Change the world


2020 will go down in higher education history as a time when we created pathways while walking.

After Covid-19 reached our shores, affecting advanced planning at schools and universities countrywide, Nelson Mandela University’s response was rooted in a human-centred, student-centric approach.

When students were sent home in March and the hard lockdown started, we had to find a way to get them learning wherever they were.

Remote studying is a pipe dream for thousands of people living in townships, informal settlements and rural areas, where online access and a private space are big asks. Yet, this was our only option. We had to do something — and learnt much during the process.

Brave new world

The university’s goal was to #SaveLives while completing the academic year.

Our first task was to walk an uncharted road together as a university community, using a set of principles to guide us.

These included being agile and adaptable, sensitive to the differing contexts and needs of our diverse student body, and guided by our values of excellence, integrity, social justice and equality.

Psychosocial support — both virtually and in person — and general support for online learning were also vital.

What we (and the world) soon realised was that trying to do detailed mapping of the journey ahead was impossible. Who knew what the pandemic had in store?

This birthed an evolving, staggered, innovative approach to learning and teaching (LT).

We went with the flow.

Addressing the digital divide

NMU’s commitment to social justice and equality fuelled the unique academic protocol created during Covid-19.

We crafted multiple, blended learning pathways, offering various combinations of online LT and contact and experiential learning, all geared to cater for individual needs and circumstances within programme requirements.

More than a third of our students did not have devices. So, we threw published dates out of the window and staggered a semester restart.

Students with devices started first, followed in July by those to whom we had given loan devices and study packs.

As lockdown levels changed, 53% of our students who could return to campus did so — including vulnerable groups who could not work remotely, final-year students requiring lab and studio work and health science students. Staff and students had to think on their feet.

Our original schedule wasn’t long enough, so we stretched the time for learning, teaching and assessment.

This meant pushing forward the end of the academic year to February 2021. No problem! Being flexible and adaptable were necessary takeaways from this tumultuous period, and time frames were adjustable.

No student left behind

In July, we estimated that 10% (3,000) of our students were “silent”. Committed to helping them complete the year, we went in search of this missing group.

Contact details were a challenge with some. We used electronic and social media platforms, asking students to update their details, contact lecturers and accept invitations to return to campus — but only 80% took up the offer.

We persisted — student leaders, classmates, administrative staff and lecturers refused to give up. As a result, less than 2% of our students did not restart their learning.

Problem, reaction, solution

Bringing back students as infection rates were surging required some complex planning. Academic activities needed to take place in pandemic-compliant venues, with masks, sanitising and social distancing.

A team approach was critical to success while we jumped through hoops to keep academics going — our flexible, blended learning approach paid off, with content taught online, while lab and studio work, clinical training and some exams and tests took place on campus.

Our “go with the flow” attitude had unexpected benefits, too. Scaling back on mask-tomask work, for example, resulted in several innovative online simulations and work-integrated learning approaches.

We’ll continue with some of these long after the pandemic has passed.

Plotting the future

With cluster outbreaks of the virus in October and November, rolling groups of students and residences were placed in quarantine.

In the process, we learnt a great deal about managing both health requirements and academic activities to keep the completion of the academic year on track.

This learning curve included developing new and more effective procedures for managing quarantine on campus, providing additional support for quarantined students, identifying where Wi-Fi coverage was insufficient and students who needed devices or laptops in their rooms, as well as a continued tweaking of our staggered learning and teaching approach.

This year shaped our learning and teaching approach, which is evolving into a highquality, human-centred, hybrid one with a greater balance between contact and online.

What have we learnt from this? That we can do anything with sufficient commitment, grit, determination and teamwork — and that all it takes is one firm step towards embracing change.

As we settle into the new academic year, the 2020 one will go down in history not only as one that built character and shaped the future of the university.

It was also one of our most successful years as the success rate achieved was above 80% and 7,052 students graduated last month.

We applaud our students and staff for this exceptional achievement.

This article  appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 4 Jun 2021 written by Professor Cheryl Foxcroft is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching, at Mandela University

Contact information
Prof Cheryl Foxcroft
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning & Teaching
Tel: +27 41 504 2332