How UJ steered the academic year through lockdown and online education
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed almost every facet of our society, not least the way universities operate. Responses had to be fast, adaptive and innovative. This is how the University of Johannesburg responded.
In times of normalcy, at this time as the year winds down, most students across universities would have been sitting for their final examinations. However, due to the national lockdown necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the picture is different. Extended academic programmes, with variances across universities, are the reality.
It was over seven months ago, on Sunday, 15 March 2020, when President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the national state of disaster. Given what we had observed in Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world, universities recognised that they were entering a period that could have been potentially catastrophic for the academic year. During the same month, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) had received international delegations from China, Germany, and other parts of the world. At the time, as is normal for universities, some staff members and students were overseas. There were several uncertainties, and the threats loomed large.
With less than eight weeks of the academic year completed, and the lockdowns coinciding with the period when the university was heading into the autumn recess, the odds seemed heavily stacked against the university, more so when UJ has many first-generation and international students, many of whom live in university-owned student residences or private accommodation. For many of them, returning home was simply not an option. Physical distancing was required, but more than ever before, social solidarity was needed. The question of whether to order the students out of campus residences or not became a conundrum. Some universities had sent their students packing. A decision needed to be taken. Fast.
Whatever the decision, the safety and wellbeing of our students took priority over other considerations. Management decided to allow students to remain in residences, if they wished to do so. Yet, this was not a decision taken lightly, as we realised the responsibility for the students who opted to remain in residences lay with the university. In hindsight, the decision to keep our residences open was the correct one. With appropriate measures and controls, the university was able to ensure that none of its students who remained in residences contracted the virus.
Beyond the safety issues, ensuring continuity of the academic programme mattered. The university, in its quest for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) had already developed an approach to blended learning. Even so, many students accessed the online provision from campus or residences associated with the university system. Our goal was that the academic year must not be lost and that, in our approach, no student should be left behind. As South Africa’s reality is one of inequality, it was vital that we recognise our vulnerabilities. More than ever before we required innovation and collaboration. In this regard, our teaching, research, internationalisation strategy and trajectory proved indispensable.
We explored various options, including zero-rating of websites, as well as the means of data accessibility. Data accessibility, however, required connectedness, which varies unevenly and patchily throughout South Africa. Questions had to be asked: how do we zero-rate, who pays, and could bargaining be collective? The government regulations, through gazette provisions, were issued.
At the time, the universities, through Universities South Africa and the Department of Higher Education and Training intensified cooperation and collaboration. However, practical implementation was another matter. In a context of increasing financial uncertainty, new and rising Covid-related costs, a second significant and uncompromising decision that the university management took was to connect students and staff with access to data, among others by providing laptops to our most vulnerable students. The exercise in bridging the digital divide would prove costly but beneficial to the students and save the academic year.
It is worth noting that blended and online education are two different implementation concepts. Not all of our modules could move fully online instantly. Even so, online education and pedagogy associated with mobile learning differ. People engage with mobile devices differently. For example, engagement with mobile devices typically has a shorter time duration. It would be impossible for all of these changes to be effected simultaneously.
As a first step, the university resorted to an analogous approach with the classroom model, gradually adding numerous teaching innovations. To facilitate the move to emergency remote learning, the university introduced online student orientation during an extended autumn break. The following week, classes across the university system would resume online.
Breaking many hierarchies typical to academia, staff got together online and developed an integrated online education approach. The integration was necessary, as was the collaboration. With the many logistical aspects for remote teaching still converging, some students could only access online information through WhatsApp. A confluence of technologies had to be stitched together, allowing for access. While we were initially unsure of the effectiveness of online education, access variations by our students were impressive.
For many of our students, a discontinued academic year was not an option. As one student jokingly tweeted, lockdown was also meant for the clubs, bars, and other places of distraction – the closure of these avenues allowed for more time to focus. The university took a gradual and considered approach to online education, taking into account the contextual issues.
But then there was another challenge to deal with. Following the Workers’ Day weekend in South Africa, assessments had to resume. The mindset for traditional assessment had to be changed, the culture of academic integrity had to be deepened, and simultaneously, project-based assessment needed to be expanded, while internships that could be continued online required to be kept as such. All of these highlighted the multiple adaptations that were needed, given the mediation of assessment via technologies. More than ever before, 4IR was required, including for learning analytics and geo-location. This fed into interim policy direction that was developing (we are simultaneously learning and implementing).
At the same time, amid this, learning regarding Covid-19 continues. There is now a greater understanding of the importance of wearing face masks, somewhat ahead of the World Health Organisation, as highlighted in an article published on this media platform (airborne probability of SARS-CoV-2.) It was also vital to take a multi-pronged approach to health, safety and communication. For our clinics, we used 3D printers to develop face shields, which are additional protection to the face masks. For clinic staff, our collaborators from China assisted; we received K95 face masks. At the time, South Africa was running out of sanitisers, and we started an initiative to produce sanitisers in-house.
In parallel to all of this, South Africa introduced the concept of Covid-19 alert levels. While initially sceptical about the approach, the phases helped. It allowed the health system to understand the nature and impact locally. Still, at the same time, it accorded some time to appropriately reintegrate students, especially our most vulnerable students, and remain online in our approach to teaching and learning. We had to be innovative; several of our laboratory work sessions found online emulation alternatives. Where this was impossible, we had to move the laboratory work to a later part of the year. The readjustments to the curriculum were made in the hope that there would be an alert level, with relevant health protocol and measures, which would allow for full reintegration of all our students and staff. Fortunately, we find ourselves at this alert level now.
Along this line, university staff took extraordinary steps to ensure online education continuity. As some data was made available through a “night owl” provision, which means between midnight and 05h00, some lecturers provided education and much-needed support during these midnight hours. The university tutors became “e-tutors” overnight, providing invaluable support to our students. It was an extraordinary journey of collaboration between staff and students to ensure our academic project remained on track and our year would be a resounding success under the most difficult of circumstances.
As the first semester concluded, we found the module success rate had improved relative to previous years and, contrary to our speculation, the drop-out rate for students was no higher than in previous years.
In reflection of World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2020, there was a confluence of factors that heightened the psychosocial wellbeing of our staff and students. Like others in South Africa, some were exposed to the significant increase in gender-based violence. Remaining in solidarity with vulnerable students, ensuring various support avenues, became a priority with a heightened online service responding to the curtailment of movement, but enabling access to vital services. The alert levels changed, and gradually 33% to 66% of our students could return to residences. This changed data and device connectivity, and online education delivery continued to improve.
Amid all this, a range of peer-reviewed research and articles – enabled by the scholarship of teaching and learning – led to innovation bids, among others for a significant ventilator initiative. These innovations should be retained beyond what would constitute the Covid-19 period.
“Beyond” is metaphorical; it represents co-existence with Covid-19 as one possibility, but whatever the scenarios, Covid-19 has made adaptability a norm, technology an inescapable reality and renewed our quest for inclusivity with success.
There is, of course, the darker side of all this – increased cybersecurity attacks, economic downturn, social unrest, etc. Yet, we remain confident that innovative thinking, and 4IR, will bring about a renaissance that will enable our youth differently. It is through our enterprising graduates, through social solidarity and care, through a quest for education that is beyond excellence, and a consciousness of the need for social justice, that we seek to heighten our socioeconomic impact and aspire towards a transdisciplinary world. DM
Prof Angina Parekh is a clinical psychologist and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
Prof Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, UJ.
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