I hope all of you and your loved ones are well. I am writing to communicate the latest developments in our plans for the continuity of the academic year at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I would like to start by acknowledging the difficulties of balancing family and work responsibilities in the context of the lockdown. We are very grateful for your continued commitment and dedication.
The framework for remote teaching has been approved
In recent weeks the Teaching Online Task Team (TOTT) has been hard at work developing a framework for delivering remote teaching to our undergraduate students as well as an alternative academic calendar. They have liaised with the research portfolio to ensure that the needs of postgraduate students are also included in the revised calendar.
The faculties have played a key role in this process by providing the space for intense consultation with academic and administrative staff. In preparing both the framework and the calendar, we have been especially concerned about the needs of our most vulnerable students (those who have greater difficulty in participating in remote teaching) and the needs of the academic and professional staff who will deliver on this important requirement.
A final set of proposals was approved by the Senate Executive Committee (SEC) on Tuesday, 14 April, and the key points are summarised below. The framework for emergency remote teaching is rooted in UCT’s institutional approach to teaching. Inclusivity, a pedagogy of recognition, the engagement with privilege and with the relationship between knowledge and power – these principles frame the work we have been doing in teaching and learning, both before and during the current COVID-19 crisis.
We understand that each individual’s use of time and space is determined by the class needs, so from the very beginning we have focused on how to provide an equitable learning experience to all our students. We have taken particular care to prevent the remote teaching experience from reinforcing or increasing existing inequalities, by putting in place mechanisms to identify students who have technical difficulties for access and those whose social circumstances are not conducive to remote learning. All guidelines for curriculum development and design have these students in mind. Of special relevance are the decisions to make remote teaching asynchronous and to be informed by low-tech options, as well as the redesign of curriculum. We have also taken into account the limitation that students will only be able to engage in 30 hours per week of remote learning.
In the area of assessment, the most important decisions are:
All these decisions have taken into account the need to ensure the integrity, quality and standards of UCT degrees for our students, the general public and all relevant accreditation agencies.
In developing the framework for remote learning and the new calendar, we have been mindful of activities that cannot easily take place through remote teaching, like laboratory and field work, and public service, etc. The relevant departments and courses will prepare contingency plans on how best to deal with these outstanding work components. The new academic calendar builds in time for this purpose, but the specifics have to be managed at department level.
Of course, there are also entire courses that cannot be taught remotely, such as dance, music, fine art, theatre and languages. Special plans for these courses have been made in the new calendar to accommodate their needs for contact teaching.
The revised academic calendar is a moving target
The second quarter will start on 20 April with an Orientation Week lasting until 25 April. Classes will start online on 28 April.
While we are aiming to complete the 2020 academic calendar as close as possible to the normal year, we must also take into account the possibility of unforeseen further delays. We are dealing with a moving target that depends on the long-term national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the health and safety of UCT staff members and students.
The SEC has approved a calendar that assumes the need for remote teaching throughout the second and third quarters, with a return to contact teaching on campus in the fourth quarter. Undergraduate and postgraduate students who are registered for course work will be taught remotely.
The calendar has been organised assuming that as from 1 September we will be able to begin bringing students back. This may involve a staggered return, beginning with students in specific programmes that rely on face-to-face teaching. 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. Again, this plan is subject to change, and a return to campus may happen earlier or later, depending on national directives.
The new calendar provides for the following possible scenarios:
To help us provide access for as many students as possible, UCT used a survey to determine students’ available resources for remote learning, and developed the necessary analytics to monitor the level of student engagement down to course level. This will provide the basis for the provision of appropriate support.
Through the same survey, UCT identified students who need laptop computers and meet the criteria for receiving laptops on loan. We have acquired computers to be made available. Because of the importance of helping as many students as possible to continue their studies online, we have arranged for door-to-door delivery of the laptops to these needy undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Assisting students who do not have online access
We are investigating provisional plans to assist students who do not have online access. One possible proposal, which is still under development, is to deliver flash disks and printed materials to these students. Again, our aim is to ensure that as many students as possible can continue to learn while they are away from campus, using whatever materials we can make available to them. Of course, due to the logistics involved in delivering such materials, this plan would be limited to students within South Africa.
We are aware that even with all these plans to help students continue to pursue their study programmes, there are some who will not be able to study successfully until they return to campus. I remind you that we are making provision for students to catch up with their studies through blended learning (which combines online lectures and face-to-face tutorials) once the university is able to reopen.
None of these plans is ideal, of course, but they do provide a range of potential solutions to deal with the limitations that have been put on higher education around the world by this pandemic. The strengths UCT staff bring to this challenge are our adaptability, our capacity for innovation and creativity, as well as our commitment to our students – to name just a few. Over the years UCT has overcome other challenges to the academic project and I am fully confident in our ability to meet this new hazard with resilience and determination. I am proud of what I know you can do.
We will keep in communication as our plans unfolds. Thank you all for the hard work and long hours you have already invested into making this year a success.
Associate Professor Lis Lange
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching & Learning
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