Universities implement grand plans to rescue the 2020 academic calendar

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Online learning. (Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)
Online learning. (Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)

The first semester of the 2020 higher education calendar came to an unprecedented halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But several universities have implemented a range of contingency plans to ensure their academic programme continues online.

For the past few weeks, learning institutions have been conducting surveys and have been communicating with academic staff, telecommunication companies as well as government bodies to review challenges and offer solutions in efforts to rescue the 2020 academic year.

According to University of Cape Town (UCT) spokesperson Elijah Moholola, the university conducted a student access survey to ensure the remote teaching experience doesn’t reinforce or increase existing inequalities and to ensure there’s sufficient support for all students during this period.

“Of the 90,4% who had completed the survey by 15 April, 89,5% have access to a laptop/desktop, while 1,3% have no device. UCT has arranged for door-to-door delivery of the laptops to eligible students,” says Moholola.

“A further 91,4% had internet access. The university is investigating how it can further support the 8,6% of students without internet access, in addition to other measures already put in places, such as an agreement with Cell C and Telkom to zero-rate access to certain UCT websites.”

UCT and the University of Free State (UFS) are just some of the learning institutions that decided to commence with their online orientation this week.

UFS says its online transition and orientation period will continue until 30 April; while UCT has confirmed that its orientation will last only until 25 April, with classes expected to start online from 28 April.

UFS rector and vice-chancellor Professor Francis Petersen expands: “The online transition and orientation period will allow both staff and students to get acquainted with a new online learning environment; enable both staff and students to re-establish a new way of communication, relationships, and interaction to optimise learning and teaching; and provide the university with an opportunity to assess challenges in the move to online teaching, including determining the level of connectivity, access to devices and other challenges experienced by students, and to use this period to resolve these challenges.”

While UCT is aiming to complete the 2020 academic calendar as close as possible to the usual year, the university has also considered the possibility of unforeseen further delays.

UCT’s Senate Executive Committee has already approved a calendar that assumes the need for remote teaching throughout the second and third terms, with a return to contact teaching on campus in the fourth term.

“The current proposed calendar makes allowances for a summer term that will run into 2021, pushing the beginning of the new academic year to March 2021,” shares Moholola

Other universities including the University of Johannesburg, the University of the Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch University had their first official online classes on Monday morning.

In an unfortunate take-off to digital learning, Stellenbosch University encountered a bumpy start with its online journey throughout the day.

According to Stellenbosch’s spokesperson Martin Viljoen, an interactive website was launched in March that offered practical guidelines on all the essential online tools and relevant approaches that should’ve ensured that the day would run seamlessly. But the system had a much higher demand than anticipated for its first day, which unfortunately caused it to fail multiple times during the day.

“Much has been learnt from these teething problems and we’re full of confidence that the system has stabilised even further in order to provide students with the best possible chance of academic success under difficult circumstances,” Viljoen says.

The North West University (NWU) also faced some harsh criticism when it implemented the orientation programme for online learning on Friday last week.

After receiving several complaints and questions regarding connectivity and devices, as well as the potentially exclusive nature of the online learning, the NWU management has decided to prolong the orientation for online learning until 30 April.  

“The University will use the time to address our students’ specific needs – lack of access to devices, connectivity and electricity,” says NWU vice-chancellor and principal Professor Dan Kgwadi. “During this orientation period there’ll be no tests or assessments of whatever kind. We remain fully committed to continue with the implementation of alternative teaching and learning modes – online, distance learning, and winter and summer schools,” he says.

Sources: UCT, NWU, Wits, Stellenbosch University, UJ, UFS

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