With the lockdown in South Africa extended for a few more weeks and freedom of movement suspended indefinitely, many educational institutions are anxious at the prospect of losing the 2020 academic year.
In attempt to manage this risk, the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg is introducing an emergency remote online learning contingency plan. This initiative is an attempt to power through the academic curriculum and restore a sense of somewhat normalcy to campus operations despite the extraordinary circumstances.
To this end, Wits will be re-opening online on 20 April for the second semester. The university has ensured that they are acutely aware of the anxiety and uncertainty that this mode of learning presents for both academics and students. However, they have made clear that this is not a permanent transition. “The University is not transitioning to a permanent online modality for all courses, nor are we becoming a correspondence institution. We are instituting an emergency remote teaching and learning programme as one measure that will help us to minimise the time lost in the academic project,” they said in a statement.
In addition, Wits has carried out extensive research to determine how students will be affected by this implementation. In their findings, they noted that between 10% and 15% of students do not have access to appropriate computing devices, adequate access to data or conducive learning environments. To accommodate for these discrepancies and ensure that all students have an equal opportunity for success through virtual learning, the university has put in place a number of measures.
Firstly, the university has established a Mobile Computing Bank (MCB). This will enable qualifying students who do not have access to appropriate mobile learning devices, to loan basic devices from the MCB. These devices will be suitable for educational purposes and will be pre-loaded with the required learning material before they are delivered via the South African Post Office to students in need.
In addition, the university has come to an agreement with four main telecommunications service providers in South Africa, mainly Telkom, MTN, Vodacom and Cell C to zero-rate the access of Wits library and management sites for this online learning period. They are also working on an agreement with these service providers to ensure that other products and sites like Microsoft Teams and Zoom are either zero-rated or reverse billed to the University.
In the event that students do not have access to any device or data, other options are being explored. Among them, is the possibility of using the South African Post Office to deliver paper-based material to students.
The university is keenly aware of the challenges this solution brings and aims to implement every avenue of support possible to make it easy for students, particularly those who may have difficulty transitioning to online learning. Their other strategies include extending face-to-face lectures through the September and December vacation breaks for some cohorts, and extending the academic programme into 2021.
Meanwhile, other universities around the country are also adopting a similar stance. The University of the Western Cape in Cape Town has also announced their plan to resume learning through online channels. However, historically an institution that opened doors for all including previously disadvantaged communities, the university has a responsibility to assist all of its students who come from different backgrounds. Approximately 30% of the student body does not have any access to devices or data when in lockdown at home.
Thus the university is appealing to the public to donate funds, data, laptops and/or other devices to ensure that no student gets left behind and they can implement their flexi-online learning approach. Individuals as well as corporates are encouraged to donate.
The University of Cape Town (UCT) has also called for the continuation of remote self-study where possible, particularly with regards to postgraduate research. Additionally, they have also set up an online teaching curriculum and will utilise many of the same strategies that Wits has in place, such as zero-rated mobile data for university resources.
The solutions these universities are proposing are not concrete. They are ever changing in response to student and lecturer feedback, and require all parties of the institution to be understanding, adaptable and determined in order to get the best outcome possible for all.