The following op-ed was published in Die Burger and Beeld on 29 April 2020. Click here for the online version (subscribers only), or read the translation below (time references adjusted).
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The dawn of a new era
Online teaching and learning holds significant benefits for both teachers and students, writes Prof Wim de Villiers*.
Recently, I addressed our students and staff – not at an on-campus mass assembly as we had done before, but through a video message I self-recorded in my home study [click here to watch].
This is but a small example of the radical changes brought about globally due to the impact of COVID-19 – a pandemic that has changed absolutely everything in no time at all, in many instances irrevocably.
Having faced and confronted many challenges over the years, universities are in no way immune to the crisis. In fact, we are doing everything we can to adjust, knowing that our future is at stake.
For now, all our goals are subsidiary to only two overall priorities: ensuring that students are able to complete the academic year, and that they still have a leading university to return to once we have come out the other side of COVID-19.
Due to the lockdown implemented in South Africa – and numerous other nations across the world – traditional face-to-face teaching is temporarily impossible. And yet we cannot afford to lose the academic year. That is why, at Stellenbosch University (SU), we decided early on in the crisis to switch to online teaching and learning as soon as we could.
The big moment arrived on Monday 20 April, when we started our second term of our first semester online – a historic event, which, admittedly, did not go off without a hitch. The overwhelming initial demand proved too much for SUNLearn, our e-learning platform. Fortunately, we were able to attend to this reasonably quickly.
Switching to fully online learning is an interim emergency measure. We will be resuming contact teaching once the national lockdown has been lifted. This, however, does not mean that we will simply return to business as usual when the current crisis is over.
E-learning is here to stay – in whatever form: from doing everything fully online, to combining online and contact teaching (“hybrid learning") and utilising e-learning in the classroom (“blended learning").
The reasons for this are simple. On the one hand, it broadens access to knowledge and development. Many more people can be accommodated online than in lecture halls. On the other hand, it also enriches the learning and teaching experience. Students are able to revisit recordings of lectures when preparing for tests and exams, and tricky concepts can be illustrated and explained with videos and animation.
So, transitioning to e-learning is extremely exciting, but – I must admit – also a little scary. (I am speaking from experience, having had to prepare to present online lectures in gastroenterology to second-year MBChB students in our Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.) There is new technology to master, new skills to learn and, in many ways, a whole new mindset to adopt.
Until very recently, we were still in class together, meeting in person to teach and learn, exploring interesting topics, challenging one another, discovering knowledge and growing together.
Now we have to do all of that virtually, online from home through our computers or smartphones. We will miss the face-to-face contact, this I realise. And, of course, there will be challenges. Both lecturers and students will experience difficulties, especially in the beginning stages. But I am convinced that we can do this.
At SU, we have a number of factors that count in our favour. Firstly, we are not completely new to e-learning. We have been steadily increasing our e-learning offering for a number of years. In fact, before the coronavirus crisis, this was one of the priorities for my second term of office, which commenced in April. Now, COVID-19 has simply hit the fast-forward button.
We are fortunate to be able to rely on the systems and internal expertise we have developed in recent years. I am extremely grateful towards our staff who worked tirelessly during the recess to prepare as best we can to try to ensure that not one student drops out and stays behind.
We have, among others, created special webpages for online learning and teaching support on the University's website, containing a wealth of useful information and handy tips. And communication channels have been established to offer lecturers and students the assistance they need. Online learning will demand dedication, focus and independent work of our students. We encourage them to seek support whenever they need it.
The second factor that counts in SU's favour is that we are pulling out all the stops to enable as many students as possible to complete the academic year successfully. We conducted surveys to gauge whether our staff and students were ready and equipped for online learning and teaching.
To enable access for students who lack the required technology, we procured 1 500 laptops, which are being made available to those who need them. We also managed to get the necessary approval to have these delivered to students during lockdown. Cellphone networks agreed to provide students with zero-rated access to our online platform SUNLearn. And, to start with, we will also be giving each student 30 GB of data for the next month, which will be revised as needed.
Furthermore, we have amended our academic calendar for the rest of the year. Holidays will be shorter, classes will run much later into the year, there will be opportunity for students to catch up on lost time once contact teaching resumes, and we are also planning an examination opportunity in January.
Let me name one last factor in our favour, namely our solid foundation of academic excellence. SU has a quality programme mix that is regularly subjected to robust external accreditation. We also have a long-standing track record of high student throughput rates. And we have talented and dedicated staff, who jealously guard our reputation as a top-rated research-intensive university, now operating in cyberspace.
I am immensely impressed with the way in which the SU community have been putting shoulder to the wheel. As a matter of fact, from a research perspective, we are very well equipped to help address the pandemic thanks to our extensive experience in studying HIV and tuberculosis (TB). For instance, the SU-based South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA) is closely involved in dealing with the coronavirus disease in our country, drawing from their years of experience in researching HIV, TB and malaria.
In addition, the social impact of COVID-19 offers vast opportunity for research, including studies into political issues, ethical questions, etc. I expect a good many research papers and theses still to emanate from this pandemic in years to come – particularly applied, relevant research to help us through the crisis.
I am excited about online teaching and learning, as it offers us a good opportunity to board the plane to the future. Knowing that construction and fine-tuning to this plane will be continuing even after take-off is enough to make one's stomach turn. Yet looking out the window and seeing where we are heading inspires one with courage.
I know we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances, which are necessitating adjustments that are not always easy. We have never been through anything like this before, but experience has taught us that a lot is possible if we work together.
While we may be in lockdown, our potential certainly is not. In fact, the current crisis has unlocked important opportunities for us all. All we have to do is to seize them.
* Prof Wim de Villiers, a gastroenterologist, is the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, and vice-chair of Universities South Africa, the body representing the country's 26 public universities.