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Change the world

26/10/2021

The scale and speed at which the university sector has been required over 18 months to digitally transform to online and hybrid (a combination of online and face-to-face) models has triggered a seismic shift in higher education. 

Last year, Professor Cheryl Foxcroft, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC): Learning & Teaching, co-authored a column with  Dr Sam Bosire, our University’s Chief Information Officer, about how the need for rapid digital transformation in higher education has been given a shot in the arm by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Directly after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster due to the pandemic, our institution established the Corona Task Team (CTT), chaired by the DVC: People and Operations.

The CTT, comprising members from the academy led by the DVC Learning & Teaching, Student Life and Development, professional and support services staff, and union representatives, played a central coordinating role, bringing together groups from the entire spectrum of the University. Our ongoing and continuously upscaled shift to digital, online and automated platforms remain the core focus area for the CTT. This has transformed the role of the ICT division – from an enabler of academic and institutional planning in years gone by, to the heartbeat of our institution.

Full speed ahead

The CTT, which meets weekly, has become a critical forum for ICT to collaborate with university-wide colleagues in identifying the needs and challenges, tapping into the spirit of innovation, and coming up with transformational technology solutions. In the words of new world of work strategist Marianne Roux in her book, Adaptive HR – Impactful HR for the new and virtual world of work, this transformation requires “an exceptional ability to be on the balcony and dance floor at the same time.”

At Mandela University, the transformation has pursued the trajectory of digital transformation that we had already embarked on, but it was turbo-boosted in ways we could never have predicted. Our ICT team has been working round the clock in shifts, observing all COVID-19 protocols. It’s a defining moment and a very exciting time for technology as innovations are now being contributed by every function of the University. The traditional ICT delivery model is changing to one centred on co-creation of solutions. Collaboration with colleagues sharing with us what they have been able to do with the ICT tools and platforms is helping us to refine the system.

Staff had to quickly adapt to supporting delivery on virtual platforms and to make significant changes in traditional examinations and assessments. From the era of overhead projectors to real-time video and enriched, multimedia learning experience, the majority of our staff have admirably risen to the cause. The University developed a number of solutions as part of ensuring that remote work continued seamlessly. Development of online booking systems, the roll-out of new applications and introduction of the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system are some of the examples of digital platforms introduced during this period.

Student support

Addressing digital access disparities continues to receive priority attention. In terms of the digital divide – given the difficult socio-economic backgrounds of so many of our students – over the past year we have been working hard at closing the gap. We still face challenges of data and connectivity, which is a national imperative, but the fact that we achieved an 80% completion rate of the 2020 academic programme is a triumph. Our students were supported with devices, data and resources for online learning and research. Consequently, enhancing  digital literacy, which is now foundational and a desired graduate attribute, requires attention.

In 2020 the University facilitated the procurement and distribution of laptops to over 10 000 students, and every student receives 30GB of data per month – setting this up was one of the processes ICT needed to rapidly enable. A number of sites with learning information resources are zero rated. All campuses are WiFi zones and our students have access to computer labs. During 2020, students living in circumstances that are not conducive to learning were given the opportunity to return to campus.

Supporting staff and students working remotely requires an entirely new approach, to ensure that they are coping and productive and to teach our students all the methods of learning online – the pedagogy of online learning has become a key research field.

In many respects, the past year has served as a primer in the university’s digital transformation strategy. The lessons learnt have equipped us to plan longer term with a focus on improving the quality and predictability of our virtual offerings. The goal is to make the virtual experience as close as possible to the real contact experience.

Modernising spaces as part of creating a smart campus initiative is gaining momentum. A new paradigm in infrastructure planning integrates technology and the traditional bricks and mortar. The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has reviewed its infrastructure funding priorities and foregrounded digital transformation. The possibilities in redirecting new infrastructure funding are inspiring, including enriching and augmenting classroom experiences through the use of technology.

Silver linings

There are many positive spin-offs in the digital transformation journey. For example, our online student and staff recruiting strategies can now tap into talent everywhere, and we can grow and enhance our institution and extend the Mandela University name on a global scale at a rapid pace. Our research and engagement has also greatly benefited from the growth in national and international partnerships.  

As with many a good thing, digital transformation is a double-edged sword, as there are also serious challenges to be faced as we go along. For one, mitigating cyber security threats has assumed high priority to ensure that the information resources of the University and the user community are secure and protected.

In so many ways, this new digitalised world is evolving at an incredibly rapid rate and it is up to us to seize the opportunities, and make sure we keep riding and shaping the curve.

Regrettably, we are far from seeing the back of the pandemic and at the same time we are facing dire water shortages in the Nelson Mandela Metro, which is adding to the challenge. Fortunately, the agility and resilience with which the University has weathered many a storm will continue to stand us in good stead as we strategise and upscale future offerings and benchmark an enriched, fit for purpose digitalised experience.

* Heifetz and Linsky (2009) coined the phrase ‘Moving from the dance floor to the balcony’ as part of the development of adaptive leadership theory, based on their research conducted at Harvard University. Adaptive leadership theory is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organisations to adapt to changing environments and effectively respond to recurring problems. 

This article was written by Lubabalo Lokwe, Director: ICT Operations and Customer Services and Chris Wentworth, Director: Information Systems Development

Contact information
Ms Lyndall Sa Joe-Derrocks
Publications Practitioner
Tel: 27 41 504 2159
lyndall.sajoe@mandela.ac.za