The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Stellenbosch University (SU) to reinvent its methods of learning and teaching to enable students to complete the 2020 academic year successfully. While adapting to this new way of learning may have been frustrating for some, SU's Disability Unit used it as a golden opportunity to review their way of work and to identify gaps.
According to the head of the SU Disability Unit, Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas, the unit has continued to enhance and live out inclusivity amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. “This is also the current theme of SU's Year for Persons with Disability. Despite challenges, students with disabilities managed to access their academic work and continue their studies online.
“The pandemic gave us the chance to review what we are doing well and what the gaps are. We were also able to see what is reasonable for every student as everyone has different needs in conducting teaching, learning and assessments," says Lyner-Cleophas.
“Our way of accommodating students writing tests and examinations proved useful and effective. There wasn't a very big shift for academic staff. The students were given extra time for quizzes and other assessments. Staff were open and flexible about adapting assessments," she says.
The lockdown also contributed to enhancing a collaborative network between the Disability Unit, the Exams Office, lecturers, their administration staff, as well as students.
“Together, we could iron out most challenges in the online space. We also developed a teaching and learning document to guide staff with the inclusion of students with disabilities during online learning and assessments."
All staff at the Unit are set up adequately to continue working off-campus and online. They have the necessary hardware and software. Consultations between student and staff take place telephonically, via WhatsApp messages or calls, emails and online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
Most of the students with disabilities adapted to the online environment after initial hiccups and manage their time between their academic work and assessments fairly well, says Lyner-Cleophas. “It was more challenging for some students, but we managed to look at alternative ways for them to complete their studies like through course extensions."
In addition to providing student support, the Disability Unit is focused on activities related to the Year for Persons with Disabilities, an initiative that flows from SU's commitment to inclusivity and equality for every person with academic merits to be able to participate fully on equal grounds in the academic journey at the University.
“As far as we could, we moved physical activities into the online environment," she says. We have been publishing articles since February 2020 in collaboration with the African Network of Evidence to Action (AfriNEAD)* and the Transformation Office."
Further activities for this semester will include webinars with students and staff in September; virtual video workshops; the SA Sign Language Higher Education Code webinar in collaboration with the SU Language Centre; a Universal Access Campaign that will run into December 2020 and the Sign Language video series of eight sessions. The Sign Language series will be available online for staff and students.
AfriNEAD will also virtually host its sixth conference from 1–3 December, which would have physically taken place at Artscape in Cape Town this year. This event is the highlight of the year.
According to Prof Gubela Mji, Chairperson: AfriNEAD, the conference encapsulates the theme of the year but also brings together various role-players sharing research and reflecting on civil society and how policy is being translated into practice across Africa, fostering the inclusion of people with disabilities.
*AfriNEAD is a Pan-African network founded by the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies, in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at SU in 2007. The network promotes, facilitates and coordinates the implementation of disability research evidence into policy and practice through engaging persons with disabilities; researching through them, with them, not only about them; and, where possible, making them the lead researchers.
To read Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas' published opinion editorial about online learning, click here.
Some contact details:
email@example.com – for any disability-related query
Braille@sun.ac.za – for the conversion of classroom material into readable formats
firstname.lastname@example.org – for extra writing time queries
Wentzel Barnard – email@example.com – for any sports-related enquiry