Jonathan Jansen: Year of difficult compromises

JonathanJansenFor those who work in universities, 2016 will go down as the year of compromises. University leaders speak openly about compromising on principle for the sake of the peace, just to be able to ensure that end-of-year examinations can be completed for the vast majority of non-protesting students.

Agreements are being signed with violent minorities that would be inconceivable in peace times. The stakes are high for the vice-chancellors. If final examinations are disrupted, tens of thousands of students will not complete the year, many drop out, and few return for the gamble of non-disrupted examinations in January 2017.

There is another risk – the uncertainty and chaos that seems inevitable for new enrolments as matriculants wait to hear about their admission. It is extremely difficult for administration staff to manage all three classes of students simultaneously when campuses are shut for weeks at a time – the graduating students, the continuing students and the new, incoming students.

Think about some of the compromises just made. Students are writing in military bases like Youngsfield and Wingsfield in Cape Town. Limited examination venues are fortified by public policing and private security. Even then, buildings are set alight by violent agitators in the hope of ruining the examinations.

Here’s the difficulty – what are the educational implications of writing under such conditions? Can students really concentrate with all the drama outside? How does one write when you know others choose not to?

These are difficult questions and you do not need a psychologist to tell you that the mind and emotions are affected by writing under conditions of duress.

But there is another compromise made. “I am ashamed”, one of my friends at a major university tells me, “that some of my colleagues simply decided to drop the content for the four weeks we were closed.”

Think about this for a moment. Already universities struggle with curriculum coverage in a crowded curriculum when there are no disruptions.

But surely there are risks to the public when four weeks of training and education are lost?

Imagine a social worker or an optometrist or an urban planner or engineer losing that volume of skills and competency development.

Who are the professionals we are sending into practice in the future?

Four weeks might not sound like much but any university teacher will tell you that there are serious risks with such a blank sheet in knowledge acquisition. This is a very serious compromise.

We have also compromised on face-to-face teaching. The one unintended innovation of the closed-again, open-again academic year is that university teaching might have “flipped” in most university classrooms; that is, the ratio of face-to-face teaching to online instruction might change forever in favour of computer-assisted learning.

What was until now an innovation in some courses and classes might well become the new norm forced on universities by the recent crisis. It works; the violent minority need an audience for political attention and when you take that away from them – a live class to disrupt on social media – all they are left with is buildings, which is much easier to contain.

Don’t expect the violent minority to go easily – they will “boo-hoo” that “the poor” do not have access to computers. Having shut down and set fire to computer labs this group, with a straight face, now claim to speak for those without access to those same facilities.

No doubt university management will find a way around this problem, which is certainly not insurmountable in a time when the poorest student has a cell phone.

This shift of instruction in favour of online teaching with less frequent large-scale class time might not be a bad idea. Too often students lose focus and concentration in front-of-class teaching with more than 100 or even 200 in an introductory psychology or economics class.

On the other hand, there are certain professional courses in which students need to be present in classes or sessions to learn particular skills from basic surgery to interactive primary school teaching to architectural drawing; so there are limits to the flipped classroom.

Nonetheless, political necessity has become the mother of technological invention and students learning from home or their dorms might become the new normal.

The most important compromise, however, has not been in the hardware of technology but in the software of trust. University leaders have been pushed back, insulated, humiliated and demeaned by violent students.

The vice-chancellors have lost their confidence and trust in student leaders; the students have lost their respect and regard for university management. It is going to be very, very difficult to bridge that gap.

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