South Africa

Universities gear up to save the academic year

By Sandisiwe Shoba 17 April 2020

The University of Cape Town campus. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

Hope may not be lost for university students in an extremely uncertain academic year. Over and above the introduction of remote learning solutions, universities are scrapping formal exams, forgoing academic exclusions and loaning laptops to students in need. But many challenges still exist. 

Universities around South Africa are getting ready to resume the academic year next week. Only this time, students won’t be flooding back to campuses after a lengthy vacation. Instead, online teaching and learning has been touted as the top solution to save the academic year in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the extended lockdown period.

The University of Johannesburg, Stellenbosch University, Rhodes and Wits have confirmed that their second term will begin remotely on 20 April.

Although distance learning is nothing new, it is unprecedented at this scale and many are anxious about whether it will succeed or deepen existing inequalities to education access.

High data costs, connectivity issues, as well as access to laptops and other devices are just a few points of concern.

Survey results from Wits University found that 10% to 15% of their students do not have access to “appropriate computing devices, adequate access to data or conducive learning environments”.

The University of Cape Town is also conducting a student access survey to gauge which students need additional resources.

Wits and UCT are loaning laptops to students, based on financial need. Devices are being delivered to students where possible.

Rhodes University has reached out to its alumni, businesses and members of the public to contribute to a Covid-19 relief fund to purchase laptops.

But as Universities South Africa CEO Ahmed Bawa points out, some universities are better-resourced than others to offer digital learning.

“While all institutions have systems in place for blended learning, not all of them are at the same level of preparedness in terms of their technology and human capacity platforms,” he told Daily Maverick.

In late March, the Department of Higher Education, Science and Technology had said it was offering immediate assistance to tertiary institutions that don’t have the capability to provide online teaching.

At the time of publication, the department had not responded to queries regarding how many institutions were receiving assistance and what type of interventions were being offered.

Wits, UCT and Stellenbosch, turned to the private sector for assistance. To work around data costs, they struck deals with the four major mobile network providers for free access to their online platforms.

These include student portals, library services and lecture streaming sites such as Opencast.

Some institutions have also scrapped formal invigilated exams and instead, students will undergo continuous assessment throughout the semester in the form of assignments and online tests.

Stellenbosch has waived prerequisite module requirements for Semester 2 courses, while UCT has decided that there will be no academic exclusions during 2020.

One major hurdle, however, is that the practical or fieldwork component of some courses will have to be done once the situation has settled down. Universities have restructured their academic calendars to accommodate this, but realistically, no one knows how soon the pandemic will subside.

According to Bawa, depending on the timeline of the pandemic, the academic year may run into “late December” or even the “first part of 2021”. Some disciplines, such as the arts, are almost completely reliant on contact teaching and assessment.

 

Mental health is also an issue of concern. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), in 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death among university students.

 

Universities are also offering blended learning solutions, once campuses reopen, for students who cannot access course material due to connectivity issues or the like. This will comprise online lectures and face-to-face tutorials. Wits is also looking into delivering paper-based material to help these students.

Other challenges related to remote learning include whether or not a student’s home environment is conducive to studying: do they have a quiet place to study (especially given the lockdown), do they have access to electricity, do they have enough time for their studies or are they bound to household/family commitments, and is the family food secure?

But not all students are homebound during the lockdown. Some were unable to return home and are still staying in university residences.

Stellenbosch, for example, has 749 students in residences and 163 in private accommodation. Residences are using their “house funds” to help support these students, alongside donations for food packages.

Mental health is also an issue of concern. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), in 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death among university students. Now, with the pandemic in full force, many are already feeling anxious and stressed, and adding to this is the uncertainty of the new academic programme.

Universities are encouraging students to reach out for advice and counselling through their student wellness services which are now operating online.

Rhodes University’s psychology department has produced guidelines to help staff and students keep track of their emotional and mental health while members of their community are also providing fitness classes, and group support sessions online.

Across the board, students have been encouraged to connect with other students and “peer-learn”. This is over and above contacting lecturers and tutors for assistance with course material.

The Department of Higher Education Science and Technology had already ordered the closure of universities and TVET colleges from March 18. With contact teaching suspended, students were told to vacate residences and non-essential staff members were instructed to work from home. Meanwhile, graduation ceremonies, conferences and international travel had already been cancelled at many institutions.

Wits University, the University of Cape Town, and Stellenbsoch have all confirmed positive Covid-19 cases in their communities. DM

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