COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to Africa’s universities to take stock of their current practices and identify new ways of doing things; all for resilience and continued relevance beyond this pandemic. This became the common refrain of higher education leaders at a recent Higher Education in Africa zoom webinar that was titled: COVID-19 and Africa’s Higher Education System: What is going on?
Professor Benjamin Ola Akande, President-elect, Champlain College, and Assistant Vice-Chancellor, International Affairs – Africa at Washington University in St Louis in the United States, labelled this virus “an equal opportunity pandemic” that was impacting all institutions in Africa, and the world, at the same level. Instead of seeing the coronavirus as a nuisance, he chose to see in it an opportunity for African universities to adopt a strong resolve at addressing immediate challenges; to reassess their positions and become more creative in changing “what we do and how we do it, as we prepare for the future, post-COVID-19.”
Agreeing with this view, Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) said most infectious diseases specialists in South Africa had been stating very firmly that COVID-19 was not going to be a six-month phenomenon. It was likely to linger on for two to three years during which the world would have to confront the reality of possible pandemic outbreaks. Professor William Bazeyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Finance and Administration at Uganda’s Makerere University, also echoed that until a cure could be found, this pandemic was likely to be around for a while. “Whatever higher education institutions are planning must take this into consideration.”
Professor Aziza Ellozy, Associate Provost: Transformative Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, therefore asserted that it was time students and academics began aspiring to fluency in digital learning and teaching, henceforth, because “they are going to be working in a very different environment. Unless they learn to collaborate digitally with other cultures and other people, they will be gravely disadvantaged.”
Considering that Wits had for a long time been experimenting with different mechanisms of online learning, Prof Habib added that this pandemic had forced his institution to explore alternative teaching platforms, allowing them to shift their thinking in a very significant way. He said one problem that had confronted his institution for years was huge classes. The question emerging from the COVID-19 era was therefore whether Wits should consider shifting those enormous classes to the online platform and transforming the face-to-face experience to applied group learning, tutorials and varied other mechanisms, thus transitioning towards a much more blended learning experience.
Professor Ellozy (right), said she recalled how her institution, prior to COVID-19, had survived three bouts of emergency closure, first when they had the H1N1 outbreak in 2009; secondly during the Arab Spring revolution in 2011 and thirdly, as far as she could recall, during a SARS-related crisis in 2014. Faculty panic prevailed during all those crises as the university scrambled to switch to online or blended learning, somewhat. “However, once things got back to normal, we were back into our old habits,” Professor Ellozy told the webinar audience.
This time around, Professor Ellozy said it was her view, and that of their provost, that the American University in Cairo should undergo a deliberate paradigm shift: prepare for a kind of blended learning modality and prepare their students and staff for digital fluency … .
You may also like to read the second report from the same author, titled “Institutions across Africa face common challenges in the COVID-19 crisis“.