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Blended learning ‘future of African higher education’

Image: Eugene Malaka [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

University leaders say mix of online and in-person learning is the way forward after Covid-19

Senior officials from Africa’s top universities have said that blended learning—making use of a mixture of online and in-person teaching—will probably be the norm for African universities after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The remarks were made during a virtual seminar on 12 May on the future of African higher education. Speakers included Adam Habib, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, William Bazeyo, deputy vice-chancellor for finance and administration at Uganda’s Makerere University, and Aziza Ellozy, the academic provost for transformative learning and teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

All three agreed that blended learning will emerge as the standard for African universities in years to come. Habib said that while Covid-19 has accelerated plans for online learning in South Africa, the country’s universities were caught on the back foot by the “very immediate and very dramatic” response of the South African government to the disease. 

The country’s tight lockdown, only weeks after detection of its first case, “effectively required us to evacuate campuses,” Habib said. This resulted in a standstill of teaching and research unrelated to Covid-19. With no university capable of full online learning, they have employed “emergency remote learning” to try to salvage the academic year, he said. 

Given that universities will likely have to live with the coronavirus for two to three years, Habib foresees a future where teaching moves online, while certain activities like research and postgraduate training remain on campus. 

Makerere’s Bazeyo agreed with Habib that blended learning was the best way forward for African universities. The country’s lockdown had happened suddenly, with little preparedness in the university for online learning. There are efforts to change this, but he suggested that online teaching should exclude science and medical training.

Ellozy said that the situation in Egypt differed because the country went into lockdown quite late. The institution has had to resort to distance learning in the past, notably during the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak caused by another coronavirus, and the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Yet the university had always returned to its “old ways” once these crises subsided. So many faculty at her university were not prepared when the lockdown hit, she said. 

Online teaching has brought challenges to students over quality and their inability to interact with lecturers, she added, while faculty complained of increased workloads. Nevertheless, she thinks this time the changes are more likely to stick. She also punted blended learning as the likely future teaching model in Egypt.

The next months and years could change the faces of universities forever, said Habib. “For many years we were building huge lecture rooms. There are questions if we should continue to do this. We’ll never go back to what was normal before.”