For South African universities the Covid19 pandemic forced the closure of universities in March 2020, before barely one term’s worth of teaching had taken place. At that stage it was unclear what sort of online modes would be possible or whether any sort of online teaching would even be possible. Consequently the notion of having to teach online caused considerable anxiety for many academics and staff, with competing discourses about the nature of the equity issues and competing calls for and against trying to teach online at all. Concerns about how students would be cared for in such teaching spaces were paramount. We know that students regard care as a marker of good teaching where teachers care about their discipline and about their students (Anderson et al., 2017).
Across the sector, the challenge for universities in South Africa was to deliver a form of online learning in the context of inequality and of uncertainty. Away from residences, students’ access to devices and Internet connectivity was unknown but given the cost of data, likely to be problematic. Added to this was the difficult studying and living conditions for many students and the lack of access to various oncampus support services for study support, mental health, disability services and academic advising. Another factor was that as a residential campus based university with a few experiences of blended and online courses, most students and staff were not used to learning or teaching in online modes.
Given this particular context, a number of strategies were adopted at the University of Cape Town which can be seen as systematic attempts to mitigate inequalities and provide care to both staff and students online.
Students were surveyed to establish a baseline of student Internet and data connectivity and gauge initial student perceptions regarding their ability and circumstances to study online. The results enabled the university to follow up with identified groups of students who could be offered laptops or who would need physical materials couriered to them. This enabled faculty and central support services to plan for supporting diverse groups of students. The university also negotiated “zero rating” of mobile data costs of its core learning platforms and gives monthly data allocations to students. During this time, support services such as Student Wellness, Disability Services, Writing support and the central hotline were moved online. Based on the understanding of the challenges of learning online, a revised academic framework with reduced weekly study hours and a raft of accommodations with regards to assessment, PASS/FAIL instead of grading and other seeming relaxations of the normal rules were instigated.
In terms of pedagogical approaches to online teaching, we promoted Low Tech Remote Teaching, a set of principles for equitable online learning, as the mandated approach to course design and development. This focus on low tech asynchronous teaching acknowledges the deep challenges of inequitable access expected and how to maximise the possibility that more students would be able to participate in some form of remote online learning.
Being a residential university, the need to support staff with professional development for teaching in low tech asynchronous environments required offering professional development opportunities including the provision of webinars, guides and resources, and a rapidly developed course on preparing online courses. These activities provided primarily through the University’s Teaching and Learning centre supported academics in developing remote teaching course sites and developing discipline specific pedagogical strategies required a caring approach. Mandating equitable low tech modes has had consequences and sometimes contradictions. While meeting the needs of students who need both flexibility and low bandwidth solutions, one consequence has been the burden on staff and teachers—for whom developing and preparing asynchronous materials has been time consuming and arduous. Similarly teachers have had to develop new forms of assessment given the unavailability of physical invigilation, the need to provide students with additional time accommodations and a focus on equitable assessment that challenges many academics’ conceptions of integrity. At the same time, staff working remotely have their own healthcare, family and personal challenges.
Despite these many caring strategies, the simple truth is that no student signed up for remote learning yet they are now expected to work online, some in very difficult circumstances. Notwithstanding the considerable measures that have been put in place with regards to access and connectivity, the actual experiences of students vary across the continuum with a significant number of students predominantly from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds falling behind. Some students in remote learning environments are struggling with workloads while dealing with caring and family responsibilities. The most at-risk students are being disadvantaged. Even with more generous approaches to no financial penalties for dropping courses, a PASS/FAIL (not graded) approach to most courses, and an agreement there would be no academic exclusions for 2021—strategies unheard of in the university context prior to 2020—the long term implications on many students’ academic journeys is likely to be uncertain.
At times the various caring strategies seem to bring up or create new unanticipated problems. Such complex issues can be seen through a “wicked problems” lens as a way of understanding the particular situation of online learning under current pandemic circumstances. The concept of “wicked problems” came from the work of Rittel and Webber (1973) in relation to challenges of addressing planning and social problems. This concept has been built on in other fields whereby wicked problems are issues with often incomplete or contradictory knowledge, where there are many people and opinions involved, involve a large economic burden or large scales, and that the issue intersects with other issues leading to complexity. Rittel and Webber’s work identified various characteristics to recognise a wicked problem.
One characteristic is that there is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem and that framing a problem can be done in multiple ways. In the current case, what is the issue or challenge? Is the current challenge just to complete the academic year? Is it to advance student learning? Is it to replicate the face to face teaching environment? Is it to keep students and staff healthy while learning? Is it to maintain the financial viability of the university? How people frame a problem and what values they imbue in that framing reveal interesting insights, but the important point is that these are likely to be contesting issues. Another characteristic is that every wicked problem is entwined with other problems with no single root cause. Take the directive for predominantly asynchronous teaching modes that requires students to be agential with time management skills and workload management. The consequences of this has meant unmanageable course loads for some students compounded with the demands of continuous assessments. Yet continuous assessments are favoured to engage students instead of high stakes summative assessments. And so the consequences continue.
Even when enacting pedagogies of care online with the best of intentions, the contexts and needs of students and teachers seem at times antithetical to each other. A caring strategy for one stakeholder creates a problem for another. While that sounds disheartening, what a wicked problem or complexity lens enables is to see online learning during Covid19 as more than an educational challenge (to which we can apply tried and tested theories of online and distance learning). We need to reframe success and failure and the challenge itself - from one that needs to replicate the normal teaching experience to one that accepts there is no “out-there” solution that will solve the problem if we apply one strategy coherently.
This applies to strategies or pedagogies of care and how they are enacted at a systemic level—as part of an ecosystem to adapt again and again and to accept that this is a continuous, ongoing issue rather than one-off ‘problem solving’. Kinchin’s (2019) use of the concept of “salutogenesis” to describe how care and pedagogic health can be aspired to in a university setting provides a way of thinking of factors that support health and well-being, rather than individualist deficit models (pathogenesis). In the current context, enacting pedagogies of care need to be considered as more than meeting educational challenges as they continue to intersect with social and economic challenges in the context of an unfolding public health catastrophe. And caring, both giving and receiving, becomes everybody’s responsibility beyond the role of an individual.
- Anderson, V., R. Rabello, R. Wass, C. Golding, A. Rangi, E. Eteuati, B. Bristowe, and A. Waller. 2019. “Good Teaching as Care in Higher Education.” Higher Education. doi:10.1080/07294360.2019.1626810
- Kinchin, I. (2019) Care as a threshold concept for teaching in the salutogenic university, Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2019.1704726
- Rittel, H.W.J., Webber, M.M. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sci 4, 155–169 (1973). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730