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‘We need courage to rebuild our universities’

Pandemic shakes up idea of learning as set in space and time, webinar hears

The notion of tertiary education as restricted to the duration of a lecture on a campus was turned upside down at a webinar organised by the University of Cape Town in South Africa this week. 

The 7 September webinar was the last in a series asking how online teaching and research, spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, will disrupt universities, and what a new normal might look like. 

Monica Kerrets-Makau, academic director for Africa at the Thunderbird School of Management in Nairobi, Kenya, noted that the pandemic has disrupted the idea that education is something that happens only in a specific space—the physical university. 

“That disruption is great,” she said, as it allows people to overcome geographical disadvantages. “It begins to allow us to teach from different places.” 

But the pandemic also raises questions about how we conceptualise education in time, said Kate Bowles, associate dean in the arts faculty of the University of Wollongong, Australia.

“Time is the basis of all we do. Learning is what happens when students spend a certain amount of time in a room. Pay is what happens when people spend a certain amount of time at work,” she said. 

The pandemic has unsettled the concept of educational time as well as space, she said. But while most universities have moved lectures online, few have explored opportunities around disrupting the notion of scholarly time. 

For example, she said, most universities have simply moved traditional lectures online, with students listening live, and teachers taking attendance by "screen-shotting" their Zoom window. But that may not be the best way of delivering education going forward, she said. 

Given that higher education is facing economic hardships that will last for years, and that fortune will favour the brave, she said, “I think we need to become more courageous in order to rebuild universities.”