Teaching during the global pandemic: shift to online teaching and learning

As people committed to teaching, which is about creating conducive conditions for learning, we found ourselves challenged by the complex crisis of Convid-19. Our commitment to lifelong learning dictates for us to remain  hopeful even in the darkest of periods, we have asked ourselves the fundamental question, “how do we create conducive conditions for learning under the circumstances?” 

We explore a narrative about the challenges of online teaching in the South African context during COVID-19 pandemic, as well as opportunities for teaching now and in the future. The challenges for online teaching are linked to the history of exploitation, exclusions from economic, political and educational opportunities and very recently the looming digital exclusions for students coming from poor and working class conditions. We further explore competencies and technologies that can be deployed for consideration and engagement in the dawn of online learning. 

The world is digitally connected today; now, more than ever before. However, there are still digital divides, in particular among the poor and marginalized communities. The COVID-19 pandemic  is pressing institutions to roll out online learning. In some South African institutions, this is necessitated by the fact that students, like other citizens, are locked down in their respective homes from 26th March 2020 to 16th April 2020. Our view is that, under normal circumstances and with availability of resources, conditions for learning can be created online.

As individuals coming from poor and working class conditions in the context of South Africa, migration to online learning is not just a shift in space and use of technology for our students. There is a vast array of issues that come with it, including but not limited to, user readiness, access to computers, electricity and internet as well as the competency of the instructors to use technologies used for teaching which has direct impact on the ultimate understanding and therefore the academic performance of the user.

This transition also challenges pedagogy and assessment, it’s legitimacy and authenticity. These students, some in their first year of tertiary studies, have never used personal computers prior to getting to university and are not familiar with all functionalities  and technological applications of these devices. These students from poor and working class backgrounds, are individuals who experience/d economic exclusions, racial exclusion, and of course digital exclusion. The students who will suffer the most will be those from the rural areas who also do not have network coverage just by virtue of their location, something indeed beyond their control. They need teachers who have emotional sensitivity, intercultural competence, and intellectual generosity as well as technologically inclined among other things to best serve the students and not perpetuate the exclusions of the marginalized in society.

Emotional sensitivity.

Firstly, in terms of emotional sensitivity, the students need teachers who will be aware that this global catastrophe has caused anxieties for students and their families and has also threatened their livelihoods. When teachers approach teaching under these conditions, they need to demonstrate and execute the highest level of emotional sensitivity and not to drive students to mental depression by creating more workload and expectations which cannot be met under the circumstances. This is an opportunity for teachers in institutions of higher learning to demonstrate their emotional intelligence. 

Minenhle Khoza a Food Technology lecturer and doctoral candidate at the University of Johannesburg alluded that, “students’ emotional experience can have an effect (positive/ negative) on their ability to learn, thus teachers need to be aware of the academic anxiety (worry, study skill deficits), in this instance related to the fact that some students, i.e. students from rural and township areas already feel disadvantaged from a socio-economic and technological point.”

Intercultural competence

Secondly, it is very critical for teachers in institutions of higher learning and also in basic education to have knowledge and understanding of  different lives of students from different material conditions and demographics. The teachers must challenge themselves and go an extra mile to learn about the situations of students from township, rural areas, middle class and upper class areas and how to relate and engage with them through their worldviews and lens.

Although it is very difficult to understand each students’ context and cater for it even in a physical classroom, e-learn technologies like MS Teams allows teachers to customise lessons to better suit the diversity in their classrooms while meeting the same outcome of the lesson, teachers must be willing to exhaust the possibilities to cater for the students’ needs. This level of understanding will help during this period to engage the learners. To best execute intercultural competence we need to be critical thinkers and ask questions about ourselves and others to best know about them and not assume. One best way to understand context is by letting students complete an online survey from which context may be better understood. 

Intellectual generosity

Thirdly, as a result of students living in different conditions, the measure of their intellectual output will not be like when they all had campus experience and access to learning facilities as well as an instructor in front of them. In terms of how grading is approached and rewards for effort to work done, there should be grace and considerations of what students are going through emotionally, financially and otherwise at this point while maintaining the legitimacy and authenticity of their grades. 

There should be a significant consideration about the students who may still be shocked and freaked out by the use of new technology or learning new features on top of the assignments. Digital transitioning champions[Tutors] must be accessible to students and teachers must set aside time for consultation via calls, WhatsApp and most of the other media platforms where students are. Yes, teachers will have to allow themselves to be adaptable and flexible.

Technological inclination

Fourthly, in the context of South Africa, teachers need to use technologies such as WhatsApp which students are familiar with alongside the conventional universities online platforms such as VULA at University of Cape Town, SAKAi at University of the Witwatersrand, and Blackboard at University of Johannesburg to mention a few. Given the conditions of different students, using WhatsApp may be a very inclusive approach despite it having limited capacity. Teachers need to be willing to collaborate with students and together as a learning community to devise an inclusive collective way of learning. This is a moment that demands learning and deployment of 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.

These are moments that require us to be adaptive, and to do so, we need to have creativity and show ingenuity and change strategies to do the best we can under these circumstances. A strategic person has to use what they have under the conditions to advance a great course. WhatsApp has capacity for voice and video call as well as to create groups. This technology can be leveraged for learning and teaching at this complex period of our lives for the purpose of learning and teaching, and universities may appeal to WhatsApp to allow for the creation of channels within groups to better manage the traffic.

Mafule Moswane who is teaching introduction to leadership studies at Staley School of leadership studies, Kansa State University recommends that, There is an opportunity for asynchronous and synchronous learning with online learning. For example, asynchronous does not require students to attend classes virtually in a set time frame, they can watch videos and read material online and complete assignments online at their own pace, and this can work in the context of South Africa too. However, synchronous learning may require students to be online via zoom or skype as a class. 

Given the challenges of load shedding, no access to electricity, poor network coverage and internet connection as well other students not having personal computers and living in most the inhumane conditions such as informal settlements, synchronous learning will violate the dignity of these students and is probably not a good option for this period in the context of South Africa.”

Recommendations for the future

The aforementioned are skills and competencies which current and upcoming 21st century teachers must hone and develop. These skills and competences are necessary now-more than ever. The reality is that teachers will not master them overnight, the true spirit of leadership is taking effort every day to get better in serving our students as we continue to learn with and from them. Even under these conditions, let us do the best we can.

By Sibusiso Gama, Minenhle Khoza and Mafule Moswane

Volunteers of the Faculty of Best Advisory and Ambassadors of Club Readership, they write in their own personal capacities. 

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