By Diane Grayson and Jerome September
For two years, universities in South Africa and worldwide did their best to provide students with quality education under the adverse conditions precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), based in Johannesburg, South Africa, we implemented Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning in an online mode in April 2020, less than a month after the imposition of the first national lockdown.
To do this, we ensured that every course had an active site on our Learning Management System (LMS), hired additional instructional designers to support academics with using the LMS effectively, and provided data packages, loan laptops and extensive online and telephonic academic and psychosocial support to students.
Late in 2020, it was clear that remote learning and teaching would need to continue in 2021, but some contact sessions were needed for experiential learning, such as laboratory, practical, studio and clinical work. It was also clear that the existing LMS was not able to meet the increased demand.
We thus developed a Learning and Teaching Plan that included moving to a new LMS and scheduled experiential learning activities in blocks for small groups of students at a time.
From January to March 2021, we transitioned the entire university to a new LMS.
The new LMS, combined with support from the increased pool of instructional designers and greater familiarity and facility among academics with teaching in an online mode, enabled us to begin to move out of emergency mode and to gradually start to implement principles of good online teaching and learning.
A blended teaching and learning approach
In mid-2021, as vaccination rates increased and COVID-19 cases decreased, based on the best scientific advice available, Wits implemented a blended teaching and learning approach in 2022, in line with our 2020-24 Learning and Teaching Plan.
Government restrictions did not allow us to fill our teaching venues to capacity, nor did we want to return to rooms filled with hundreds of students listening quietly to a lecture.
Our version of blending would allow us to bring students back in groups of limited size onto campus regularly for interactive educational activities, including experiential learning, discussion classes, seminars and tutorials, while maintaining an active site for every course on the LMS for presentations, educational resources, certain assessments and interactions with students, tutors and academics.
The Gateway to Success programme is born
A big concern was how the 2022 cohort of new first-year students would cope. The various levels of lockdown imposed in 2020 and 2021 meant that they had experienced nearly two years of disrupted schooling.
We knew that our usual one-week orientation programme would not be enough to help these students find their feet at university. We needed something broader, deeper and longer.
As senior director: academic (Diane Grayson) and dean of student affairs (Jerome September), we wanted to integrate academic and student life elements to create a holistic, seamless transition from secondary school to university and the Gateway to Success programme was thus developed.
Gateway to Success is a new three-week blended programme for more than 6,000 first-year students, comprising both online and on-campus activities.
It included an interdisciplinary, fully online short course called Climate Change and Me, which provided a common intellectual experience for all students, helped them to develop specific academic skills including academic reading and writing, and helped them learn to use the LMS.
There were three other online courses: Digital Abilities, Academic Integrity and a faculty-specific content course. Taken together, the online courses were designed to require about 25 hours of student engagement per week.
In the first two weeks for the on-campus sessions, students were divided into groups by faculty, and each group attended two half-day sessions per week, one faculty-led, and one student life session, with trained mentors who will nurture them throughout the year.
In the third week, students continued with the online courses and attended on-campus student life sessions for half a day each day, which included cultural, personal development, social and recreational activities, and campus tours. On the last day, students attended an exciting soccer match, at which they were officially welcomed as part of the university.
There were several challenges as we implemented the programme, including the precarious life circumstances of some students, lack of resources at home, and the coordination of multiple components of this intensive programme.
However, good project management, coupled with a shared sense of responsibility, meant that problems could be picked up and resolved quickly.
We are collecting evaluation data throughout the year to determine the impact of the Gateway to Success programme. In response to a survey conducted a week after the programme, completed by 56% of students, the large majority of students indicated that they had benefited from the programme, and 95% said that they were proud to be called ‘Witsies’.
Given the strong connection between student success and a sense of belonging, this is a good start for our new first-year students. We hope to enhance this programme over the years to come, and to establish it as an effective way to facilitate the transition from secondary to tertiary education.
Professor Diane Grayson is the Senior Director: Academic Affairs, and Jerome September is the Dean of Student Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.