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The Covid-19 pandemic has forced academics to reflect and reimagine teaching and learning.

The  Covid-19  pandemic  has presented numerous learning opportunities for everyone in the academy — students, academics as well as support staff.

Academics and lecturers have had to  learn how to conduct teaching  activities differently. They  worked  tirelessly, devising plans to have students successfully complete the first term of their 2020 studies in a different, yet safe, learning environment. Furthermore, plans had to be in place for the resumption of academic activities. Because of the fluidity of the situation and plans, they adjusted the sails as the boat was moving.

Although  blended  approaches  have been part of Nelson Mandela University’s learning and teaching efforts over the years, as a contact university, there has always been more emphasis on face-to-face teaching and learning.

In grappling  with  the  imposed  changes,  the  university’s  teaching  development unit had to work with academics to be better prepared, and informed, in its efforts to assist the process of enhancing teaching and learning in this difficult time.

At the centre of these consultations was the need to articulate or reflect on not just practices or ways of doing things, but also on expressing anxieties, obstacles and achievements and to develop ways to turn challenges into opportunities.

A  platform,  therefore,  had  to  be  created for academics to reflect on what  and  how  their  teaching  had  changed, share ideas and new methods with their peers and learn from others on how to cope with the new normal.

The unit decided to refer to these sessions  as  “iingxoxo”.  For  people  who are not isiXhosa first-language speakers, iingxoxo is a robust discussion or a form of engagement where thoughts  and  experiences  about  a  particular  matter  are  exchanged.  Iingxoxo are most of the time conducted in an orderly fashion, where the points of discussion are introduced,  discussed  and  conclusions  drawn from the deliberations.

We called them iingxoxo because the intention was not to run work-shops on online learning and teaching or conduct casual conversations. The aim was to have interactive discussions  on  strategies  and  online  platforms used by staff and deter-mine the level of student participation.  We  also  wanted  to  ascertain  the  experiences  of  both  staff  and  students.

Depending on the purpose of the discussions,  decisions  and  recommendations could be made on the desired  plan  of  action.  Academics  had  to  draw  from  the  conclusions  which approaches could be incorporated into their pedagogic or educational repertoires.

These  discussions  gave  academics opportunities to reflect critically about how their teaching approaches have changed, how the students are responding to the changes, what they are  learning  about  their  teaching,  and  interactions  with  students,  as  well as insights about their students’ experiences.

Moreover,  these  reflections  contributed to academics learning about themselves  and  how  they  could  improve their practice.

This  entailed  experimentation  and  willingness  to  take  risks  that  are  informed  by  acknowledging  that  relying  solely  on  traditional  approaches is not going to yield the desired results.

Continuous exploration of better ways  of  connecting  with  students  and improved teaching for learning led to greater insights into the learning processes and innovations.

A number of lessons emerged from these discussions and helped us tailor our learning and teaching eff orts to suit. These include:

The  resumption  of  academic  activities magnified the concept of teaching as an intellectual activity. Detailed and thorough planning is key for any intellectual activity;

Academics  have  come  to  appreciate the level of commitment and resilience of students. Although the university provides data for all students,  connectivity  alone  does  not  translate to a smooth transition from face-to-face  to  online  learning.  In  some homes, there is only one device that is shared among family members. Students in these circumstances resort to working in the middle of the night or early hours of the morning as some are expected to assist with home chores during the day;

The camaraderie among students and  academics  has  grown  from  shared  vulnerabilities.  Academics’  sense  of  humanity  and  care  has  come  to  the  fore.  Their  contributions indicate an increased sense of appreciation for the environments from which our students come and the kinds of issues they are facing. This  is  reciprocated  by  students  who have said they are more motivated  because  of  their  teachers’  interventions;

Platforms such as WhatsApp have been turned into educational sites; The value of peer-facilitated sup-port and learning in the form of supplemental  instruction  leaders  and  tutors — notably bilingual tutors — has heightened;

There is a realisation that there is no one right way to respond to students’  calls  for  help  or  questions  about  the  curriculum.  What  was  found to be important was that the responses needed to be timely;

Some academics reported that students also needed a break every now and then and that they were happy to allow this; and

Another key factor is acknowledging the efforts of students through positive  feedback  and  praise.  The  positive reinforcement gives hope in the face of challenging times.

These  discussions  have  truly  helped to foster greater collaboration and support among academics, who  have  been  able  to  learn  from  colleagues across disciplines and levels of expertise. Many colleagues are now working in teams to draw on each other’s strengths.

There  is  also  evidence  of  adapt-ability and flexibility in the context of curriculum structure and responding to the needs of students.

Students and staff  continue to dis-play resilience and determination in this rather precarious period. They are choosing to focus on the destination, even though the road is thorny and full of obstacles.

Compassion and humanising elements have become key on the journey to the destination.

We are now embarking on the second  phase  of  iingxoxo,  where  students will be informing academics about their experiences too.

This article appeared in the weekly Mail & Guardian of August 21 to 27 2020 written by Dr Noluthando Toni, Director of Teaching Development at Nelson Mandela University -

Contact information
Dr Noluthando Toni
Director: Teaching Development
Tel: 27 41 5043418