MUT Focus Conference shines spotlight on the future of education

Dr Makua addressing the conference

When he advised people not to let ‘a good crisis go to waste’, the flamboyant British Prime Minister, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill may not have known he was ushering in a period when people would turn a crisis into an advantage. This is a running thread that informed the annual Focus Conference by the University’s Teaching and Learning Development Centre (TLDC). The three-day conference, which Dr Manyane Makua, the Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning said was more necessary than ever before, given the conditions under which Higher Education is labouring, interrogated the state of teaching and learning under the COVID-19 conditions.

Dr Makua, said the purpose of the 2021 Focus Conference was to create a platform for academics and researchers to share their teaching and learning, and research experiences, particularly in the last 23 months when the whole world has been reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Makua, whose substantial appointment is Senior Director: TLDC, said that “it’s even more important now in South Africa and the world in the middle of the pandemic.  We need to take advantage of the lessons we have learnt at this time from different contexts. These lessons will inform how academics plan their teaching and learning interventions going forward.” He said the interventions were in line with the theme of the conference, which was: ‘The future of Higher Education: where to from here?’

During the second day of the conference, while chairing a session, Dr Machingambi, from the University of Mpumalanga, stated that the higher education sector’s general view was that no student was to be left behind in all the decisions taken about teaching and learning. Dr Severino Machingambi noted that what universities have done was to reposition themselves during the pandemic, “so they remain relevant.”

Professor Maria Mabusela, from the University of Zululand, said that they had “challenges” at the beginning, but they were adjusting to the current circumstances. “We did a number of relevant training for staff, and bought modems for everyone involved. We also orientated all academic administrators, and upgraded our online software, and created e-curriculum, and converted face-to-face assessment to online assessment,” said Professor Mabusela.

She added that they also had “to sort out other things, to make sure our processes were streamlined,”

Dr Mmampho Gogela-Smith, from the Walter Sisulu University, also weighed in as to how her institution was supporting the students at this difficult time. She mentioned that some of the problems were because of the students’ lack of connectivity. “The Eastern Cape is largely rural; it is the poorest province in the country. This made the COVID-19 effect much worse. This placed pressure upon us. Our students came from poor schooling background,” said Dr Gogela-Smith.

Also, the load shedding that continues makes it impossible for students to charge their laptops. In some cases, students are disturbed by their siblings.

The three-day conference attracted more than 128 delegates.