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The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have created significant challenges for the higher education sector, and our universities and colleges are working hard on strategies and solutions to achieve the end goal of catching up and completing the 2020 academic year.

Students throughout SA and globally are expressing their growing anxiety about the extended lockdown.

To address this, universities worldwide have shifted to online learning and teaching, with platforms that previously supplemented face-to-face lectures becoming the main learning portal.

It’s only a partial solution for SA because, for example, at Nelson Mandela University, many of our students live in the townships, informal settlements and rural areas, where they do not have online access or a private space to study.

We estimate that about 55% of our students have laptops and connectivity, and a further 10% could learn via their smartphones.

This means about 35% of our students are not able to participate in digital learning and teaching off campus.

A one-size-fits-all approach, such as only adopting online learning to complete the first semester, would exclude many of our students.

Given our strong commitment to social justice and equality, this is not an acceptable option for us, hence we have developed two learning and teaching pathways — and variations of these — to enable our students to complete their first semester modules and the academic year.

The pathways range from digital to face-to-face interactions when classes resume, to a blended approach which are combinations of the two.

Navigating them will take collective, ongoing effort from the university to care for and support our students and staff.

We are in the preparation phase and the pathways will start on April 28.

A collective effort was required to design our pathway approach.

We have had many virtual discussions with the university management, executive deans and deputy deans, academics, the chief information officer, learning and teaching professionals, the executive of the student representative council (SRC) and students.

We also consulted colleagues at other universities in SA and internationally, and we studied many articles on teaching during times of disruption.

A summary of the pathway approach is as follows: Pathway 1 students (those with suitable devices — laptops and smartphones — and connectivity) will complete most of their learning digitally.

This makes it possible for Pathway 2 students to get greater access to intensive face-to-face teaching when students return to campus.

It also serves the purpose of reducing numbers in our venues for social and physical distancing purposes.

It is daunting to adapt to online learning and our Pathway 1 students will take a compulsory preparatory module on digital learning that our learning development staff worked around the clock to design over the past few weeks.

It includes helping students to adapt mindsets to learn effectively online and how to develop a schedule for themselves in the absence of a prescribed timetable.

For example, if students need to complete six modules and a test in a week, they need to plan how to achieve this.

They need to know how many hours they should spend on each module and how to organise their schedule.

Pathway 2 students will have preparatory sessions to enable them to reignite their learning when they return to campus.

Lecturers will stay in contact with students in both pathways during lockdown to encourage them, and address queries and concerns.

There will also be a hotline to call for all queries.

This will be particularly useful for students living in areas with limited or no telecommunication network coverage as lecturers will be unable to contact them via email, SMS or WhatsApp.

Keeping connected is so important during this time when many people feel isolated.

For students on both pathways, tutors, supplemental instruction leaders, academic advisers, student success coaches and counsellors will provide online and, when possible, face-to-face learning and psychosocial support to help students to adapt to new ways of learning and to succeed.

Lecturers are also anxious and stressed about facilitating learning digitally as it moves many of them out of their comfort zone of mainly using contact teaching. We are supporting our lecturers to teach and facilitate digital learning in a number of ways.

Our learning and teaching experience development teams and ICT services are working with them, and a range of resources have been made available, including the recently curated Online Teaching 101 Module on our university’s Moodle learning management system.

We are committed to walking this uncharted road together as a university community.

And, when we finally complete the 2020 academic year, we will pause to look back over the rocky terrain we have traversed.

We will see the courage, creativity, intelligence, agility and grit we mustered during and after lockdown to get to the end of our journey.

I know we will be amazed at the power of our collective effort as the staff and students of NMU to get the impossible done.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 29 April 2020, written by Professor Cheryl Foxcroft, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Learning and Leaching at Nelson Mandela University.


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