Educational access at Higher Education Institutions in the age of COVID-19 proves to be a challenge; experts suggest new approaches to ensure continuous learning

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By Taigu Muchiri

Governments across the globe disrupted education by closing primary, secondary, and tertiary schools to curb the spread of COVID-19 through non-medical interventions and preventive measures such as physical distancing and self-quarantine. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the closures have impacted close to 90 percent of the world’s student population. By end of April, over 1.2 billion children and youth were not attending school due to the indefinite closures in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19 even as the total number of infections continue to rise and currently stand at 6.48 million globally recorded by June 3.

In Kenya, the government issued a directive for all schools and institutions of higher learning to be closed, a move that brought teaching to an abrupt end, with students being released to go back home for an indefinite period. The Economic Survey Report of 2020 published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows that this has affected over 17 million enrolled learners across the country which has led to losses in learning and increased dropout rates. The situation is exacerbated by inclusion and the existing digital divide among countries and families a like and have highlighted numerous issues facing access to education, not only in Kenya but across the world.

Efforts to ensure learning continuity have forced institutions to explore other methods of teaching and learning since in-person instruction has been halted. UNESCO recommended the adoption and use of distance and open learning educational applications and platforms for remote teaching. While the online option seems viable, it is not the case for all learners. For one, lack of access to technology or fast, reliable internet is a hindrance for some students. There is also the case of students with disabilities who have challenges with access to suitable devices adapted for the online learning system.

Speaking during the third installment of the 6-part public dialogue series on the impact on COVID-19 in universities, Prof. Mpine Makoe, Director of Open Distance eLearning, University of South Africa mentioned that open access especially during the pandemic should be about accessibility, inclusivity, flexibility, equitability and lifelong learning. These are the principles employed by the University to ensure continuous teaching and learning before, during and after COVID-19. She added that gains made in the implementation of the Social Development Goals (SDGs) to provide quality education will be reversed and there will be no significant growth to achieve this goal.

One common thing that dominated the discussion are the challenges experienced as most institutions grapple with the transition to online teaching and learning. These challenges fall within seven key areas; infrastructure and access, equity, quality of teaching and learning and assessment, opportunities for collaboration, staff and faculty workload, student and faculty mobility, and preparations for the future. Other challenges include training and capacity building for lecturers to ensure that they effectively teach online; the ‘one size fits all’ mentality that has been in existence for such a long time is now more alive than ever.

These challenges present unique opportunities specifically for universities that can be explored during this period. Prof. Tawana Kupe, Vice Chancellor, University of Pretoria reiterated that the future of higher education is “hybrid that combines online learning and face to face instruction.” However, he noted that this might not work perfectly across the board and might be difficult to implement across all programs and disciplines. There are some programs that will work well with this model and others that will not such as the sciences which require extensive in person interaction. In this current period, it is imperative for Universities to change the equation where online learning becomes a key element and work with other African and International universities to create and teach courses together as well as share resources and knowledge.

On June 24, the panelists will explore the psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on university faculty and students; and the final dialogue on July 8, will show the impact of COVID-19 in Africa by exploring the opportunities for partnership and engagements.

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