Even in the ‘new normal’ higher education institutions remain an important pillar of the knowledge economy

The following article is taken from a keynote address delivered by Professor Tshilidzi Marwala: Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. The address was delivered at the ITS Integrator User Group Conference, Cape Town, 27 February 2022.

Mike Boxall, a higher education expert at PA Consulting, wrote an intriguing piece last year for Times Higher Education. As he argues, “In the past, universities were the curators of knowledge within society, but as we move into a more open world, they won’t have the same natural hegemony as [came with] being central to the knowledge economy.” This is a theory I have reflected on extensively as we seem to return to some semblance of normalcy.

In the last few weeks, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) campuses have been alive and abuzz with activity. It’s almost easy to forget where we were just months ago. In a 2020 report, KPMG wrote, “For many universities, the future arrived ahead of schedule, abruptly and without invitation.” Our universities, communities that buzzed and thronged on campuses, were now deserted, with a definite retreat to the online world prompted by the need for social distancing. In 2005, Stephen Heppell remarked that educators spent the 20th century perfecting the 19th century model of schooling. Undoubtedly, this remained the expected pace of change for another decade or so.

Yet, the 21st century has undoubtedly proved that disruption is a marker for us all. Although we have found ourselves falling back into comfortable and familiar patterns – it is apparent that the pandemic presented a reset of sorts. The new normal – the phrase that has been bandied about often in the last two years – does not only speak to the shifts that were necessitated by the pandemic and the national lockdowns; it also represents a fundamental paradigm shift – one that I would argue has only just begun. So, how is this hegemonic shift manifesting itself?

I would argue that Boxall was premature in assuming that the shifts we have seen, not only in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic but amid a grand scale digital transformation, will result in the marginalisation of higher education institutions. The shifts will in fact transform higher education institution so that we remain an important pillar of the knowledge economy. In terms of academic continuity, universities with strong infrastructure to support digital learning succeeded in discharging their functions. In fact, sophisticated management information systems greatly enabled universities to narrow the physical gap between students and academics. In fact, perhaps the most pertinent question we have faced is how we will continue to reframe higher education.
As Boxall later argues, “it’s clear that universities need to carve out a new role”. The last few years have indeed proved that this is a truism. Like all sophisticated organisations, universities evolve and continue to reflect the contexts they reside in. Stagnation for higher education is not an option. If we return to the purpose of a university, then it is clear that keeping apace and thinking into the future is central to all strategic planning. A study conducted by Adobe and Hotwire last year found that 77% of educators in the higher education sector agree that digital transformation is critical. Long before the pandemic, this was a shift I considered vital for the sector to remain relevant.

After all, we are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), which fundamentally calls for the injection of technologies in every aspect of our lives. As entire industries began embracing this shift, it was unfathomable that we would not. Without dismissing any of the trauma that has accompanied it, the pandemic was a gentle nudge to hasten this transformation. The strategic tactic for universities is not to merely embrace digital transformation to exclude all other forms of teaching, learning, research, and work but to identify the strategic levers that can propel us forward without diluting our missions. To continue operations, we had to adapt. The work of Charles Darwin has long struck me.

After all, in an age where we are seeing rapid and often unpredictable changes, the very notion of the phrase “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change” is pertinent and continues to ring true. The adaptations and variations give species a competitive edge that ultimately ensures survival. This explains how we evolve and how those with stronger characteristics survive, but it also explains extinction and why some do not. We are, in a sense, amid a collective evolution, and with that, we must usher in change.

To simply shift our processes online was not enough. In 2020, UNESCO estimated that over a billion students worldwide were unable to attend traditional learning spaces due to COVID-19. The pandemic disrupted conventional and conventional modes of teaching and learning in higher education. This has had powerful effects on the higher education landscape, signalling several significant changes that will likely hold into the post-pandemic future. In the last two years, we have had to transition to hybrid models of learning or what is termed as ‘emergency remote teaching’. We did so in a rush, we did so to ensure that no students were left behind.

Today with the hindsight of lessons learned, we can begin conversations on how we harness the benefits of technology without displacing the important physical spaces of a university. Universities as communities are critical spaces for learning and remain pivotal to making higher education more than just buildings. However, online learning does not come with the same perceptions of prestige or expectations of quality associated with the brick-and-mortar university. This is partly due to the mushrooming of online providers in the for-profit education sector, with shorter lifespans and institutional histories than national or specialist education providers such as parochial schools, Waldorf or Montessori.

There is an implicit opposition between online and contact teaching, especially given the primacy of the contact mode for practice-based professions and vocations such as medicine, engineering, teaching and the performing arts. Online learning can be viewed as an inadequate replacement because it leaves open-ended the question of how students gain specialist competency and mastery in their field without regular practice, engagement, and those forms of organic learning and assessment associated mostly strongly with the physical classroom interaction, not only the lesson itself.

We should cease talking about online modalities as a deficit model. This includes opening up education possibilities to a wider student community; enabling students to work, practice and engage at a more local level (e.g. shifting practice-based work to sites close to their homes); freeing up space for institutions to specialise, experiment with new offerings, and build collaborative courses with partners nationally, regionally and internationally; as well as deepening the kinds of partnerships that can support internationalisation in the absence of mobility.

2020 04 02 Postgraduate School Online Resources Op 2

Online learning is defined as postsecondary and credit-bearing coursework completely delivered through online courses via a learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard or Moodle, while the learning experience occurs in asynchronous or synchronous environments using diverse communication infrastructure such as mobile phones or laptops with internet access. Synchronous and asynchronous learning are buzzwords in the new pandemic lexicon, differentiating between teaching and learning that takes place together and that which occurs separately or individually.

They also feature prominently in research on blended learning, which predates the rise of online learning and was initially related to different forms of instruction and content delivery. Blended learning is thus at least bimodal in form, but takes on a range of models in implementation, ranging from online learning supplementing class-based instruction to a near-full online mode where contact is reserved for dedicated, often one-on-one support sessions. Shifts to complete online modes of teaching and learning, of course, pose a hurdle when we consider our stark and often underestimated digital divide. Over the last two years, skewed access to technologies, bandwidth, devices, and coverage has plagued higher education institutions across the country.

These inequities of access have required us to reach beyond our mandates as universities and address an exacerbated problem of ‘access’, which was made more urgent and important to ensuring equity in teaching and learning. Although the University website was zero-rated, its learning management systems were not. Additionally, much of the data sourced from telecommunications companies were night owl bundles, which can only be used between midnight and 5 am. Then, of course, is the challenge of context which sees many of our students finding themselves in settings that do not facilitate learning. These are national crises requiring larger, more systemic interventions.

We, of course, have to be cognisant of this context as we begin to reimagine higher education. The goal is to ensure we leave no-one behind. These are important considerations for future planning as they require a balance of innovation and pragmatism. One source of inspiration may be previous excursions into Open and Distance Learning (ODL) on the continent: in countries such as Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, radio, television and USSD services have been used to support distance education in recognition of the uneven distribution of internet access and reliable network coverage.
As scholars have recommended, future work on integrating online and contact teaching cannot prioritise the ‘fun’ aspects of online and digital learning at the expense of the nuts-and-bolts issue of ensuring that learning is accessible to all especially the most vulnerable, and is effective. We as universities are ready to embark on pursuing a critical conversation about the pedagogies of the future. What shape will they take, and how will we take on board the lessons gleaned over the last two years. In a country with deep fissures that have largely been the unfortunate legacy of apartheid, widening access to education remains a key goal that we must pursue to improve the quality of lives of our citizens.

The hybrid teaching and learning modalities that emerged have demonstrated that pursuit of widening access using digital platforms has concomitantly enabled many who would have been excluded to pursue learning. There is always a ‘HOWEVER” that needs to be added. Structural reforms and significant investments in the country’s ICT infrastructure and a parallel reduction in costs for accessing the internet is non-negotiable. It surely cannot be a problem for universities to resolve but requires a national intervention that goes beyond rhetoric to actual realisation.

Suppose you consider that smartphone usage is increasing in the country. In that case, this somewhat counters the pitfall of apartheid spatial planning, which makes it difficult for some potential students to access campuses – of course cognisant of the challenges I have alluded to. Let us also take into account, calls for fee free higher education system. Even though, in the middle of December 2017, it was announced that at the beginning of 2018 free higher education will be provided to all new first year students from families earning less than R350 000 per year, there were budget constraints, faculty issues, and socio-economic considerations. Do our universities have the capacity?

This is especially true given the high cost of higher education and the possibilities that exist for expanding the breadth of educational opportunities that institutions can offer. The development of online educational resources is definitely a priority to ease access to education. While formal education will not go disappear, it can be supplemented by online courses as either a blended classroom experience or through completely online courses. Universities in Australia, for example, have experimented with offering stackable courses and micro-credentials that enable these big institutions to successfully compete with private online providers from a stronger institutional, professional and academic position.
This has allowed students from all walks of life and professional backgrounds to engage in learning that supports their aspirations. There are also institutions in places such as Brazil that enable indigenous communities to participate in higher education while sharing local knowledge and expertise with formal research communities, strengthening capacity for environmental and agricultural interventions that work. Part of what makes these interventions work is the radical shift in the discourse from what online education lacks in comparison to the contact mode, to how the online mode can support, expand and strengthen what the contact institution has to offer.
The future of the world of work, navigating the 21st century and skilling our graduates has to be at the forefront of how we conceptualise university education. Whilst much is written and spoken about the need for change, it is clear that massification of higher education is needed. We cannot be a country that is between and betwixt revolutions. Whilst there may always be that lag whether it be based on geography or relative wealth, the bridging of this gap is critical. There is substantial evidence of the radical transformation in higher education in South-East Asian countries where both massification in order to widen access took place rapidly with parallel shifts in the economies.

These changes were a collaboration of development led by the state with buy-in from concerned stakeholders. In almost 30 years we have seen a slow doubling of numbers in higher education despite population growth. Can we be satisfied as a country with this if we have ambitions to grow our economy? Against this backdrop, it is even more apparent that our conception of digital transformation in the sector must exist beyond simply a shift to online. The Covid-19 pandemic has served as an impetus for scholars, practitioners, designers and tech companies to search for new tools and interventions that can more effectively support the educational experience.
For example, prior to the pandemic, we began developing an approach to blended learning – in other words, a live interaction that uses technology. This is certainly a route that can be enhanced and further emphasised. I would argue that there should be a concerted effort to shift towards a hybrid model that focuses on a mesh between some traditional modes of learning, online programmes and an injection of technology. This, in a sense, is something my colleague Bo Xing and I foreshadowed in 2017.

As we asserted at the time, “In embracing rather than fighting against these new technologies and the associated novel teaching patterns, higher education systems need to look at how they can accept them and transform the teaching and learning environment to the benefit of both students and academics.” These shifts are also necessitated by the changing world of work. According to the World Economic Forum, roles are indeed changing and shifting, with the average task hours performed by human beings predicted to be 58% and 42% performed by machines. These shifts don’t necessarily equate to job losses. In fact, it’s quite the opposite with 133 million additional new roles expected to emerge.
There will be greater demand for skills that can’t be algorithmically programmed. This implies there will be a move towards hybrid jobs premised on combining skill sets such as marketing and statistical analysis, or design and programming, for example. The challenge is how do we prepare students for the job market, which will not remain static and is difficult to predict.

The key to staying ahead of the curve, according to the World Economic Forum, is to map the scale of job change underway, while identifying the emerging and declining job roles, identify opportunities to employ emerging technologies to augment human work and improve job quality, keep note of the progression of job-relevant skills and explore the potential for investment in retraining, upskilling, and workforce transformation. It is important in this process to ensure that our students are exposed to the technologies that they will encounter in the workplace. Here, the 4IR has to be directly injected into the learning processes through artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, and mobile-based learning platforms, which personalises the learning experience.
For example, wearable technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), have the potential to simulate real-life experiences. AR can supplement reality via superimposing computer-generated information over the physical context in real-time, facilitating results exploration and interpretation. Stanford University’s report One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) predicts that, over the next decade, “the use of intelligent tutors and other AI technologies to assist teachers in the classroom and in the home is likely to expand significantly.”

While there have been technological developments in the higher education space, Stanford notes that universities have been slow in adopting AI technologies primarily due to lack of funds and lack of solid evidence that they help students achieve learning objectives.
Arguably, the pandemic has had to challenge these very notions out of necessity. The pandemic has served as an impetus for scholars, practitioners, designers and tech companies to search for new tools and interventions that can more effectively support the educational experience.
The ideas lying around have resulted in fascinating experiments with learning tools such as Mentimeter, an interactive presentation platform that allows teachers and students to post and answer questions, resources and web links, and Kahoot!, a game-based learning platform. Some, such as Google Classroom, have been around and in use for a longer period of time, while others have been refined in the course of the pandemic experience as more users find these tools useful.
My view is that we are in a window of opportunity, we can choose to seize the moment and work deliberately and strategically to manoeuvre a world that has multiple tipping points.

These are unavoidable and our conversation needs to commence on how we work with what we have and keep an eye for unfolding developments in the world of technology, AI and the 4IR. It is a misnomer to believe that the 4IR is an event with a finite beginning and end. We will constantly be in transitions between multiple worlds. If higher education has to be relevant, we need to be one step ahead of the game. Both the pandemic and the 4IR are game changers. We can choose to be a key player in the game or reconcile ourselves to being by-standers and lose.
With our rise in unemployment, which is standing at approximately 11 million, a decline in our economic productivity, societal ‘big issue’ problems, we can view the 4IR and the speed of digital transformation as an evil or a valued ally. I have argued in multiple forums that we need to “Seize the day.” It is not an option for us to be bystanders, passive recipients and do nothing. The future needs bold leadership that translates into solid implementable plans that can be resourced. While I have focused on higher education, my summation can be translated for every sector. Africa and our country have the capacity to become a ‘tiger’ as well. The reference to tigers draws on the South East Asian experience that I sketched briefly.

Higher education continues to be positioned as a key driver of economic and social development in this context. In reference to the adoption of online models, former U.S. secretary of education William Bennett has written that he senses “an Athens-like renaissance” in the making. We are certainly seeing the manifestation of this. As David Istance wrote for the Brookings Institute in 2019, “In sum, innovation in teaching and learning is increasingly essential for education in the 21st century, and this needs to reach right into the pedagogies practiced in schools and classrooms. Understanding pedagogical innovation presents formidable challenges but represents a black box that must be prised open for advances to happen.”
We need the courage to prise open the black box if we are to effect real change in our society. Higher education has continued to be positioned as a key driver of economic and social development in this context.

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