacy as enrolments are expected to grow in this area in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is according to Chad Bonney, Chief Financial Officer of Global Businesses at Cengage, a software solutions company. He was one of the speakers at the online Flexible Futures 2020 Conference. Themed, ‘Teaching innovation in higher education: COVID-19 and beyond’, the conference was hosted by the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department for Education Innovation, led by Professor Gerrit Stols. Now in its seventh year, the conference focuses on trends in online and hybrid learning.

Bonney said COVID-19 has accelerated mega trends. Prior to the pandemic, there was pressure on the traditional pathways to university: initially, people viewed universities as a path to a better life, but this changed. Now, “not everybody sees it that way, as some jobs, like programming, do not require a three or four-year degree.” A case in point is South Africa where some mining jobs require technical certification and not university degrees.

Student debt, high dropout rates and declining enrolments were prevalent in mature, Western countries. At the other end of the spectrum, he predicts enrolments in higher education will “sky- rocket” in emerging economies including India, China and Sub-Saharan Africa as their content is suited to local requirements.

Furthermore, the fittest universities will survive, leading to the risk of increased inequality. “A slew of higher education institutions is closing down in north-eastern United States. They are closing their doors for good as students are not coming back.”

Meanwhile, there is a trend towards lifelong learning and reskilling due to economies changing and job requirements subsequently having to change too. This brings with it the expanded possibility for digital learning and micro “bite-sized learning”. “We can reach students on the phone, through audio and video.” He predicts there will be an increase in people undertaking massive open online courses (MOOCs), in a bid to reskill themselves, following job losses.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe told participants that the world has experienced “anxiety, uncertainty and trepidation, and to say this was a disruption is an understatement”.  He said the sustainability of humanity is under threat “and we have not always been able to see the cloud with the silver lining”. The crisis has, however, brought opportunities. Changes in technology mean being able to learn, unlearn and relearn while there are now opportunities to create a new type of higher education system and new forms of teaching and learning that go with it.

“The future of higher education is digital and online. Being innovative and creative is a continuum. I’m not saying it will be purely online – there will be a spectrum of hybrid/blended learning to fully online learning. Spaces for teaching and learning will change while there needs to be major capital outlay for IT infrastructure.”

UP Vice-Principal: Academic Professor Norman Duncan, whose portfolio covers teaching and learning, stated that UP’s adoption of a hybrid approach to teaching and learning in 2015 enabled the University to pivot almost seamlessly to online learning during the government’s lockdown due to the pandemic, adding, “The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched us in ways previously thought impossible. It has brought out the best in many and I hope that we will use our newly honed capabilities to better manage the future of university education and, specifically, our endeavours to enhance student success – through hybrid teaching and learning.” Online teaching as part of the hybrid model is an important element in our efforts to enrich students’ learning experiences and to better prepare them for the future, he continued.

He said the silver lining to the dark cloud that is COVID-19 is that the pandemic has allowed the University to fast-track the process of progressively harnessing the affordances of e-technologies to improve student learning. “In effect, given the significantly enhanced adeptness acquired by our lecturers, tutors, professional support staff and students in using the available online platforms for teaching, learning and student support during the COVID-19 lockdown period, it appears that we have achieved in the past five months what we had originally set out to achieve over the next three-year period.”

Keynote speaker Dr Tony Bates, an expert on teaching in the digital age, provided delegates with tips for online learning. He said this style of learning will not suit all students. He predicts a growth in hybrid learning in Canada in the next five years but says teaching will be mixed. However, the “poor will always struggle. About 85% of people in Canada have access to the internet while indigenous people and the unemployed cannot access the internet.”

He said the county has a system where students from remote communities can go to a centre to access the internet. “TV and radio can be useful for teaching” as the costs are low while many people have access to radio, said Dr Bates. 

- Author Primarashni Gower

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