As the University of Cape Town (UCT) enters the third week of emergency remote teaching and learning, the executive has committed to supporting both academics and students adapt to the new temporary learning methodology.
Formal online learning kicked off on Tuesday, 28 April after a week-long orientation session to help students familiarise themselves with the online learning environment.
While the new form of learning comes with a list of challenges, which includes “accentuating” inequality in South Africa, UCT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Teaching and Learning, Associate Professor Lis Lange reiterated that it was the only feasible alternative to salvage the academic year.
Lange was speaking at a special staff assembly on Thursday, 14 May. The virtual event was convened to communicate the university’s overarching response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to share the executive’s plans on a phased return to work at UCT.
“We are fully aware of the limitations of remote teaching and learning and the risks it poses.”
“We are fully aware of the limitations of remote teaching and learning and of the risks it poses pedagogically, politically and ethically,” she said.
“We have made this decision with our eyes wide open. We have taken the view that in order to implement remote teaching, we need to manage the risks it poses to UCT educationally, socially and organisationally.”
Establishing a Task Team
Lange said a Teaching Online Task Team has been set up to lead the remote online learning process and to further understand students’ needs.
The task team’s work kicked-off with a student survey to help them identify students’ readiness to proceed with online learning and determine their level of access to electronic devices, as well as data.
She said many decisions taken during this process, which included proving each student with a laptop computer and 40GB of data to continue their academic programmes, have been informed by this survey. For students living in remote parts of the country who are unable to access the internet, the university continues to distribute printed learning materials and USB drives to ensure they keep up with their courses.
“This survey has been very useful to understand the profile of our students and to plan better. It has provided the coherence we needed and set the foundation for our plans,” she said.
High level interventions
To ensure the ultimate success of remote teaching and learning and that staff and academics adjust, UCT has introduced several tools and interventions, Lange said.
She said the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), based in the Centre for Higher Education and Development (CHED), has guided academics on how to redesign their academic programmes by tailoring courses towards low-tech solutions compatible with no access to broad bandwidth.
To mitigate students’ anxieties, Lange said the university acknowledges that most students will only be able to learn remotely for 30 hours per week, and has adjusted the academic calendar to accommodate students’ needs.
“One of the academic risks of moving our courses into emergency remote teaching is keeping the integrity of our programmes and the value of our qualifications.”
Most courses will use a continuous assessment model and faculties will allow students to “carry lighter loads”. Academic exclusions will not take place either, she added.
“One of the academic risks of moving our courses into emergency remote teaching is keeping the integrity of our programmes and the value of our qualifications. At curricular level, we trust academics in content management,” Lange said.
Lange said she recognises that “the path we chose is not perfect”, and that despite the university’s best efforts, “catching all our students in the net of support we have developed” will not be possible. But the university is committed to doing everything it can “to deal with the current circumstances in a fair and supportive manner”.
She said the next three weeks will be critical to assess the progress of remote online teaching and the team will be able to identify the students who are managing and students who need additional support.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has jump started change that would have taken us a year of debate to implement. It has opened important areas of enquiry in terms of curriculum, inequality, pedagogy and technology,” she said.
“During the debate for and against online teaching was the need to make COVID-19 a teachable moment. I believe this is a worthwhile discussion.”
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COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March 2020 and to implement a national lockdown from 26 March 2020.
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