Change the world


In December 2019, news of a novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, began circulating. The implications for global health were unknown, though there were murmurs of a potential pandemic.

Four months later, the first case was reported in SA, swiftly followed by an unprecedented national lockdown.

At the same time, some 12,000km away from the health catastrophe unfolding in Wuhan, Nelson Mandela University’s new Medical School had just welcomed its first fulltime academic — me.

I moved from the hills of KwaZulu-Natal to Gqeberha — then still Port Elizabeth — to take up the position of senior lecturer in medical biochemistry.

There was enough uncertainty and pressure in being the first lecturer at a brandnew medical school, in a new city, without any additional anxiety about what was happening in China.

Thankfully, there was a reassuring sense of camaraderie with the three colleagues with whom I shared office space.

We all had a commitment to seeing SA’s 10th medical school get safely off the ground.

Even though we had a year before the students were due, there was so much work to be done.

Little did we realise then what an advantage this would turn out to be in preparing for 2021!

I was barely on-boarded in March 2020 when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the national lockdown.

What would this mean for the medical school?

As a biochemist with a keen interest in infectious diseases, I knew that this coronavirus was definitely not short term.

We were watching life-altering history as it was being made — and higher education would definitely not go unscathed.

Fortunately, Nelson Mandela University’s investment in the role of technology in teaching and learning was a definite asset. The extremely sophisticated equipment at the Medical School includes anatomage tables, body interact patient simulators, virtual reality and augmented reality headsets, and more.

At the same time, education moved online and I began interacting with the university’s Learning Experience Design team to develop meaningful online content.

This was an exciting challenge: we had to devise modes of teaching online, using hybrid learning to enhance classroom experiences, considering design and user experience, all while maintaining the university’s trademark humanising pedagogy.

In addition to the techheavy orientation, we also were reminded of our ethos of serving the community. Part of our task would be to keep students grounded in their service to society.

Looking back, I think the pandemic sped up the inevitable. Online universities have been gaining popularity as they are often more affordable, accessible and flexible.

Traditional universities cannot continue to recycle the same educational methods while the world their students live in rapidly changes.

Fortunately, our Medical School was on track.

First of all, it used aspects of a “flipped classroom” to shift the focus to students engaging with material on their own. This enabled more meaningful interactions with academics in the actual class time.

Second, we recognised that every student would need access to a laptop and connectivity. However, even where students did have a device, they often lacked data and internet access, so it quickly became apparent that we needed to develop content to cater for different modes of learning.

We had to provide options for those who had limited online access, even if this meant twice the amount of work from staff.

We also needed to establish good lines of communication with all our students so they would not fall off the radar during the often-stressful shifts to remote learning.

Developing countries were lagging in e-learning even before the pandemic, and in SA a large percentage of schoolleavers have little to no exposure.

Mandela University addressed this by integrating a digital literacy component in the curriculum, as well as a digital orientation programme early on to build student confidence in using the resources provided.

As lockdown levels changed, and we were able to physically settle into the refurbished campus in Missionvale, it was bittersweet.

The loss of our dean, Prof Lungile Pepeta, to Covid-19 related complications in August 2020 left an indelible mark. It spurred renewed energy in us to do the best possible job we could to honour his legacy in the months leading up to our first intake of students.

Though we were a small team, all the hard work, anticipation and constant change built up until the first 50 students finally set foot on campus in April 2021.

It’s hard to believe that we officially launched the Medical School and these very same students are busy with their final online exams.

Having started with four desks in one office, we are now in a much bigger, ever-growing department where laboratory spaces and teaching venues are buzzing, and learning continues in the online and real world.

It has truly been a remarkable ride.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) 1 Dec 2021 written by Dr Savania Nagiah, Senior Lecturer in Medical Biochemistry at Nelson Mandela University’s new Medical School in Gqeberha