Unisa students queue to register at the university in January.     Bongani Shilubane African News Agency (ANA)
Unisa students queue to register at the university in January. Bongani Shilubane African News Agency (ANA)

Covid-19 presents curricula crunch for SA's universities

By Karishma Dipa Time of article published Apr 27, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - While South African universities are determined to complete the 2020 academic year, measures are already in place in the event that Covid-19 causes further delays to learning and teaching.

The arrival of the pandemic in the country as well as the subsequent lockdown has forced tertiary institutions to adopt remote and online methods in a desperate bid to try to get through various curricula.

But the unprecedented challenges facing students and higher learning institutions as a whole has been exacerbated by the coronavirus as many struggle to adapt to new realities.

Universities SA (Usaf) chief executive, Professor Ahmed Bawa, explained to The Saturday Star this week that while universities had taken measures to migrate learning online amid the Covid-19 outbreak and countrywide shutdown, there was no guarantee that courses would go according to plan.

“All 26 universities are committed to completing the academic year, and depending on the trajectory of the pandemic, this completion may occur in the first part of 2021.”

UCT said that while it aimed to complete the 2020 academic calendar as close as possible to the usual year, it was taking into account the possibility of unforeseen further delays.

Its Senate Executive Committee has since approved a calendar that assumes the need for remote teaching throughout the second and third terms, with a return to contact teaching on campus in the fourth term.

“The current proposed calendar makes allowances for a summer term that will run into 2021, pushing the beginning of the new academic year to March 2021.”

Meanwhile, the University of the Western Cape has also devised a “comprehensive plan” to ensure that students are permitted to complete the 2020 academic year.

Despite attempts to complete the 2020 academic year, Bawa said the future was still uncertain as the Covid-19 pandemic remained unpredictable.

“Teaching and learning at the universities came to a sudden halt a few days before the lockdown and has remained as such.

“A few universities have begun to unfold some form of remote and online learning since this last Monday and others will unfold their initiatives in the next two to three weeks.

“There will be multiple modalities of teaching and learning going on during periods of lockdown.”

But while South African universities are resorting to emergency remote teaching and learning programmes as the virus continues to spread, they have also acknowledged disparities among their students from different socio-economic backgrounds, who struggle to access the digital world.

The procurement of laptops and data bundles for students has since been a high priority for universities.

This includes UCT, which has since arranged for door-to-door delivery of laptops to eligible students, while Stellenbosch University has also procured 1 500 laptops that will be made available to socio-economically disadvantaged students.

In Gauteng, the University of Johannesburg has made 4000 laptops available to distribute to qualifying NSFAS and Missing Middle students and invested “significant financial resources” to secure 30GB of data per student per month.

Meanwhile, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) has permitted students in need to loan devices from their Mobile Computing Bank.

“These basic computing devices will be suitable for educational purposes and will be pre-loaded with the required learning resources before being delivered via the South African Post Office to students who absolutely need them,” Wits said on its website.

Telecommunication providers have also offered widespread discounts on data bundles to students for learning purposes.

While Bawa applauded the efforts made by universities and the private sector to provide students in need with resources, he admitted that this was not enough and that they may have to explore alternative avenues.

“We are trying to address this at the systemic level, and a part of the solution may be the reintroduction of students in a phased manner on to our campuses so that they may use the facilities on their campuses and engage in some form of blended learning.”

Other options being explored by tertiary education institutions include the use of print media, PowerPoint presentations and learning material loaded on flash drives.

But not every syllabus can be taught online, even if all parties involved had access to electronic devices and the internet.

Many students are enrolled in courses which require face-to-face interaction, such as dance, theatre as well as studio, laboratory, clinical and community-engagement fieldwork.

This is currently forbidden as the country battles to curb the spread of the virus which thrives on the movement of people and interaction between individuals.

Bawa explained that these challenges would have to be resolved by measures taken by each university.

“The universities will restructure the academic year so that all the requirements for the completion of the academic year are fully complied with.”

The University of the Free State agreed these types of modules would have to be re-organised.

“‘A specific plan regarding any formal community engagements, which includes aspects of clinical training, teaching practice, and work-integrated learning, will be prepared by the respective faculties.”

UCT also said its relevant departments and courses would prepare contingency plans on how best to deal with these outstanding work components. “Special plans for these courses have been made in the new calendar to accommodate their needs for contact teaching once the university is able to return to on-campus operations.”

Bawa said that Covid-19 also emotionally affected students and those associated with higher education.

"This is very serious,” he emphasised. “We are working with the department of higher education and other bodies to facilitate the development of an online counselling system.”

Saturday Star

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