Online versus contact learning amidst Covid-19

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article published in Voices 360 on 11 August 2020.

As the reality of the novel coronavirus started to hit home, one could not help but notice that some of the reaction to the pandemic was nothing short of hysteria. Between the government’s sensible response to the Covid-19 threat and the frenzied reaction by some public officials, politicians and some sections of society, it was evidently clear that confusion was setting in, often with a touch of bedlam.


It is perhaps a clichéd start, but the words of Charles Dickens run true for the strange context we currently find ourselves in. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

This was, perhaps, unexpected, because, at the start of the year, few could have predicted the period we are in would have been our trajectory. The spread of a virus in China did not seem like it would shake our world order. Yet, eight months into the year and we find ourselves conducting meetings and engagements in digital formats. There are no words to ascribe to this period we are in, even though the phrases ‘unprecedented’, ‘unchartered waters’, ‘pandemic’ and ‘the new normal’ have become part of our repertoire.

Universities have not been spared the ramifications of the Covid-19, and they found themselves scrambling to put together systems to ensure that they complete the academic year. It became increasingly clear that higher institutions of learning were being thrust further into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), as they were compelled to embrace new forms of teaching, learning and working. While the national lockdowns have exposed the structural problems of inequities and inequalities in the higher education sector, most universities have responded relatively well to the Covid-19 disruptions.

Since the first rumblings of Covid-19, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has, for instance, been agile – responsive and constantly aligning itself with national and global strategies. Like many other universities on the globe, we have ensured that our business continuity plan is not disrupted and that we continue with our core functions. Initially, there was apprehension that online learning would be worse than contact learning. But the numbers tell a different story.

Our undergraduate success rates for the first semester was 86.3% compared to 84.7% last year. Class attendance was on par this year with last year, while student cancellations were lower this year than last year. Other universities have recorded similar achievements, because they responded to the disruptions with great tenacity, ensuring that the transition from contact a face to face delivery of the academic programme to blended learning is as seamless as possible. While some students will return to campus, we anticipate that our online offering will continue for the rest of this year.

As we move headfirst into the second semester, we continue to work on prioritising students that require access to facilities such as laboratories or clinics, ensuring that all the necessary Covid-19 health protocols and safety standards are implemented. The university remains committed to resolving problems of access to remote learning for our students, finding workable solutions for our staff who continue to serve the university tirelessly.

As many universities made the transition to blended learning, they also realised the importance of connecting to their employees and students and to understand their anxieties and the issues they are dealing with in their work, studies and personal lives. Management realised the need to explain to their workforces that there are good reasons why, even in the face of the invisible enemy, they too should feel confident about the future.

This was out of the realisation that no single individual could claim the achievements we as a sector without the tireless contributions of many of our employees. When the challenges and difficulties of working remotely, grappling with technology and juggling multiple balls in the air loomed large, our academic and administrative/support staff remained focused and committed to the cause.

This has not been an easy task, and whilst many universities continue their journey through these turbulent times, there is no clear map due to the unpredictability of the disease. But history has shown us that recovery is possible and that is the seemingly elusive dream we must chase. We have had wars, civil unrests, the Plague, the Spanish Flu and humanity is still here. We are in a modern society where scientists globally have come together to find a solution.

At UJ, for instance, we have begun to find a rhythm, and it is not just in the teaching sphere that we see success. The university has continued to participate and contribute to discussions and intellectual debates in public spaces on Covid-19. UJ undertook enterprising work using 3-D printers to produce PPE for example. Our ventilator project created by 3D printers has won an external tender bid of R30.5million. This is one of several areas where the university has ensured that it is at the forefront of this battle with the disease.

We also see a fundamental shift in the fight for social justice. Many, more than before, have sounded a clarion call for greater equality – across gender lines, racial lines and class divisions. While the Covid-19 pandemic might itself become the object and subject of research, we believe that greater focus will be given to social justice issues, the utilisation of technology for the good of all and finally, a quest for a just society. This will perhaps be the greatest definer of this new world order.

In a thought-provoking piece some months ago, Peter Slagt, David Michels and Melissa Burke from Bain and Company explain that the impact of a highly stressful time such as a global pandemic manifests itself in physiological symptoms. The amygdala, or the part in the brain that deals with emotions, in a sense takes over our cognitive system responsible for analysing behaviour, which results in panic, or a “fight, flight or freeze” response.

This response has been recorded in humans since prehistoric times. It is in simple terms how we survive, particularly in the face of danger. This fraught context will undoubtedly be with us for some time. There may not be clear answers about the trajectory of the virus and the havoc it continues to wreak, but whatever it might be, it is vital that we continue to navigate this path in the best possible way we can, individually and collectively.

As the American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once put it, “It is changing, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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