01 March 2022 | Story Prof Francis Petersen | Photo Sonia Small (Kaleidoscope Studios)
Prof Petersen_web
Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

For the past two years, students in tertiary institutions have had to negotiate the choppy waters of emergency online tuition. In February, thousands of students at universities across the country will be returning to the shores of face-to-face learning. But it will require a process of reconnection that may take time and will have to be guided sensitively, says Prof Francis Petersen.

It is a fact of life that, in so many spheres, one’s journey is often as memorable – sometimes even more so – than one’s experiences at a destination. The South African education context is no exception. Many of us grew up with stories of parents and grandparents expanding at length about their difficult journeys to school ‘back in the day’. Some of the details of what happened inside the classroom may have faded over time, but the journey often remains etched in memory. Journeys that tell of sacrifice, of braving harsh weather and long distances – often on foot. A great victory already lies, after all, in the mere process of getting somewhere. 

The Online Move

There is little doubt that online tuition was a vital lifebuoy for education during the pandemic and lockdown, and that it will form an increasingly important part of our future educational landscape. The huge digital divide that the move to online education has exposed, remains a most pressing concern that needs to be addressed urgently in order to ensure that students from all socio-economic sectors and both rural and urban environments can access online resources. 

One consequence of online learning that is maybe not deliberated as frequently, is that it has essentially eliminated the need for a journey – in this case, the physical journey to a tertiary education campus. Once again, this fact comes with many perceived advantages: no transport costs, no travelling time, no risk associated with moving out of one’s comfort zone. Provided you have access to sufficient resources and connectivity (a topic for another time!), and provided you have a safe home environment conducive to learning (which many of our students sadly lack), it has become incredibly easy and convenient to access education – anytime, anywhere, and at your own pace.

But there are some aspects that can become complicated in the absence of a physical journey. 

Because journeys imply a few things:

A Journey Requires a Deliberate Decision About a Destination

People go on journeys because they want to get somewhere. They decide where they want to end up and then take the steps necessary to get there. The physical journey to a place of learning, of course, also reflects a more figurative journey towards an envisaged career and a successful future.  

Over the past two years, students have often reported feeling as if they were ‘drifting’ in the online environment, not always sure where they were heading, feeling a bit lost and disconnected. Maybe part of the reason for this lies in the fact that they were not physically going anywhere.  Without this physical aspect of the journey, it can become difficult to plot yourself, and difficult to convince yourself that you are moving ahead and making progress.

A Journey Requires a Measure of Sacrifice

A journey also almost always implies sacrifice in some form. Whether it is getting up early to catch a train, a bus, or two taxis to university, incurring fuel costs or transport fees, or just strolling to class across campus from your residence – a successful journey requires discipline and planning. And it takes some form of sacrifice of time and resources. 

Which brings me to the next point: 
A Journey Requires Commitment 

It takes commitment to make those sacrifices needed to complete a journey. And in turn, sacrifice fuels commitment. As human beings, we tend to treasure those things that were hard to obtain, and we do our utmost to hold on to them. The opposite of ‘easy come, easy go’, is equally true. It is often just as easy for students to opt out of online learning sessions, as it is to access it. And this is where the problem sometimes lies: commitment is not really tested or strengthened. 

Gaining Courage from Fellow Travellers

Probably the most poignant aspect of the journey analogy, is the fact that it makes you aware of other travellers. The students treading the campus pavements with you, passing you in passages, walking with you into class, are a constant reminder that your journey is not a solitary one. Fellow travellers – and fellow students – reaching out to one another, sharing tips and experiences, make the journey easier for everyone. Interacting with others and knowing that we are not alone, is a vital part of what makes us human, what makes our journeys meaningful.

Dealing with Fear

Countless COVID-19 research projects from all over the world seem to point to one basic bottom line: the absence of physical interaction has taken a huge psychological toll on most of our students. However, psychologists working on our campuses report a significant increase in students seeking psychological help in the run-up to the restart of contact learning. They say some students find the prospect of returning to campus stressful and even terrifying. It is a move that will take them outside their new comfort zones. Many students relate how they have been living in an ‘artificial online world’ for the past two years – not only academically but socially too. Students who used to be very sociable have been spending their non-academic time behind screens too, engaged in gaming, streaming services, and social media. Two years was long enough to blur memories of what used to be normal. Long enough to entrench new habits – not all of them conducive to good mental health – which can take time to change. It was also long enough to desensitise students to what they really need and want.

Psychological Support for Students

The value of providing our students with different forms of psychological support during these unusual and uncertain times cannot be overemphasised. At the University of the Free State (UFS), the various support initiatives we have implemented and expanded over the past two years have undoubtedly contributed to the fact that we could complete the academic years of 2020 and 2021 successfully. Among these initiatives are a 24-hour toll-free mental-health careline as well as an e-mentoring programme that offers socio-emotional support to students. Data analytics revealed that more than a third of our students engaged in these support interventions, and we see it as a major reason that, despite all the obvious challenges, we still managed to improve our overall institutional success rate in 2020 and 2021.  

Social Interaction a Basic Need

As tertiary institutions, we need to not only focus on what is convenient for our students at this time, but on what they actually need. And as human beings, we need social interaction. We need to read social cues, expressions, and body language, hear voice intonation, and where possible and appropriate, touch and feel. University life is, after all, about so much more than just attending classes. It is about engaging in sporting and cultural activities, about honing your interests, and finding new ones. It is about learning to collaborate and building networks and support groups, about forming friendships, and entering relationships. And sometimes, it is about just having fun.

Returning to Campus

Most universities are currently introducing some form of blended learning programme, combining online and face-to-face tuition. At the UFS, 67% of our modules on offer will be in a face-to-face format (at least in the early part of 2022), with the necessary COVID-19 protocols in place to ensure a safe environment for staff and students. As we welcome our students back on campus, it is vital that we as university leadership carefully and effectively remind them that their study years should be a holistic experience, encompassing different aspects of their being. We should encourage them to make use of the precious reconnection opportunities with those around them. And be patient as they negotiate their way in an old-but-new environment.

Let the journey begin.

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