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Lived experiences, unique contexts of students important in online teaching
Author: Sonja Strydom & Miné de Klerk
Published: 03/05/2021

​​​​A humanizing approach that considers the lived experiences and unique contexts of students can help facilitate online learning and teaching, write Dr Sonja Strydom (Centre for Learning Technologies) and Miné de Klerk (Division for Teaching and Learning Enhancement) in a recent article for University World News.

  • ​Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Sonja Strydom & Miné de Klerk*

The COVID-19 pandemic had particularly adverse repercussions for Africa's education sector. Whilst online education providers were generally better positioned to adapt​ to periods of national and international lockdowns, the entire higher education landscape was affected by the unavoidable necessity to re-think ways of educating, researching and working in general. 

In South Africa, as in many emerging economies, tertiary institutions have increasingly been adopting digital technologies as mediating tools for learning, teaching and assessment. Therefore, once the pandemic struck, some universities had a form of institutional support infrastructure in place to enable periods of remote learning. Despite the potential preparedness of institutions that had access to financial resources to support blended learning, issues such as accessibility and different learning and work experiences were observed. These matters were, as expected, only heightened during universities' emergency shift to emergency remote teaching (ERT). The sudden period of ERT has also necessitated a continued awareness of the need for a humanizing approach to learning and teaching – especially in the digital era.

As with many other South African HEIs, we at Stellenbosch University (SU) aimed to address these emergency issues by attempting to securing mobile data for students, loaning laptops to those that required them and assisting both academics and students in offering targeted webinars focusing on a range of topics such as the rethinking of online learning activities, demystification of data light resources and being responsive to student inputs in the online space.

Such an awareness of a humanizing approach was also one of the recurring themes in many of the chapters of a collaborative open educational e-book project at SU where academics and colleagues from SU's Division for Teaching and Learning Enhancement were invited to share their reflective experiences in terms of teaching, learning and assessment during lockdown. The reflections of teaching academics showed that they found themselves wanting to gain a better understanding of the lived experiences and unique contexts of their students, as they endeavoured to connect with their class across the boundaries of digital devices and the digital divide.

It should be pointed out that the notion of humanizing pedagogies is not unfamiliar to those interested in especially the work of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire who tried to understand the social world from a student perspective. In a recent webinar, Prof Denise Zinn from Nelson Mandela University pointed out that humanizing pedagogies attempt to underline a “consciousness and understanding of the socio-political, economic and historical context and its impact on people, as well as a commitment on the part of educators to the transformation of unjust and inequitable conditions in that context".  These principles are, arguably, even more valuable in a historical moment of large-scale digitalisation in higher education. 

However, as Drick Boyd reminds us, Freire's pedagogical concepts were developed in a pre-digital era where a situated pedagogy formed the basis of his work. Freire's observations of learning and teaching occurred in a shared place, and in person. In contrast, the virtual classroom involves remote communication, mostly via smart devices.  How, then, can the principles of Freire's work be translated to the digital learning environment? Boyd's guiding framework could be a potential starting point to address this question. He highlights the key principles of Freire's work that can serve as a generative lens for educators interested in adopting a humanizing approach to the facilitation of online learning. These principles include the recognition that problem-based learning, dialogue, embodied learning and democratic access to information aids a transformative education.

Moving forward

There is still much to explore about the core principles of humanizing pedagogies in a digital learning environment. There are also merits to the critique that the key principles of Freire's work cannot fully be applied to the virtual classroom context, since his theories were formed in relation to a classroom context that fundamentally shifted. We are, for example, still grappling to understand how social proximity and rich dialogue – both enablers of a humanizing educational approach – can be facilitated in the context of fully online learning. A further question remains how such an approach also translates into the unique circumstances of African-based HEIs.

These questions, however difficult, form part of a period of reflective institutional learning at SU. To sustain this trajectory of critical reflection for practitioners and scholars, we cannot lose sight of the fact that learning, whether augmented through digital technologies or not, remains a process of human transformation. A humanizing perspective could therefore add value to our expanding understanding of how we can, or rather should facilitate online learning. 

  *Dr Sonja Strydom is the Deputy Director (Academic Development & Research) at the Centre for Learning Technologies at Stellenbosch University. Miné de Klerk is a Hybrid Learning Project Manager in the Division for Teaching and Learning Enhancement at the same institution. This article is based on their chapter in Responding to the necessity for change: Higher Education voices from the South during the COVID-19 crisis (2020).