Higher education institutions in South Africa have encountered numerous disruptions for years. Most prominent amongst these are the socio-political changes that our country has experienced since 1994. That much still needs to be achieved within the sector, to assist in addressing our countries ongoing disparities, is blatantly clear.
Added to this is a world that continues to develop new ideas and technologies. These disruptors that affect the faculty include digital transformation, new knowledge and the need for new, more complex skills and competences in the health professions. On top of this are the challenges of fiscal constraints, the emergence of unexpected crises and a world running out of resources. Managing change by continuous reinvention is therefore vital in order for our faculty to remain relevant, competitive and sustainable.
Inevitably such upheavals are associated with profound uncertainty, the management of which requires a proactive outlook that anticipates positive and negative disruption and ensures that we have the capacity to deal with an unpredictable future. The recent events brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and which has seriously undermined many of the gains this country has previously made is a profound example of why such adaptability is essential in achieving our mandate.
Shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa, the need for teaching and learning to continue while our students were not on campus, mandated the introduction of emergency remote teaching, wherever this was possible. That this was disruptive, particularly to our students, is clear. However, what was achieved in a short period was phenomenal. The willingness of academics and students to embrace emergency digital training methods, despite numerous glitches, is a testament to the remarkable social solidarity that South Africa, particularly in times of adversity, is known for.
In a health professions training faculty, remote digital pedagogy can only, however, be used to teach some of the competencies health professional students need to acquire. The importance of experiential teaching and training, for which Wits is well known, cannot be done remotely. For this reason, the students in the clinical years were invited to resume clinical training even during the more stringent levels of the COVID-19 imposed lockdown. But what has become apparent is that the vast majority of the remaining students were able to continue their studies at levels that appear to have been similar to those achieved by students in prior years.
That this experience will result in substantial changes in the way students in our faculty will be taught, is now obvious. Such a change does come with the following caveats:
The experience in the last few months cannot be equated to what a truly hybrid, blended teaching experience should achieve. What was possible under these circumstances, at best, could be considered to be emergency, online teaching.
Not all students have equal access to the resources required to manage teaching and learning in a remote fashion. It is clear that a digital gap exists amongst our students that are reflective of South Africa's substantial resource divide. Without addressing this, digital intensive training will not succeed.
The problems that students from poor and otherwise historically under-resourced backgrounds encounter, is also not limited to the obvious (e.g. low-level computing devices, lack of access to data, inconsistent electricity supply) but includes more subtle problems such as the circumstances in which they need to study and their physical security. What the faculty must ensure is that these issues are considered and where possible addressed, so that no student is left behind.
The recent experience with emergency, remote teaching has also exposed structural faults and skills shortages. Both need attention prior to the faculty proceeding to a digital intensive training paradigm.
The purpose of such change must not be to pursue online education as an alternative to contact education or as an antidote to the resource challenges. The primary purpose can only be to optimise teaching and learning outcomes by using multiple delivery modes.
Not all teachers have the requisite skills to move from an emergency teaching response to a more engaged approach, so that face-to-face and online learning are complementary. This must include innovative ways to conduct clinical training and assessment. The faculty will have to ensure that there are opportunities for appropriate training and upskilling, reshaping how teachers think, within an overarching design framework for online and blended learning.
Notwithstanding the issues highlighted in the recent past, what is clear is that even in adversity, there is opportunity. We have learnt that teaching and training is adaptable. Indeed, the imperative to respond to the many disruptors we continue to face, is clear, no matter the level of uncertainty this causes. Such change must be fully embraced to ensure that the faculty continues to produce exceptional healthcare professionals.
Digital teaching methodologies are here to stay. They will not replace Wits’ desire to continue to be a contact university. The need for contact training to produce quality healthcare professionals is still essential. On the other hand, the days of an eminent professor delivering an hour long, theatrical like performance during a lecture that evoked rapturous adulation, in front of hundreds of students, has been relegated to antiquity.