Seeing, hearing and speaking out: Lessons from the Covid era for Higher Education in SA

Image of faces with masks and words saying Seeing, Hearing & Speaking Out - Lessons from the Covid era for HE in SA

Seeing, hearing and speaking out: Lessons from the Covid era for Higher Education in SA

By Karin Wolff.   

Many claims were made that the Covid-19 pandemic was driving a long-overdue revolution in education. This blog reports on a large collaborative study on multiple South African institutions and does not recommend jumping on the bandwagon of ‘technology-as-saviour’. It brings into sharp relief the disparities in our society, but also bears testimony to an indomitable human spirit driven by the very essence of ubuntu.

Ukubona, Ukuva, Nokuthetha ngokuphandle: Izifundo ezifundwe kwilixa lokugquba kwe-Covid ngokujoliswe kwiMfundo ePhakamileyo (Higher Education) eMzantsi Afrika. Maninzi amabango athe enziwa okuba ubhubhane we-Covid-19 ubeqhuba umzabalazo ekukudala ulindelekile kwezemfundo. Le bhlogu yenza ingxelo emalunga nophononongo olungentsebenziswano nolujoliswe kumaziko oMzantsi Afrika aliqela kwaye ayikucebisi ukulandela isininzi oku kwegusha ngokuphathelele ekubeni ‘itekhnoloji-ngumsindisi’. Izisa ukukhululeka okumandla kwiinzingo uluntu lwethu oluphakathi kwazo, kodwa ikwaqulathe ubungqina kumoya wobuntu ongenakoyiswa noqhutywa ngowona mongo wale nto kuthiwa bubuntu.

Sien, hoor en praat daaroor: Lesse uit die Covid-era vir hoër onderwys in Suid-Afrika. Baie beweer die Covide-19-pandemie was bloot die sneller vir ’n onderwysrevolusie wat lankal aan die kom was. Hierdie blog doen verslag oor ’n groot samewerkende studie oor verskeie Suid-Afrikaanse instellings, en doen nié voorspraak vir die heersende gier van ‘tegnologie as redder’ nie. Dit plaas die ongelykhede in ons samelewing op die voorgrond, maar getuig ook van ’n ontembare menslike gees wat deur ubuntu in sy suiwerste vorm aangevuur word.

Assumption threatens justice

Educators in South African Higher Education are not new to challenges. In an effort to bring about true transformation in our society by enabling access to and facilitating success in tertiary institutions, we often face what appear to be insurmountable challenges, many of them systemic in nature.

When Covid-19 shook the world and educators were required to make the rapid transition to emergency remote teaching (ERT) (Hodges et al., 2020), a great many claims were made that the pandemic was driving a long-overdue revolution in education and that educators have at last been forced into the 21st century.

Our research, however, reveals that jumping onto the ‘technology-as-saviour’ bandwagon might not be the best route to take for South Africa. A large collaborative multi-institutional study on the rapid shift to online teaching sees the biggest threat to a socially just education system to be the assumption of digital fluency in the case of both students and staff. While most studies have focused on the needs of students and their experiences of ERT, such as one recent University of Cape Town study, there has been little formal focus on the impact of ERT on academics, particularly in fields requiring practical technologies for learning and research, such as engineering.

A photo of a laptop with a face mask on a desk.

Stellenbosch University therefore partnered with the South African Society for Engineering Education and conducted a national survey on the impact of ERT on engineering academics and postgraduate students. This qualitative survey took a holistic approach and considered the incontestable relationship of three key facets of the educator’s mandate: to facilitate the development of knowledge, citizenship and skills by providing cognitive, affective and systemic support aligned to the epistemological, ontological and praxis dimensions of the curriculum. Simply put, if education is the holistic enactment of the age-old ‘head-heart-hand’ philosophy, then the survey sought to determine how ERT has impacted academics and postgraduates (in many cases, they are one and the same) in their professional, personal and practical lives. The anonymous survey asked four key questions about the effect of ERT on the working environment, the implementation of communication measures and comments on challenges and successes. These responses were analysed using the broad categories of the cognitive, affective and systemic dimensions of academic work.

Like drinking from a firehose

To begin with the systemic: There were common references with regard to questions about the change in the working environment irrespective of institutional type. The key issues  ̶  as expected  ̶  revolved around practical access to devices, data, equipment and appropriate working spaces. Appreciation was expressed for data stipends and the provision of laptops, for example, but significant concern was voiced around “access to digital tools and the skills to use them”. In most cases, staff were required to “refocus projects” if they required experimental data generation or physical access to laboratories and workshops. The shift to ‘virtual’ or ‘simulated’ practical work was not without challenges, as this form of teaching requires significant computing power or access to software that is not necessarily available off campus. It is here that we see the inevitable impact on the cognitive dimension: without the physical and/or online tools to enable applied learning, the question is how effective more theoretical projects can actually be in a professional educational context. An added complexity here is the assessment burden for academics in the case of individualised projects requiring continuous assessment in large class contexts.

The systemic features of the communication measures put in place by academics and their institutions reveal both a great deal of innovation and a sharp digital divide. While the survey lists every possible synchronous and asynchronous approach and an impressive range of communication technologies, it is clear that a significant number of academics were required to adopt the simplest possible form of data-light communication because of both their students’ and their own access constraints to the Internet. They all expressed being “overwhelmed” by the sheer volume of information being distributed: “It was like drinking from a firehose!” A second systemic communication issue is the use of forums, with many academics bemoaning the lack of student engagement on the forums. If forums are meant to provide a space for peer learning and a means for academics to address common concerns, then their claimed inefficacy is seriously problematic, particularly in large class contexts.

The very essence of ubuntu

The survey responses to the challenges and successes questions are possibly the most illuminating. It is here that the affective facet of the educator’s role is most evident. Across the board, academics reported being “emotionally exhausted”, “burnt out”, overwhelmed and constantly fatigued and struggling to balance work with parenting. While many also spoke of having been able to spend quality time with their families, there are a significant number of academics (particularly postgraduates) who experienced ERT as isolating.

The heartfelt testimonies shared by these survey participants bring into sharp relief the disparities in our society but they also bear witness to an indomitable human spirit driven by the very essence of ubuntu. In sharing this research at the recent Central University of Technology Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference, what became abundantly clear was that “we are in this together”. Conference participants shared experiences that echoed those in the data. The message is clear: in order for education to be successful, there needs to be a recognition of the synergistic and interdependent relationship among the cognitive, affective and systemic dimensions of learning. So, too, however, does there need to be cognitive, affective and systemic support for the very academics upon whom the Higher Education sector depends.


Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T. & Bond, A. 2020. The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review, 27. Available: (27/11/2020).


Dr Karin Wolff is a teaching and learning advisor at the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University. She has worked in Higher Education teaching, curriculum development, learning support, staff development and research at four South African universities. Her doctoral research (at the University of Cape Town) looked at the relationship between engineering disciplinary theory and practice in complex industrial problem-solving. She draws on social realism, notably the Legitimation Code Theory, to enable improved theory-practice bridging in professional engineering education. She is currently leading the establishment of the STADIO Multiversity Engineering Faculty and is a senior education advisor and researcher in the Stellenbosch University Faculty of Engineering.


All views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of the Stellenbosch University.

Read the terms and conditions of use.

No Comments

Post A Comment