With campus at a standstill since the COVID-19 pandemic hit South Africa more than two months ago, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Developer Student Club (DSC) has had to “shift gears” to keep up with the times and remain relevant to its more than 1 000 membership base.
Spearheaded by Google Developers, the DSC seeks to help students across the globe hone their developer skills and places special focus on web and mobile development. UCT’s DSC is one of just two clubs in South Africa and has been operating on campus since 2018.
“As much as university degrees in computer science, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors give students a great deal of theoretical background, they’re often out of touch with technologies used in industry,” said club lead, Jonathan Hart.
The club aims to change this and provides a space for students to upskill and create applications that will solve some of society’s most pressing challenges. The DSC’s big focus for 2020 was to start building projects that would do just that.
But “COVID-19 struck”, Hart said, and the club had to think of alternative and creative ways to remain relevant, while continuing to assist students.
Step one was setting up clear communication channels, which involved creating a special Vula information tab, a WhatsApp group, as well as establishing a social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
“Once we were up and running and had our ear to the ground, we started asking the important questions.”
“We set this up to engage better with our members, and once we were up and running and had our ear to the ground, we started asking the important questions,” he said.
Questions posed to their club community ranged from the type of events members were hoping to be a part of, how many members have reliable internet access and the type of project ideas they have in mind.
“These are questions we never really asked. But to survive this period we had to run the club virtually and that meant knowing exactly what people wanted. We’ve been very data-driven as a result.”
Google polls and surveys informed club decisions and indicated exactly what club members were most interested in. Subsequently, weekly virtual workshops became the norm and unpacked topics like web basics, design thinking, blockchain and, more recently, a three-day mobile app workshop.
“The feedback has been great. I am not exaggerating when I say that 80% of our members really love our response to this crisis, and the other 20% only love it,” he quipped.
Hart said club members have been “inspired” by the COVID-19 pandemic and have committed to assist wherever they can by using technology.
“There are many issues in society that aren’t being solved, perhaps because they don’t have the commercial edge to them, and our members are uniquely positioned to help solve these issues,” he said.
Currently, club members are involved in a range of projects. These include a student productivity app to help students plan their days and weeks during remote online teaching and learning.
“The club uses technology to build new technology; it’s a lovely process.”
“A lot of responsibility has been placed on students to keep a routine during online learning. Many of us aren’t great at that – me included.”
Other projects in the works include a reliable news platform that allows students to verify fake news related to COVID-19, often spread via social media; a degree-planning app that seeks to make choosing electives and sorting through academic handbooks easier; and a data-efficient e-learning platform to stream online lectures “way more efficiently” than Vula.
“All these [projects] could really help a lot of students,” Hart said.
“There’s a lot of ambition and innovation happening here and I am grateful that we are able to stay connected. The club uses technology to build new technology; it’s a lovely process.”
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