Thursday, 10 September 2020

The impossibility of separating learning and development: What Covid-19 teaches us

This article was first published by University World News05 September 2020, 

By Birgit Schreiber, Lisa Bardill Moscaritolo, Brett Perozzi and Thierry M Luescher   

The impossibility of separating learning and development

The coronavirus pandemic has compelled universities around the world to send their students home – some with little more than a laptop or mobile phone, data and Wi-Fi access codes, some with more and most with less. In the switch to remote teaching, universities initially issued well-intended yet often insufficient guidance.

Over a remarkably short time, much of this has been improved upon. However, what could not be fixed in the remote teaching and learning model were the persistent infrastructure and network holes, glaring social-cultural inequities and social-community environments that are not conducive to learning.

It is these that have made remote learning extremely hard for some students, typically those from the most disadvantaged sections of society, for whom university offers an upward social-economic mobility pathway.

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the inequities in the global higher education system. While we confidently hoped that education might be the road to upward social-economic mobility, the great social equaliser, we are now seeing the major potholes that lie in the way.

University campuses have been able to level the playing field to some extent – between the Global North and South, between the developed and underdeveloped, between rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged and the connected and unconnected. However, in stepping off campus and into congested urban apartment blocks, shanty towns, small town peripheries and rural hinterlands, we can see how fragile this developmental model is.

The importance of the learning environment
Student Affairs and Services’ overarching function in higher education across the globe is to level the playing field through a developmental model of higher education which supports a global social justice agenda.

By promoting engagement; enabling compatible living and learning contexts; providing healthcare and counselling; offering housing and residence programmes; facilitating social, learning and personal safe spaces; implementing co-curricular programmes for students to learn beyond their discipline to develop as complex, healthy, whole people; by mapping learning and career pathways and supporting students to overcome their unique challenges along the way, Student Affairs and Services ensures a measure of equity and fairness on the campuses of institutions in our massified higher education systems.

The environmental impact theorists of student success, from Vince Tinto to Ernest Pascarella and George Kuh, all emphasise the interplay of at least four influences that impact on a meaningful educational experience: 1) the personal-cognitive resources of the students, 2) institutional-teaching-learning inputs, 3) familial-social influences, and 4) the macro-infrastructure factors in which the institution is embedded. These four need to converge to support the success of higher education, and Student Affairs and Services is essential to this.

When students are on campuses a supportive environment is possible, but when students study on sporadically working laptops in unstable Wi-Fi hotspots, with power outages and in congested, noisy home environments, then higher education cannot be the socially mobile pathway that so many students seek.

Basic needs – safe homes, clean water, reliable electricity, healthcare and social support – are also key foundational aspects of successful learning and development.

Local, tailored responses
How then should we respond? Again, we see too many divisions and tensions, fundamentally between collaboration and solidarity versus authority and competition. Tensions between the power of institution-level knowledge versus the authority of national regulatory bodies; between the scramble for political control and imposition of crude uniformity versus trust in the sophistication of local responses and the power of diversity.

And all of these tensions derail the more appropriate institutional and community-based flexible, context-relevant, autonomous, adaptive and innovative responses.

Despite the reality of inequality, learning must forge ahead in the myriad of ways that our diverse student body requires. We need indigenised responses that are designed at a local level for each unique situation.

In some regions this means that the best response may be to open universities just for some students for now – for those who need the campus environment and infrastructure for learning.

For other institutions it may mean that only PhD students can continue on campus, or only the science labs can open, or indeed only first-year students can attend who can be accommodated in low-density living arrangements.

A granular approach is needed, and for this it is essential that local decision-making endogenous to institutions – within the boundaries of outside scrutiny and accountability – is accelerated and supported. This should have primacy over uber-zealous regulatory bodies, attempts at control by central governments (such as China’s position on Hong Kong) or by national unions (as in South Africa) or blunt and short-sighted national political decisions (as in the case of the USA).

In Malawi, Kenya, Bangladesh and several other countries we have seen national decisions to temporarily close universities down. This is not only a huge setback for a country’s social and economic development, but also for social justice in these countries. Education is an avenue of social mobility that enables disadvantaged groups, particularly women, working-class and poor students, to leap ahead and beyond.

More than a Wi-Fi hotspot
Student Affairs and Services across the globe has an overarching ideal, whether or not explicitly stated: a deeply meaningful social justice mission. The current crisis shows how essential the overall provision of a (personal, social and physical) micro and macro environment conducive to learning and student engagement is, particularly for those who cannot count on that at home. Student Affairs and Services bridges that gap.

On the one hand, the COVID-19 responses have shown us the immense readiness of universities to adapt and innovate to enable learning in remote ways. On the other hand, remote learning has been a setback for social justice.

Universities are more than Wi-Fi hotspots for students. Universities are complex spaces that reduce systemic-social barriers to advancement, and Student Affairs and Services plays a critical role in this. To advance social justice for all, we need especially vulnerable groups to access universities and return to university campuses.

Birgit Schreiber(corresponding author) is a member of the Africa Centre for Transregional Research at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universit├Ąt Freiburg, Germany, and vice president of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services and co-founder and editorial executive for the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa. She is the co-editor of the recently published Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices, third edition, a 600-page volume in which 200 authors collaborated to provide a global overview of Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education. Lisa Bardill Moscaritolo is vice provost for student life at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and the secretary general for the International Association of Student Affairs and Services. She is on the editorial team of the global overview of Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education. Brett Perozzi is vice president for student affairs at Weber State University in the United States and serves on the global division executive for NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. He has published three books, more than three dozen scholarly works and is an author for the global overview of Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education. Thierry M Luescher is research director for post-schooling and work in the Human Sciences Research Council and associate professor of higher education at the University of the Free State, South Africa. He is a founding member of the editorial executive of the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa and an associate editor of the global overview of Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education.