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COVID-19 offers chance to think differently about education

The shutdown is giving us the opportunity to reimagine the methods our universities and schools use to educate students.
Read time 4min 00sec

The appearance of the COVID-19 virus in South Africa – and the subsequent measures announced by president Cyril Ramaphosa – has forced the country to think about how it does business, manages public transport and educates its learners.

As much as these essential precautionary measures have proved hugely disruptive for the global economy, they have also demonstrated there are plenty of ways to facilitate new methods ofbusiness and learning – driven by technology. In some cases, they’ve even called into question the efficacy of the models that, until now, we’ve been dependent on to learn and to work.

It’s well-known that South African universities have a troubled history of campus shutdowns, thanks to load-shedding, protest action, water shortages and heatwaves, but the national shutdown of campuses because of COVID-19 has presented additional challenges to students who are already struggling to complete their tertiary education.

The traditional model requires students to travel from home every day to study – and that’s if they’re lucky enough to live close to that education centre. With some institutions, students are forced to move across the country, seek and pay for accommodation, and still travel to campus on largely unreliable, expensive and often crime-riddled public transport to squeeze into packed lecture halls just to learn.

We have to ask ourselves, how many students or their families can afford to travel these distances and rent out whole new accommodation, and how can we keep expecting these people to keep paying these massive financial costs, in our worsening economy? That’s before they’ve even started to pay for the actual classes!

In fact, the real question is, why weren’t these changes implemented sooner?

Requiring students to present themselves in person to pursue their education also delays their entry to the workforce and blocks them from taking on part-time work to help pay for their studies.

For example, classes presented during the daytime require students to be physically present in classes for 90% of the traditional working day. Students are caught in a financial catch-22, where they are being forced to pick between working to meet the costs of living and studying, and giving up work so they have the time to study.

But with COVID-19 making in-person and on-campus study impossible for the foreseeable future, many international tertiary education institutions have moved their classes online. This temporary measure sounds good at first: but it comes with the downside that the students are still paying the huge fees required by universities to keep sprawling campuses functioning.

This shutdown is giving us the opportunity to reimagine the methods our universities and schools use to educate students. In fact, the real question is, why weren’t these changes implemented sooner?

The fact of the matter is, unless your programme requires the use of extremely specialised or expensive equipment, there really shouldn’t be a need for travel or distance to get in the way of studying what you want. And online learning is arguably the most effective way of delivering that type of education, especially if it still comes with 1:1 human mentorship and personalised feedback.

The new measures brought about by COVID-19 could change our most basic understandings of how education should work. The opportunity here is to test whether the same level of learning is possible, but without the massive overheads – and students in mostly theoretical courses are largely finding out they’re able to work more efficiently, save on travel costs and have additional time where they could be earning money to help pay for their education. And best of all, these students can keep themselves and their families safer in the face of whatever global challenge arises next.

The push now should be to find ways to make this level of education accessible to more people, at a fraction of the cost and with more flexible timelines – and online facilitation offers these benefits, and more.

The pandemic gives us an unprecedented opportunity to stop and think about how we’ve always done things – and why – so let’s use that opportunity to make positive changes that can benefit millions and improve society in ways that will become a part of the fabric of daily life, once COVID-19-related bans and restrictions are lifted.

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