Not surprisingly, deliberations at a recently concluded teaching and learning conference featured many papers that explored the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education across the world, with a particular focus on higher education. As university lecturers and teachers ourselves and as people who not only conduct research into teaching and learning but also teach and train teachers, we are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on teaching at all levels. Of course, one of the key effects of the pandemic on teaching at all levels and everywhere is the resort to online modes of delivery – both in synchronous and asynchronous forms – precipitated by the lockdowns that began in early to middle 2020. There was a desperate need to do something new and different in order for educational activities to continue. As we were faced with the prospect of a total collapse of the education system, we had to adapt to something that was untested and unprecedented even though we were not sure how successful it was going to be, and how much the available and useable online modes would be able to meet our objectives. It is important to stress this point: we were not sure, but we had to do what we could do because to not do anything would have led to the collapse of the system on our watch. We actually had no choice.
But now, in the final third of 2022, most, if not all, parts of the world are no longer stuck in the desperate circumstances of early 2020 when educational activities could not take place at all. Now, substantial traditional, face-to-face modes of delivery has resumed, even if not completely. Now, we cannot say that our choices are as limited as they were eighteen months or so ago. This means we do now have some choice. We can now better organise and be far more deliberate and calculative of the options before us. And of course, this is where the idea of blended modes of delivery comes in.
Going by the tone of many presentations at the just concluded conference as well as in debates in other forums across South Africa, there seems already to be a determination and an urgency for a speedy, even immediate, transition to online/blended modes of delivery – even while this idea is yet to be clearly defined and understood. For example, what exactly is meant by blended modes? And to what extent should such a transition involve the replacement of traditional face-to-face methods? One gets the sense from many voices that such a transition is both necessary and compulsory. And, given that the change is considered to be ultimately inevitable, we are apparently being urged to do it urgently! Especially since it is already being done in the so-called ‘developed’ parts of the world. Surely, we do not want to be left behind? Herein lies my concern.
This approach to online modes of delivering education seems to be a disturbing re-enactment of a trend in almost every important domain of our modern life as Africans – our propensity of adopting ideas or practices from the so-called developed world without due consideration. Which leads to the question: As we transit to online/blended modes, are we being driven by our interests? By our unique educational, societal and developmental challenges, needs, goals and objectives? Or are we merely responding to the desire to appear ‘up-to-date’ like other countries and regions? Are we still taken in by those spurious claims of universal, one-size-fits-all, notions of, and paths to, ‘progress’ that have already been disproved?
These questions are not meant to undermine the evident benefits of online modes of delivering education – far from it. Indeed, these advantages are so obvious that discussing them here would be a waste of time. Rather, the questions are about the following: (1) the yet under-explored implications of what is already known about online modes; (2) what is not so obvious, and (3) what is still not known given our limited experience – so far – of wide-scale use of online modes.
Firstly, what we do know without a doubt in much of the so-called developing world so far is that the vast majority of learners and students are hugely disadvantaged by online education due to lack of resources, inadequate infrastructure and poor digital literacy levels. If, and as, we hurry to make online delivery more permanent, have we considered the long-term social and economic implications of leaving most of our students in the lurch? Or do we already have a fool proof plan to cover our resources deficits such that the majority of students can participate optimally?
Secondly, one of the things that are not so obvious about online delivery is the new regime of dependence that it is creating. This is potentially very problematic given our current interest in decolonising education. Can our institutions and governments afford the costs – economic and political – of subscribing to Teams, Zoom, Blackboard, sustainably in the long term? Do we have local, autonomous and self-reliant alternatives? We cannot pretend to be ignorant of the fact that the proliferation and universalisation of online modes has huge economic incentives for those who promote and sell the required hardware, software and connectivity, and that such large-scale benefits have historically been at the expense of some others.
Thirdly, what can we really say about online ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’? It seems to me that we have tended to conflate delivery with teaching and learning in these debates. Over the past 18 months or so, we can say that we have a good sense of the extent to which we can deliver content and the amount of content we can deliver via online modes. But to talk about online teaching and online learning is a completely different matter! If we are honest, we will admit that actual teaching and learning online is not (yet) a given. We still do not know the extent to which actual teaching and learning occurs on a mass scale compared to what we already know about traditional face-to-face modes of teaching and learning over centuries. And when we pare it down to different educational levels, different subjects and disciplines, demographics, etc, our ignorance will become even more apparent and alarming.
With so many questions and so many unknowns, it would be foolhardy to make unequivocal conclusions at this point in time. What is safe, though, is the need for more critical evaluation and careful deliberation. And this has to be informed by a deliberate and conscientious focus on our own unique educational, societal and developmental challenges, needs and objectives in Africa! Whatever we choose to do has to be in demonstration of a commitment to the betterment of the many. We must avoid doing things in the attempt to look good before others and being co-opted unwittingly to serve the ultimate interests of others.
Aghogho Akpome is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Zululand. He is an NRF rated researcher.