Five ways academics can manage COVID-19 shutdowns

by Prof Willie Chinyamurindi

(Repost by The Conversation

The COVID-19 pandemic has begun affecting a range of African countries where infection rates have been rising, though not at the rates being experienced in the US and Western Europe.

Governments have been taking drastic steps to stop the spread of infection. One has been the decision to close schools and universities. This has been true in a number of African countries where schools, colleges and universities have suspended classes and even graduation ceremonies.

For most, this is a devastating interruption of the academic year as the bricks-and-mortar lecturing experience is shut down. But there are steps that can be taken to ensure that teaching and learning continues.

In the past decade my colleagues and I have carried out research in Africa exploring as a broad theme the relationship between technology and human capital development. The aim has been to contribute to developing digital citizens.

The research we have done shows how technology can be used as an enabler to development. It also shows what stands in the way. At the core of this, as we have found, are motives and how they shape and guide the technology we adopt and use. Understanding these motives allows us to make sense of usage patterns and the technology that we adopt.

For example, we were able to show that technology, through social media, can create solutions. A precursor to this was exploring motives that drive such behaviour. One such motive is the desire for convenience and ease of use.

In a follow-up study we later found the role of mobile devices, not just among young people but also the elderly, as key in the transmission of information.

Our work also identified a technology-savvy young generation that was adapting new tools to their lived experiences. Their attitudes were very different to that of the older generation. But this generation gap could work in favour of young people trying to complete their studies while universities are shut down.

Based on my research, as well as my own experience, I have come up with five ways in which academics can salvage some of what they need to teach. All involve the use of technology.

What can be done

Put recordings of classes online. I am due to start teaching a second-year Human Resources Management module with 130 students. In this module, I was due to teach two contact sessions adding up to six hours. I was also due to meet students for consultation.

Instead, I’m turning to different ways of delivering the work. A number of free online platforms exist that can be useful to host learning content in audio and video format. These include YouTubeSoundCloudTwitch and Audiomack.

Some of these platforms also allow for recorded learning content to be downloaded online onto a device and then played later by a user at no cost. This can fit well, especially if data costs are very high.

I find Youtube and SoundCloud helpful because they offer the convenience of presenting a class either in video or sound format. Students can select which they prefer.

However, caution is needed. Putting content online doesn’t add up to effective teaching. Some issues specific to the student and their environment need to considered.

In a study we carried out in South Africa’s corporate sector, we found issues such as gender, attitude towards technology and even the ease of use of the technology affected how the technology was adopted. These findings were also confirmed in a follow-up study we conducted using a student sample within a university context.

This points to the need to consider issues specific to the individual and their environment when content is put on line.

Conferences. I was scheduled to present a paper this month at an international conference on technical and vocational education. But the event has been postponed.

Academic conferences offer opportunities for networking and collaboration with leading scholars locally and internationally. An alternative is web-conferencing. This allows multiple users in different locations to meet in real time over the internet or intranet. This has also led the growing use of web seminars or webinars.

I have found web-conferences useful and often cheaper than physical attendance. The drawbacks here are the need for a reliable internet connection and missing out on the collaborations that often happen between conference attendances during tea, lunch and dinner.

Use of Skype and WhatsApp Audio and Video for meetings. I’m constantly in touch with my students, offering direction on their research projects and helping others complete theirs through these platforms. I also use them for meetings with colleagues and external stakeholders.

We use these tools because of ease and convenience. For example, in one study we found that this was why students used them extensively to hunt for jobs.

Skype and WhatsApp are easily available and are already popular. The issues we flagged in our research around ease, convenience and performance expectancy make Skype and WhatsApp favourable. Again, there is the need for a reliable internet connection.

Off campus library access. A number of universities offer access to leading electronic resources, journals and databases through off-campus access. Due to issues of licensing in accessing these resources, this privilege is usually for registered students and staff members. I’m increasingly recommending this alternative to fellow staff and students.

From the comfort of my home, I can access the physical library through the use of technology without being in public contact. Such features, as shown in our research, are key in forming online learning communities.

Keep informed, watch out for misinformation. Information has become more and more critical. At the same time it’s important to watch out for misinformation. A common source of misinformation could be posts usually shared through social media that are not verified.

In a study we carried out on social media usage within a higher education setting, we found that social media was mostly used for problem solving and communication purposes. This shows that social media is a crucial information portal. This heightens the role of information not just among academics but society in general.

But caution needs to be exercised. Equal to personal hygiene is cyber-hygiene. In our quest for information, we should watch out for misinformation and avoid spreading unverified information.

What gets in the way

My work has also highlighted the barriers to putting these ideas into practice. These include inadequate infrastructure and hardware as well as the fact that a number of communities and universities on the continent remain under-resourced. And as we have found in research conducted on the use of technology in the work place, technology can present its own set of problems, such as contributing to job-overload.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities for both academics and students to further develop their skills. This requires seeing technology not as an old foe but as a new ally.

Prof Willie Tafadzwa Chinyamurindi is an NRF Rated Researcher (Y2) and an Associate Professor within the Department of Business Management at the University of Fort Hare. He also serves as the Research Niche Area Leader within the Faculty of Management and Commerce at the same university. His research interests broadly are within human capital development, career management and the use of qualitative methodology within the management sciences. Willie is also an avid user of technology within teaching practice. Twitter handle: @chinyaz

The Image of Green

Is the most sustainable option always as it appears?

I think a lot about waste. I suspect it’s because of all the cleaning up I had to do caring for the menagerie of animals I kept when I was younger. As a society we have a complex relationship with waste, in all forms, and it has some major implications for the sustainability movement. But what exactly is waste? It seems like an odd question, but the answer isn’t as simple as most of us would like to believe. Waste is, after all, relative and largely determined by our aesthetic ideals.

When we talk about a relationship between consumption, waste, and aesthetics I suspect what most of us think of first is the fashion industry. In recent years the environmental impacts of an industry built on product turnover rather than product longevity have been placed in the publics’ focus by documentaries and books such as Dana Thomas’ Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. When we talk about reducing the environmental impact of fast fashion I think it’s easy for us to understand repairing, reusing and retrofitting an item of clothing to extend its lifespan, because this is a practical experience that we can be involved in. This type of recycling certainly has a place within our drive to reduce our environmental impacts, but in order to create a closed-loop economy we need to urgently improve our ability to capture and reuse all forms of textiles that are already in circulation. This is obviously not unique to the fashion industry. In The case for… never demolishing another building Oliver Wainwright provides compelling insight into how we can radically change our approach to architecture by shifting how we choose and reuse building materials. It’s this shift in perception, to see value in what would traditionally be perceived as waste, that most interests me as an agricultural scientist.

Recycled brickwork (Source)

One of the most complex forms of wastes society needs to tackle is food waste. In South Africa, one third of all the food we produce is never eaten, with fruits, vegetables and cereals accounting for 70% of this loss. This is both a moral failure (with almost 20% of South African households having insufficient access to food) and an environmental catastrophe. Globally there has been a renewed discussion around the role of aesthetic standards in food wastage, focused particularly on misshaped but perfectly edible fruits and vegetables. Thankfully in South Africa this type of food wastage is largely avoided as misshaped fresh produce is absorbed by and sold through the informal sector at reduced prices. Instead, middle-class South Africans have focussed their attention on a different aspect: Food packaging.

Packageless fruit and veg (Source)

Packaging from all sectors accounts for almost half of the world’s plastic pollution, and there is little question about whether or not we need to reduce our excessive dependence here. In South Africa recent strong anti-packaging public sentiments have resulted in supermarket chains such as Pick n Pay beginning to trial package-free-zones and “nude” fruit and veg. While I applaud any effort to reduce waste of all forms, these shifts will not inherently reduce waste. As one of my favourite science communicators James Wong pointed out in a recent Twitter thread, completely eradicating packaging from our fresh produce can have unintended consequences that may actually increase food wastage. A simple example is climacteric fruit, such as bananas. These fruits are typically packaged in ethylene-removing plastic bags, which significantly extends their shelf life by slowing down the rate of ripening. Similarly, most soft-fruit packaging is designed to prevent damage such as bruising or abrasions during transport thus increasing shelf life and decreasing the likelihood of post-harvest disease. There are obviously plenty of fruits and vegetables that can be distributed without the need for packaging, and many others whose packaging can either be reduced or redesigned to be reusable. But, while bunches of bananas and piles of peaches laid out in supermarket displays may be more visually appealing to us than bagged or boxed fruit, we need to see the hidden waste of our choices and opt for the most sustainable choice on a case-by-case basis. Not all forms of waste are equal, and as a society if we’re going to significantly reduce our consumption and unavoidable wastage to fall within the planetary boundaries we need to make evidence-based decisions.