Distance Education Rises to the Occasion during the CoVID-19 lockdown

Distance Learning, the Keeper of Higher Education during a Worldwide Pandemic

The challenges facing institutions of Higher Learning during the CoVID-19 lockdown have left many with no option but to turn to online learning to avoid disruptions to learning and teaching programmes across the globe.  Fortunately, the IMM Graduate School has not been caught off guard during the Coronavirus pandemic, nor has it been left scrambling to keep learning and teaching going. For the most part it is business as usual.

We have already spent the past several years, implementing cutting edge online learning principles, and as such “going online” has meant minimal disruption in our learning environment designed and built to encourage optimal student engagement for critical thinking and problem solving. For a number of years already, we have been embracing technology to provide opportunities for students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to study.

We have also during this time considered, monitored and reviewed various aspects impacting learning and teaching in the online environment to find what works best for distance students. In so doing, we have been able to fine-tune the online learning and teaching experience by acting on the feedback of all role players to our digital learning and teaching environment.

The attitude that online learning is a ‘watered down’ version of ‘real’ education couldn’t be further from the truth and such attitudes have the potential to compromise quality. Higher Learning Institutions, Industry and students all need to reflect on their own attitudes to online education. More and more, online learning is proving to be the better solution.

Digital learning and teaching do have some challenges, but also comes with many added advantages and provides a valuable alternative to traditional classroom-based models. Given current learning conditions (in our lockdown situation), South African Learning Institutions, students and teaching staff are being forced to become familiar with the digital education space. Just as with every other industry in 2020, education can never go back to what it was just a few short weeks ago.

Going online is not only a matter of, uploading the ‘paper version’ onto a learner management system and continuing with learning and teaching activities as would be the case in a classroom. There are a number of important points of consideration in digital learning and teaching.

For students who are not used to distance and/or online learning, social distance could present a challenge.  Distance institutions are acutely aware of this and any distance institution worth their salt will build mechanisms into their courses to reduce the sense of distance and isolation and to create a sense of community among students who are geographically far removed from each other. For Students at residential universities catapulted into distance learning, the sense of distance and isolation may be more acute.

Also important is how the rapport between lecturer or tutor and student is initiated and maintained. In a distance learning environment, there is not the luxury of sitting in a group, discussing challenges. Several mechanisms to create a sense of community need to be built into an online course. Creating an online social presence of the lecturer goes a long way to making students feel more secure. Many are turning to webinars as an alternative to the contact class. But you need to consider, how to adapt learning and teaching in webinars to ensure that students are meaningfully engaging with their study material and their teachers?  In the classroom, teaching staff tend to use lecturing as the method of teaching.

Then there is the question of how study material needs to be adapted to make sure students are fully engaged in the absence of a regular contact class. Learning material must be designed to encourage active learning. Technology provides diverse opportunities to design learning resources which are almost 3D in nature and most certainly more interactive than textbooks and class notes.

The digital space has opened up a whole world of opportunity for authentic real-world learning and teaching that produces 4th Industrial Revolution work-ready graduates, whether the world is in crisis or not. The IMM Graduate School has embraced these opportunities, and is continuing to provide fully accredited, internationally recognised distance education during the lockdown and beyond.