COVID-19 Propels the New Digital Era in SA Higher Education Institutions

The global pandemic COVID-19 has created major disruption across the world. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have been affected significantly, with students and staff vacating campuses as lockdowns approached. With this came the drastic decision at UKZN – a face-to-face higher education institution – to move to online teaching. As a result of the sudden onset of the pandemic, each College/School within UKZN started its own mapping towards achieving this. Many academics were frantically trying to learn tools to support this new mode of teaching, conducting needs analysis to understand their student’s access and abilities to study online and developing procedures and guidelines for the implementation of this online teaching and learning.

COVID-19 instilled panic in many academics worldwide, especially those of whom were not at all technologically inclined. One of the ways to support this category of academics at UKZN was through the offering of a series of digital training webinars. The sense of panic was amongst UKZN academics was clearly evident when sessions were booked out within one hour of being advertised. This forced us to continually increase the numbers per session from 40 to 100 to 150 and eventually 180 in institutional-wide sessions, which were further supplemented by smaller College-based sessions.

It is somewhat strange having to teach practical concepts through a virtual environment, where, due to the number of participants, screen sharing, video and microphones had to be controlled. The assistance of a technical support person at each session helped the facilitator to focus on the content delivered, and address ‘academic’ related queries.

Understanding the implementation of digital tools at different Schools/Disciplines has been a great eye-opener. Learning occurred as new ideas from participants came to light. In essence, the support put in place to ‘empower’ our academics, assisted in introducing them to already existing tools at our Institution, and guiding them in the basics of implementation and adoption of these tools to support their shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A transition to ‘online learning’ in the South African context has however once again illustrated the stark contrasts. Those who have access and the necessary know-how have more of an advantage. As academics in South Africa, we have come to experience how issues of access to a computer, network, Internet, electricity and a conducive space, can facilitate or hinder online learning. We have witnessed this at the various levels of education – the ‘success to the successful’ archetype is of relevance, and inequalities once again come to the fore.

As highlighted in a recent Webinar, focusing on: Digitial Ways of Doctoral Studies in COVID-Times: International Perspectives, hosted by the UKZN College of Humanities, we have perhaps largely experienced the concept of ‘remote learning’ in a crisis / emergency, as opposed to real online learning – there are profound implications across the spectrum. It has been interesting to see how some students have embraced technology – Zoom meetings are indeed quite fascinating as a new way of conducting lectures. We are now getting used to the Zoom etiquette language – ‘unmute, you breaking up, we lost you, you disappeared there but you back now, so proceed…’ and we have figured out at which angle to place the camera. We can understand and appreciate the benefits but also feel somewhat strange when we do not see faces and hear responses. Students, who are also working parents, have felt the pressure of having to adapt to remote working and learning, whilst also tending to the educational needs of their children. The very strict lockdown in South Africa has seen many shifting between the various stages – fear, anxiety, optimism, helplessness, etc. There is an awareness of the stress that multiple stakeholders (students, academics, parents, management, etc.) in HEIs are experiencing. Effective stakeholder management in HEIs is essential for navigating the complexity, and an appreciation of the need to try to balance the various needs of the diverse stakeholders.

It has however been incredibly comforting to see the number of Webinars, Zoom meetings and even virtual conferences now at our disposal. So while feeling the disconnect, a strange sense of connectedness to those in one’s field may be developing. We are forced to become mindful and present of trends in our fields, as various experts around the world take time to freely share their views, with the aim of sharing best practice and facilitating development.

Opportunities for collaboration have increased – both locally and internationally. There are certainly many avenues for research that have opened up, but we are also finding that certain theories and models now come under scrutiny for their relevance and place, due to the immense complexity that has come about.

There is a need for staff to continue developing their skills, especially in ensuring they are adapting to the digital world. A considerable amount of time has to be spent on assisting with the integration of digital teaching and learning tools into teaching practice. An investment in digital literacy of our academics will go a long way to support the future ‘new HEI’ environment which most likely will not revert to a fully face-to-face environment, but, at the most, a blended learning environment. We have also become aware of how much face-to-face interaction actually means in certain contexts – e.g. teaching postgraduate part-time, adult learners. The new mode of delivery has meant that experiential learning and the interactive exercises that were essential to making the theory relevant to the work context, now largely fall away, due to not having a conducive space to run such activities. We are also aware of how learners may battle to find the time and space to focus, as they may be under increased pressure at home.

Reflection has pushed one’s thinking and required the consideration of new approaches at a pace never experienced before. The hope for the day after COVID-19 is to implement models of collaboration that will span across boundaries to stimulate new dialogue, theory, research, and applications in many areas where critical gaps exist in significant challenges. During COVID-19, each one of us has heard that the world will not be the same again. Individually and collectively, we had a wrenching global shock. HEIs, in particular, are reeling from it; a new ‘normal’ might look nothing like the pre COVID-19 crisis.

Overall, the dream is that one’s work will undergo a shift in how we go about doing work in terms of where we focus  research and how we as a profession innovate new tools and practices. We take ownership and accountability for the ‘science-practice gap’ within the profession and how we maintain relevancy and impact. Much of this discussion is related to the lack of relevance against a growing gap between science and practice. Reflection encourages us to consider the variety of elements that have contributed to us losing touch. Personal reflection is important for continued growth, learning and development.’

We need to ask: Who I am both personally and professionally in the COVID-19 pandemic and what is my role in the day after COVID-19, and what I will do?

Dr Upasana Singh

Dr Upasana Singh

Dr Upasana Singh is a Senior lecturer in the Discipline of Information Systems and Technology at UKZN

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches

Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches is an Associate Professor at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership. Her research, supervisory and consulting interests include leadership, change management and organisational behaviour.

Dr Cristy Leask

Dr Cristy Leask

Dr Cristy Leask ( is an adjunct faculty at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership; and a skilled organisational consultant at Symbiosis Consulting, and Capella University in the United States


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