Lockdown: Universities prepare to switch to online learning from Monday

As the country proactively fights the spread of Covid-19, some universities are hitting the ground rolling, moving to online learning from Monday in a bid to save the academic year. 

Among the institutions switching to remote online teaching and learning from Monday 20 April are University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), University of Johannesburg (UJ), University of Pretoria (UP), Stellenbosch University and University of Cape Town (UCT). 

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According to Wits, its academics have spent the past few weeks, while the country has been on lockdown, adapting the academic programme to shift to online learning through the institution's learning management systems. 

The university said it has also put additional measures in place to address the challenges faced by students, such as the lack of access to devices and data by students. A contingency plan includes providing students with laptops. 

It said surveys conducted across the institution have revealed that between 10% and 15% of Wits students do not have access to appropriate computing devices, adequate access to data or conducive learning environments.

This has resulted in the institution establishing a Mobile Computing Bank, which will enable qualifying students without access to appropriate mobile learning devices to loan basic devices from the bank.

'Anxiety and uncertainty'

The devices will be loaded with educational content and pre-loaded with the required learning resources before being delivered via the South African Post Office to students who need it.

"We are acutely aware of the anxiety and uncertainty that online teaching and learning presents for both our colleagues and students. The world as we know it is in flux, and it will take our collective courage, dexterity and commitment to fend off the effects of this pandemic and to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning," Wits Vice Chancellor and Principal Professor Adam Habib said in a statement.

The university said it has also finalised an agreement with telecommunications service providers - Telkom, MTN, Vodacom and Cell C - to zero-rate its library and learning management sites from 15 April.

"We understand that our emergency remote teaching and learning plan has to take into consideration the different learning environments of our students and their access to learning resources, appropriate devices and data," Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Ruksana Osman said.

UJ, on the other hand, says it has embarked on various initiatives to ensure that its students are equipped with the necessary tools. The institution is also planning to resume online teaching and learning from Monday. 

The institution has ensured that infrastructure, learning resources and interactive systems are aligned to a mobile-rich educational environment, spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen said. 

Esterhuizen said students have been told that teaching and learning for the next term will be shifting to online. He added that UJ is also working closely with telecommunication service providers to zero-rate UJ websites to ensure students can continue learning.

UJ has since amended its programme, with the first semester now expected to end on 26 June and mid-year recess planned from 27 June to 12 July.

The second semester will then start on 20 July and supplementary assessments will take place on 13 to 16 July.

UP spokesperson Rikus Delport said, as the institution switches to online learning, its senior management launched a UP Solidarity Fund with contributions from executive and faculty budgets. It will be used to purchase laptops for students in dire need. 

He added the university is at an advanced stage of engagements with a broadcaster to see how it can make use of available channels for teaching and learning. 

Orientation for online learning

UCT says although some of its current teaching and learning plan may change, depending on the Covid-19 developments in the country, it plans to start its second term on Monday. 

The university will roll out an orientation programme from 20 to 24 April, which will focus on educating students on how to study online. The official start will then be 28 April and all students have been informed of the developments, spokesperson Elijah Moholola said.

Moholola said there will be no formal invigilated exams at the end of the semester, but instead assessments will continue.  

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"Students will not be expected to carry the same workload online that they would have had in face-to-face settings. Students will also not have to sit in front of their computers at the time of their lectures as these can be downloaded and listened to or watched anytime.

"For students whose courses require practical work or fieldwork, this part will be done on campus once the situation has stabilised," the spokesperson outlined.

The institution said it is also developing support for students in the form of tutors and consultation times with lecturers, using its online collaboration and learning system, Vula, WhatsApp and SMS. 

"In preparation to continue academic work in the context of Covid-19, the university implemented an urgent student access survey. The survey asks questions about the conditions in which students are now living and how this will affect their ability to study.

"These include access to Wi-Fi and the internet; access to a quiet place for dedicated study or research; the hours students expect to be able to study or do research, among others. The university has identified the few students who have not received laptops, and laptops will be distributed to them wherever they are." 

Categories

The institution added that due to cost and availability, it cannot distribute laptops to all students who don't have devices. It will be allocated to students in particular categories. 

Among the criteria to get a device is that the student must be an undergraduate and South African, and on financial aid or eligible for financial aid. Postgraduate students must also be South African and in need of financial aid or eligible for it.  

"These will be loan laptops - not a donation - and they must be returned to UCT at the end of the 2020 academic programme. These laptops will be issued to students at a cost of R4 150."   

The amount serves as a deposit, to be charged to the student's fee account. It will be reversed once the laptop is returned.


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