Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)
Three lessons for hybrid education in South Africa
I WRITE from the experiences of an academic tutor to first-year students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, as well as a writing consultant at the Language Centre’s Writing Laboratory at Stellenbosch University.
In South Africa, the Covid-19 outbreak has forced the education system to undergo a massive reformation due to online teaching and learning.
But online accessibility is not available to all learners. The challenges show the major academic and infrastructural needs around the schooling system and this has deep political and pedagogical implications. Against these challenges, the learning spaces in lecture halls and writing centres have shown three key arguments that help with the development and cultivation of writing and reading skills, and this is a discussion that can be continued once the Covid-19 pandemic has surpassed. This article highlights how higher education institutions can assist with these needs.
First, the influence of multilingual learning. Before the first Covid-19 case in Africa (in Egypt on February, 14), Stellenbosch University’s calendar began for the first time with a stark inclusion of multilingual learning in writing consultations and lectures.
The Language Centre at the university introduced isiXhosa-speaking consultants, alongside English and Afrikaans options and writing consultations are now offered in these three languages. Learning material is made available in these three languages, and online writing consultations went forward with the language preference of the students. Here, the infrastructure of the learning space adapts to a multilingual setting and is considered a necessity for intellectual stimulation.
Language is used pedagogically with not only the invitation of an inclusive and comprehensive learning space, but also the negotiation of identity markers across race, gender, class, geographic origin, educational and socio-economic background factors.
Second, the introduction of hybrid learning and education. Hybrid education, the term used to refer to online and classroom learning, is difficult because of racial, class injustices and inaccessibility to online resources.
In online learning, time is wasted because of the technicalities and computer literacy in using platforms such as Skype, MS Teams, Zoom, as well as forums and tutorial chatlines on SUNLearn, which is the university’s web-based application.
When level 5 of the lockdown was implemented, many students were left without computers/ laptops, smartphones, internet connectivity and adequate network coverage, insufficient working spaces at home as well as data or airtime expenses.
Online learning brings in a level of awkwardness: such as when a meeting begins and microphone functions are on “mute” because the no one wants to speak; or when a question is asked and there is silence…; also, students attend their classes in pyjamas; they miss appointments, citing excuses. There is a great misalignment of disciplinary conduct between in-classroom participation and online education.
The third point is the perception of equal power dynamics between academic staff and learners. The relationship, professionalism and communication between students and teachers, tutors, writing consultants, lecturers, and professors is challenged Professionalism speaks to dress code, knowledge creation, punctuality and interpersonal skills relating to empowerment and confidence.
Active communication looks at participation, engagement, and language use. Online education has threatened this relationship.
The problem with communication emphasises the inaccessibility and lack of technological literacy among students. In hybrid education of online and classroom learning, professionalism and communication takes the argument further with insight into the special needs of academic and computer literacy.
To combat social issues of racism, patriarchy, white privilege, homophobia and gender-based violence, the relationship between academic staff and learners must link such issues with the academic curricula. Critical thinking and voicing skills as well as the ability to compassionately understand, must be used creatively to think through such inequalities that are prime to the South African context.
The multilingual culture of South African society must speak with the language use and visibility in the classroom – whether online or in-person. The goal of multilingual and hybrid education will reform schooling systems and this embarks on a political and pedagogical transformation. While there is some success in this regard, it is nearly not enough to address racial, class and gender oppression.
The challenges presented by the pandemic has enforced three lessons for the education system in South Africa: a hybrid education consisting of online and face-to-face learning; the inclusion of multilingual learning; and the equal dynamics of communication and professionalism between students and academic staff.