Dear undergraduate students
I hope you and your families are well. The orientation week held to help students adapt to the new learning environment started on Monday, 20 April, and it has been largely successful. This week we started the formal academic programme. I am writing to give you an update of what is happening on various fronts. Let’s start with the greatest source of anxiety. As you know, the distribution of loan laptops, the finalisation of arrangements with South African cellular network providers to zero-rate data on certain websites, and 30 GB data top-ups from the University of Cape Town (UCT) took longer than we expected.
Where is my laptop?
I have received many anxious emails from students who are worried that they have not received their laptops yet. Please don’t panic – we are still distributing them. Here is an update from UCT’s Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS):
“We are providing laptops on loan to eligible students on the basis of their responses to the student survey that was circulated at the beginning of April 2020. This process was necessary to ensure that as many students as possible would be able to participate in online learning when Term 2 began. It was partly funded by a R5 million donation from the Motsepe Foundation to the UCT COVID-19 emergency fund.
“A total of 2 327 students who completed the survey on access have been offered loan machines so far. Of these, 1 483 students accepted the offer under UCT’s terms and conditions for the loan and provided updated delivery addresses. (The terms include adding the cost of the laptop to the student’s fee account, which is reversed on return of the machine in good order.) A total of 492 students declined the offer of a loan laptop, while 352 students have not responded.
“Delivery of the loan laptops began on 22 April and is expected to be completed by 8 May at the latest.”
Deals to provide data bundles to all students for one month have been signed with the four major South African cellular network providers: Cell C, MTN, Telkom and Vodacom. These deals will be renewed on a monthly basis. The renewal date of each bundle will depend on the initial provision date.
All bundles consist of 20 GB “night-time” data along with “anytime” data totalling either 10 GB (for Cell C, MTN and Vodacom users) or 20 GB (for Telkom users). All of these bundles became active between 21 and 28 April.”
UCT has made an “opt out” option available to allow students who already have access to data to not only assist another student, but also to help the university to assess the need across the institution so we can plan more effectively for possible future needs.
The four major South African cellular network providers (Cell C, MTN, Telkom and Vodacom) have agreed to zero-rate certain important UCT sites and systems for their respective users, which means that they will not consume data from their data bundles. The list of zero-rated sites is different for each service provider. ICTS provides the full list of zero-rated sites offered by each cellular network provider, as well as the structure of data bundles available to students.
What happens if I am late for my course?
One of the anxieties you mentioned is that you are “late” to start your courses. Although I absolutely understand the feeling, technically speaking you are not late. This is because the offerings are asynchronous – the pre-recorded lectures and study materials are there in Vula for you to access when you are ready. You will not miss anything. All course conveners know that under these circumstances they have to be flexible in terms of submissions of work, continual assessment, etc. So, again, do not worry. Your situation will be taken into account for deadlines as far as possible.
Once you have your computer and data and you are ready to go, make sure you contact your lecturer or course convener to indicate that you have joined in, to ask for advice and to formally request an extension to submit your work, if you need one.
What if I cannot connect to UCT and my course Vula sites?
We are looking into the delivery of printed materials and USB drives for those students who cannot access the internet. This requires quite complex organisation. We will keep you posted on this. We are targeting 11 May to start the distribution of printed materials, based on the information we are gathering about your participation online.
Deadlines to drop courses
As you would have heard, we have moved the deadline to make changes in your curriculum (dropping of courses) from 8 May to 29 May. At the moment, this only means that the courses you drop will not be listed in your transcript as incomplete. We are studying the financial implications of dropping courses for the students and the university. We will keep you informed of these developments.
Other support to learn remotely
The next three weeks will be very important in terms of assessing how remote teaching is working, identifying problems you are facing and seeing how best we can solve them. There are still two important elements in our support to you that we are discussing and finalising.
If your Faculty has provided information on who to contact when you need help, make sure that you do that. In addition, the UCT Call Centre and Referral System (CARES) is a new support tool being developed by the Academic Advising Project, at the Centre for Higher Education Development, to provide students with a central connection to UCT’s greater support network. We recognise that it is not always easy to know where to go for the help you need. So, if you are not sure about where to get help, or just need general information, you can direct your query to firstname.lastname@example.org. From here student queries will either be responded to or referred to the relevant department or person for follow-up. We will soon be launching an SMS query line as well.
How are we doing?
The past few weeks have been very difficult and have caused anxiety for all of us. You may be at home and, at times, feel isolated, maybe without data or a laptop, or juggling family demands and responsibilities. Your teachers are planning and preparing for you (while being parents and teachers of their own children), trying things online – often for the first time. But now we are mostly on our way.
All the graphs of participation in Vula (based on this week) are showing good student presence in most faculties. We know who is not participating and, in most cases, why not because we have been able to follow up. We are doing as much as possible to respond to the specific problems you raise.
Last week I had a very useful engagement with your faculty councils, which helped me gather your concerns and hopefully respond to most of them.
So, this is all for now. Thank you to all of you for your engagement, your patience and your resilience. We will get through all of this together.
Until the next message, take care of yourselves.
Associate Professor Lis Lange
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching & Learning
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