TLC2020: rethinking the purpose of education

29 September 2020 | Story Penny Haw. Photo Supplied. Read time 6 min.
Associate Professor Bali led the keynote workshop on the final day of UCT’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference.
Associate Professor Bali led the keynote workshop on the final day of UCT’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference.

One of the consequences of COVID-19 is that academics have been compelled to take a fresh look at the attributes and purpose of university education. This was recognised by Maha Bali, an associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, as an effective launchpad from which to assess and evaluate the future of universities.

Associate Professor Bali led the keynote workshop on the final day of the annual Teaching and Learning Conference organised by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT). The conference was held virtually this year from 18 to 23 September. Under the umbrella theme of Shifting Academic Identities, the conference drew 43 diverse proposals from across the university, including some from students.

Bali, who has a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, and is the co-founder of Virtually Connecting (which challenges academic gatekeeping at conferences) and the co-facilitator of open learning curriculum Equity Unbound, is an authority on social justice, critical pedagogy, and open and online education.

Her workshop was titled “Shifts in academic practices as we rethink the purpose of education”.

The approach

Using the meeting and conversation facilitation rules of the Liberating Structures Purpose-to-Practice microstructures, the discussion phase of the two-hour workshop began with three volunteers discussing a point in ‘fishbowl’ style, that is, as a demonstration while the others watched. After that, participants were divided into small groups for collaborative problem posing and solving. Notes were taken and then collated in Google Docs for all to see.

Liberating Structures, which is defined as “a disruptive innovation that can replace more controlling or constraining approaches”, was developed by Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz of the Plexus Institute to foster lively, creative participation in groups of any size.

“As a facilitator, I value processes such as those in the Liberating Structures microstructures, which enhance dialogue and conversations, help unleash the creativity and brilliance of everyone in the room, and ensure that all voices can be heard,” said Bali.

Challenging the status quo

Based on the things that have been gained and lost at universities during a time when it has not been possible to meet in the same physical space, and on things that need prioritising, but have been overlooked by institutions, Bali encouraged delegates to interrogate the status quo. The idea was to examine how the roles of academics and educators have changed, and discuss how new perceptions and beliefs about the purpose of university education will influence critical values and principles.

Participants also looked at how structures and practices will evolve to facilitate this purpose.

“The objective is to explore how the pandemic has influenced beliefs about the purpose of university education and key principles it should embody and promote, followed by steps towards sharing and creating practices that will assist academics to meet that rethought purpose,” said Bali.


The first point examined was the purpose of rethinking education in the wake of COVID-19. Bali asked participants to consider independently, and then in groups, why this was important to educators, academics, administrators and the larger community.

One group summed up the purpose as follows: “We need to work at opening up the online space for all learners and educators in ways that are fair and equitable in order to provide participants with the competence, skills, attitudes and behaviours to contribute to improving society.”

In keeping with the Purpose-to-Practice process, the second point looked at the principles involved and asked what rules needed to be adhered to, to achieve the purpose. Participants then discussed who should be involved in the process and what structures (both macro and micro) and practices are required to achieve the purpose and goals set out.


“There was a conversation about how COVID-19 has taught educators and administrators to look at students as ‘whole beings’. ”

The discussion touched on issues around the need to expand spaces for more equitable and diverse learning. It also brought to the fore the importance of achieving social justice by removing barriers to entry to universities of the future.

In addition, there was a conversation about how COVID-19 has taught educators and administrators to look at students as ‘whole beings’, who are not only dealing with the challenges of learning, but who also undertake roles as parents, caregivers and breadwinners. This understanding could be helpful in developing more learner-centric practices.


The list of those who participants felt should ideally be involved in creating universities of the future included students, parents/guardians, staff (both academic and support staff), communities, government, investors, businesses, industries, alumni, NGOs and other academic institutions.

The practices proposed were as extensive and included points around the alignment with universities’ existing visions and missions, and achieving community-oriented education that is socially responsive, brings external voices into the institution and “gives space to the voices that are unheard/marginalised”.

Participants also proposed that universities of the future should be more flexible across other education platforms and look for ways of allowing students to accumulate credits and experience from other institutions and projects.

Another key point made by workshop participants was that COVID-19 has provided new insights into pedagogy, including questions around how teacher- and student-centric it is, and its value in terms of social justice.

According to several of the participants, COVID-19 has also provided an opportunity to interrogate how university education could further support social justice in economic, cultural and political ways.

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