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Challenges of learning during a pandemic: Stellenbosch University is responsive to the needs of students

Stellenbosch University's response to the Covid-19 pandemic was as swift and pragmatic as possible, the writer says. (Photo: Flickr)

Daily Maverick published an article about the challenges of learning at universities during a global pandemic – from not having access to the technology they need to access resources, to mental health struggles sparked by loneliness. The specific struggles of Sehlomeng Sefali were included in the report. This is a response from Stellenbosch University.

Martin Viljoen is Manager: Media at Stellenbosch University

The article Students wrestle with online learning refers.

Stellenbosch University is very much aware of the plight of many of our students, such as Ms Sehlomeng Sefali, to study successfully during Covid-19 – and to have made the switch to online learning. This was of course a universal challenge for students the world over. 

Without any reference to Ms Sefali, the university does need to point out the following as an unintended perception could have been created that the university was in some way lacking in its support to students.

Here is how SU provided support.

SU’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was as swift and pragmatic as possible, despite the high levels of uncertainty all institutions of higher learning faced. For example, the loan laptop initiative commenced immediately during lockdown level 5. One should remember that the courier and computer companies also operated on skeleton staff, but the university ensured that all students were assisted to the best of our means.

Most students and staff found online learning and teaching challenging. It calls for a remarkably high level of motivation and resilience, whereas face-to-face learning (ideally) offers a supportive environment more conducive to learning – such as a dedicated, shared place and time with peers. The university is therefore continually striving to improve its design of hybrid courses incorporating as much in-person facilitation and interactivity in the virtual classroom as possible, and to retain a responsiveness to the unique contexts of our diverse students.

Students have indeed been given 30GB of data and for most students this seems to have been enough. What should be noted is that access to the university’s website and academic platforms was zero-rated or data-light.

Importantly, students were not “forced” out of their university accommodation. Students were able to stay behind in their residences (with SU being one of the few universities that allowed for this) and several hundred students stayed on campus over the initial lockdown period.

The university did not charge students accommodation fees for the times they were not in residence. Also, NSFAS students continued to receive their living allowances.

The university ensured that students continue to have access to a wide range of academic support services during the national lockdown periods. Our virtual platforms offer dedicated student support and learning material, tips for learning online, access to the Library and Information Service, and information about online connectivity and student administration, as well as virtual reading and writing support offered by the Language Centre.

The Centre for Student Counselling and Development offers individual and group therapy as well as social work and food security support to SU students. If any student needs assistance or to access services they can email the Centre and a counsellor, psychologist or social worker will then make contact with the student directly. DM

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