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27 May 2020
The Coronavirus Crisis and the University of the Future – Join the Conversation!

(Published - 27 May 2020)

COVID-19  has captured the world’s attention like nothing else since the end of the Second World War, 75 years ago. The number this virus has infected and killed is shocking, as is the enormous economic and social disruption which has been caused by attempts to contain it. Many of our society’s great institutions, including universities, have been severely disrupted as we introduce new regulations and technology designed to minimise the spread of this disease.

But now as we move towards the half-year mark since this disease surfaced, it is certainly time for us to rethink our way forward. This is especially important in the higher education sector, where many institutions have had to try to react much faster than they have ever done before. 

Yuval Noah Harari, one of the world’s leading intellectuals, commented: “In my university, they have been discussing doing some courses online for 20 years now, and they never did anything. And now, in one week, they move the entire university online because they had to.”

It is difficult to know what he may have meant by “move the entire university online”, but there are a number of universities that I am aware of which interrupted their teaching programmes for a few weeks and then re-launched with all tuition being offered over the Internet. This redesign of delivery has come as quite a shock for some students and faculty.

This type of change, performed at breakneck speed, illustrates the desperate need universities have for continuity and security. It was – and still is – unthinkable that universities would close their doors in the same way as many primary and secondary schools have done. The continued process of the education of our youth is of primary importance to everyone in society. But it became clear that it is impossible to pack large lecture theatres full of students. Something had to be done.

As a reaction to the crisis triggered by COVID-19, some universities have galloped towards solutions without necessarily reflecting on the consequences. Now it is time to pause to create an opportunity for a truly open conversation about where society should go from here.

There are actually many options, and to rush to create, for example, an online university, may not be the best solution to the crisis. For any course of action to succeed, both the designers of strategy and the implementers – as well as those who are directly affected by it – need to share their understanding of the issues.

To facilitate this sharing, a Knowledge Café - an online Zoom video conference - will be held for members of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on 2 June 2020. 

Gathering At The Knowledge Café

It is surprisingly difficult to have open conversations – especially on subjects which can so profoundly affect careers, lifestyles and beliefs. Some people have points of view which they find difficult not to force on others. Others are reluctant to express their feelings and opinions, as they feel that speaking openly might in some way compromise them. But sharing understanding is truly important – especially now, as universities need to pull together in the same direction. This is where the Knowledge Café comes into its own.

Originally an American idea based on the belief that useful ideas are generated during informal conversations, the Knowledge Café brings together people who have a genuine interest in furthering their understanding of a subject or an issue, and are prepared to do so by listening to others. Thus a Knowledge Café is an event designed to allow participants to engage in an open conversation which will throw more light on the issue being discussed. 

A Knowledge Café is specifically not a debate; everyone who participates in it is given a voice. In fact, the spirit of a Knowledge Café is best summarised by the slogan, “Listen Before You Speak”. And of course, the Knowledge Café not only promotes understanding of different points of view, but it also often raises issues with which the participants are unfamiliar.

Knowledge Cafés can also be networking events where participants introduce themselves to others who share similar concerns.

If you’re a member of the UWC community, and you’re interested in helping chart a way forward for the University – and for all universities – I invite you to bring your best ideas, and to be prepared to listen, learn and engage.

Remember: Education is the most effective way of improving not just individuals’ lives and opportunities, but also of producing the leaders who will help humanity face and overcome crises like this one in the future, and build a better life for all.

Online Knowledge Café: In the light of the current Coronavirus Crisis, how will academe develop in future?
Date:  June 2
Time: 14:00 – 16:00
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Professor Dan Remenyi is an Extraordinary Professor in the Department of Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape. With over 30 years of full-time engagement in academe, Remenyi has a strong interest in helping research degree candidates complete their masters or doctoral degrees. He is the Co-Editor and contributor to the newly published book, The University of the Future, ISBN: 978-1-912764-51-8, and is working on a book on the impacts, challenges and opportunities of COVID-19 for the higher education sector.