Since 2009, the African Doctoral Academy (ADA) in SU International's Africa Centre for Scholarship (ACS) has been offering a suite of high-impact research design and methodology training programmes and academic preparedness workshops at its annual flagship doctoral summer and winter schools at Stellenbosch University (SU). More recently, it has expanded its offering with shorter-format workshops throughout the year, aimed at current and prospective doctoral candidates, doctoral supervisors and professional researchers.
In January 2020, before the South African lockdown was imposed, the ADA delivered a successful face-to-face summer school comprising 21 workshops for 370 participants. Plans were to offer an inaugural autumn school shortly thereafter, but by mid-March, government announced the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. The ADA autumn school was cancelled and all SU staff set up office at home.
The next few weeks were spent revising plans for the rest of 2020 and exploring the possibility of taking the ADA online. This took considerable effort, as any online offering had to live up to the ADA's reputation of delivering professional and high-impact programmes. Yet delegates remained eager to access our training opportunities, so consultations with presenters and support staff started in all earnest.
Venturing into cyberspace
Indeed, 2020 proved to be a year of exploration and rapid growth for the ADA: Our very first fully online winter school took place over the two weeks from 6 to 24 July during the SU recess period. While it was much smaller than our typical doctoral schools, comprising only six workshops and 176 delegates, we deliberately took a cautious approach to ease our way into the new delivery mode. Fortunately, all courses were fully subscribed.
Typically, candidates who attend the ADA schools predominantly come from Southern Africa, with some from the rest of the continent. For the in-person summer school in January, for example, the top feeder countries were Malawi, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. This, however, shifted with the introduction of the online delivery mode, with many of our international delegates tuning in for the online winter school from Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda. This was largely thanks to the scholarships that the ACS had awarded to three of its partners, the University of Lagos, Strathmore University and the University of Rwanda. Clearly, having an online offering enabled us to reach a wider audience. Other delegates were from institutions such as Kenyatta University (Kenya), Maastricht University (Netherlands), the United States International University – Africa (Kenya) and the University of Namibia, which created a rich mix of nationalities and views.
Following the success of the online winter school, another two events were hosted in cyberspace. A spring school comprising four workshops and 96 participants took place in the second half of September. This was followed by a hands-on two-course writing bootcamp with 20 participants at the end of October, with presenters from SU's Centre for Higher and Adult Education and the Division of Research Development.
A top priority was to optimise class sizes and timing. Classes needed to be small enough to allow for as much individual contact time with the lecturer as face-to-face classes, whether in the form of live synchronous lectures or question-and-answer sessions. Moreover, class sessions were supplemented with self-paced studying and individual or group exercises, which prevented fatigue in both delegates and presenters. In this regard, one delegate remarked: “The sessions were timed perfectly in terms of class sessions, group sessions and self-study."
Secondly, every effort was made to encourage dialogue and interaction through discussion forums on the teaching platform Microsoft Teams. While one would probably never be able to reproduce the interactivity experienced during ADA school functions and tea or lunch breaks, delegates did seem to derive some benefit from the interaction opportunities available. One commented: “I enjoyed the interaction with the programme organisers, the presenters and my fellow delegates. I have been able to connect virtually with people from other countries, and I hope these connections will be fruitful in the future."
Perhaps the most important lesson learned was the key role of a support team. This team quickly and efficiently supported delegates with their needs and enquiries. As technical difficulties were anticipated, having technical support on standby was crucial. The ADA schools coordinator, Ms Amalsha Galhenage, was central to these interactions with delegates and presenters, working behind the scenes to resolve technical and other issues. ADA intern Ms Tayla Minnaar assisted as a tutor and classroom facilitator, and formed a vital link between live classes and the ADA support team. And whilst the presenters were responsible for their course content, the ADA programme manager, Corina du Toit, was assisted by two experienced blended-learning coordinators (BLCs) to construct the courses online. The BLCs also assisted the course tutors during the synchronous class sessions. The value of this strong support network was clear from the following delegate feedback: “I prefer face-to-face learning, but the online ADA winter school was one workshop where I almost forgot I was having a virtual class. I liked the self-study; the voice recording prompting me to download all the materials before the course start date was good. The tutors had my back."
The ADA's newly acquired skills in the digital space also resulted in increased collaboration and sharing with colleagues and entities at SU. For instance, the ADA team assisted SU's School for Data Science and Computational Thinking with marketing and running their African Data Science Academy workshops. As part of the broader ACS team, we also supported the Centre for Collaboration in Africa's PeriPeriU network to host a workshop for the United Nations Development Programme, which helped expand capacity at SU International at the same time.
In addition, the ADA indirectly contributed to opportunities for SU International colleagues, including those who were planning on offering some of their own interventions online. Staff attended the ADA course “Teaching in the digital world: The use of blended active learning strategies" presented by SU's Centre for Learning Technologies along with the University of Leuven, which gave them an in-depth look into the online delivery mode. Ms Anisa Khan, manager of Global Partnerships and Internationalisation Support, explains: “The course gave me a 'deep dive' experience of what academics face when having to teach digitally. It also gave me a greater appreciation for the extent of adaptation and pre-planning required for learning design and curriculum renewal. This perspective is essential for me as an internationalisation practitioner, especially as I work to support the development of collaborative online international learning (COIL) programmes. With the insights from the course, I am now able to interact more meaningfully with academics to support them in our early efforts to develop more COIL projects at SU."
To collaborate with the ADA or find out more about its programmes, please contact programme manager Corina du Toit on email@example.com.
Click here for our current summer school programme, and here for a list of schools offered since 2010.
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The remote office setups of the ADA's programme manager and schools coordinator.
The support team of tutors and blended-learning coordinators, who proved to be an integral part of the 2020 online winter school.