Teaching cannot live on technology alone

Article by Dr Karin Wolff (Teaching & Learning Advisor at the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University). This article is based on her presentation at the recent Central University of Technology Scholarship of Teaching & Learning Conference.

In order for remote teaching to be successful during the pandemic, academics should be given all the cognitive, affective and systemic support they need, writes Dr Karin Wolff in an opinion piece for Mail & Guardian (17 November 2020).

  • Read the article below or click¬†here¬†for the piece as published.

Educators in South African Higher Education constantly have to deal with new challenges. In an effort to truly transform 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), 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 South African research, however, does not jump onto the ‘technology-as-saviour’ bandwagon. A large collaborative¬†multi-institutional study¬†on the rapid shift to online teaching, sees the assumption of digital fluency for both students and staff as the biggest threat to a socially just education system. While most of the available studies, such as the¬†University of Cape Town study, have focused on student needs and experiences of ERT, 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.

Stellenbosch University has 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. The survey takes a holistic approach and considers the incontestable relationship between 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. It 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¬†cognitive, affective and systemic¬†dimensions of academic work.

To begin with the¬†systemic: Common references were found irrespective of institutional type with regard to questions about the¬†change in the working environment. The key issues (as were expected) revolved around practical access to devices, data, equipment, and appropriate working spaces. Respondents appreciated data stipends and laptops, for example, but were particularly concerned about ‚Äúaccess to digital tools and the skills to use them”. In most cases, staff were required to ‚Äúrefocus 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 can more theoretical projects actually be in a professional education context? An added complexity here is the assessment burden for academics in the case of individualised projects requiring continuous assessment in large classes.

The¬†systemic¬†features of the¬†communication measures¬†put in place by academics and their institutions reveal both a great deal of innovation as well as a sharp digital divide. While the survey lists every possible synchronous and asynchronous approach and an impressive range of communication technologies, it seems clear that a significant number of academics were required to adopt the simplest possible form of data-light communication, not only as a result of student access, but also their own internet access constraints. Both staff and students expressed being ‚Äúoverwhelmed” by the sheer volume of information being distributed. One remark succinctly described this feeling: ‚Äúit was like drinking from a firehose!” A second¬†systemic¬†communication issue is the use of forums, with many academics bemoaning students’ lack of engagement on 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 classes.

The survey responses to the¬†challenges and successes¬†questions were possibly the most illuminating. It is here that the¬†affective¬†facet of the educator’s role was most evident. Across the board, academics reported variously being ‚Äúemotionally exhausted”, ‚Äúburnt out”, ‚Äúoverwhelmed”, ‚Äúconstantly fatigued”, and ‚Äústruggling to balance work with parenting”. While, on the positive side, many also spoke of having been able to spend quality time with their families, a significant number of academics (and particularly postgraduates) experienced ERT as isolating.

The heartfelt testimonies shared by these respondents bring into sharp relief the disparities in our society, but they also bear testimony 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 & Learning Conference, what became abundantly clear was that ‚Äúwe are in this together”. Conference participants shared their experiences, which 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 between 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.

Photograph: Dr Karin Wolff.