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Academic voices: COVID-19 propels new digital era in South African higher education institutions

The global pandemic, COVID-19, created major disruption across the world. Higher education institutions (HEIs) were significantly affected, with students and staff having had to leave campuses as the lockdown approached.

With this came the drastic decision to move all teaching, at a face-to-face HEI like ours, to online teaching. As a result of the sudden onset of the pandemic, directives were unclear and each college/school within the institution started their 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 students' 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, some of whom were not at all technologically inclined. One of the ways to support these academics was through a series of digital training webinars. The sense of panic 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 mics had to be controlled. The assistance of a technical support person at each session helped to focus on the content that has to be 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 the attendees came to light. In essence, despite not having a formal plan in place to "empower" our academics, clearly these sessions 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 had access and the necessary know-how have more of an advantage. As academics in South Africa, we have come to see 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're breaking up, we lost you, you disappeared there but you're 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, while also tending to the educational needs of their children.

The very strict lockdown that has been in place 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 to 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 that are now at our disposal. So, while feeling the disconnect, a strange sense of connectedness to those in one's field (and other fields) 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 that 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, eg, teaching post-graduate, 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 falls 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 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 - one's research and how we as a profession innovate new tools and practices. We take ownership and accountability of 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?"

Upasana Singh, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, [email protected]; Cecile Gerwel Proches, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, [email protected]; Cristy Leask, Symbiosis Consulting, Durban, South Africa, [email protected]