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Wits team humbled by award for their work in online learning and teaching during Covid-19 pandemic

Left to right: Fiona McAlister (Project Manager: Online Learning), Dr Greig Krull (Academic Director: Digital Learning), Professor Imraan Valodia (Dean: CLM Faculty), Tshepiso Maleswena (Head: Road to Success Programme) and Danie de Klerk (Head: CLM Teaching and Learning Centre) Marike Bosman (CLM Registrar). Supplied image.

Left to right: Fiona McAlister (Project Manager: Online Learning), Dr Greig Krull (Academic Director: Digital Learning), Professor Imraan Valodia (Dean: CLM Faculty), Tshepiso Maleswena (Head: Road to Success Programme) and Danie de Klerk (Head: CLM Teaching and Learning Centre) Marike Bosman (CLM Registrar). Supplied image.

Published Oct 24, 2021


Johannesburg - It has been multidisciplinary teamwork and the desire to connect people during a global health crisis that saw a team of Wits University researchers and academics receive a prominent accolade this month.

The Teaching and Learning Centre were the recipients of the Vice Chancellor’s Teaching Award for 2021 for their work in connecting academics and students during the highest levels of the Covid-19 lockdown between March and June last year.

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The team consisted of four learning and teaching professionals from the Faculty of Commerce, Law, and Management Teaching and Learning Centre and their work revolved around the team’s efforts to support CLM academics and students to transition to Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning (ERTL).

They are head of Commerce, Law and Management (CLM) at the Teaching and Learning Centre Danie de Klerk, academic director of Digital Learning Dr Greig Krull, project manager of Online Learning Fiona MacAlister and Tshepiso Maleswena, the head of the Road to Success Programme, which is the faculty’s student success and support unit.

While they are humbled by the prize, the team are also grateful that their hard and valuable work has been acknowledged.

“Being recognised in this way is affirming, especially given the challenges of the past 18 months,” De Klerk told the Saturday Star.

“It also exemplifies the social nature of learning and teaching, and how the principle of collaborative and collective approaches that require many people working together, helped ensure that our students were able to continue learning in 2020.”

After just recently receiving this award, the team are already planning how to best use the grant money to advance their work.

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“We are quite vocal about taking an equitable approach to teaching and learning, so that is another area that we will be focused on and intent on advancing.”

But De Klerk insisted that their award-winning online teaching and learning system was a collaborative effort which included assistance and input from lecturers, administrative staff and support staff.

He also credited divine fate and timing to the reception of their initiatives.

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“The establishment of the CLM T&L Centre and subsequent appointment of Dr Greig Krull and Fiona MacAlister who formed the CLM Online Learning and Teaching unit (COLT) just before the nationally mandated lockdown in March 2020, meant that all academics looked to them for assistance and support in the rapid shift to Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning.”

He explained that Krull and MacAlister already had years of experience working in the online learning and teaching space previously and that they adopted several approaches in order to put the award-winning system in place.

“This includes daily and weekly lunchtime webinars, having a centralised support site in the university Learning Management System (LMS) that shares information, adapting or creating new resources as they themselves learned more, and being available on email, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams to be able to support staff where needed.”

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But De Klerk said that despite their previous work in the online sphere, they had never previously worked on a project of this magnitude.

“Never before did we have to develop strategies rapidly to assist staff and students, while the world was figuratively (and in some instances literally) on fire.

“There were no examples or guidelines for responding to teaching and learning challenges experienced by academics and students during a global crisis and we were obviously unable to meet in person, so we had to come up with ways to work together and collaborate virtually.”

Despite these unique and novel at the time challenges, the head of Wits CLM Teaching and Learning Centre said that the “team dynamic flowed marvellously”.

“Even when we disagreed, we were able to come back and find a workable solution, because the caring vision for staff and student wellness that underpins our work, was shared by all of us.”

But the academics also had to overcome resistance and a reluctance from students and academics who were sceptical about moving online during one of the most unprecedented periods in the world’s history.

Left to right: Dr Greig Krull (Academic Director: Digital Learning), Fiona McAlister (Project Manager: Online Learning), Professor Ruksana Osman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic), Tshepiso Maleswena (Head: Road to Success Programme) and Danie de Klerk (Head: CLM Teaching and Learning Centre). Supplied image.

De Klerk said that they counteracted this with patience and humanity.

“As Wits is a contact university where staff and students are used to being present in person, there has been general resistance to the idea of bringing technologies into the learning and teaching space in more meaningful ways for many years but we let them know that their concerns were valid and allowed them to express those concerns without judgement and assisted in getting them to trust us when we proposed solutions.”

He also believes that their initial scepticism over the new virtual online system for teaching and learning will now further assist academics and students in their future endeavours.

“We hope that the experiences of the past 18 months, while far from being ideal, showed many people that technologies can support quality learning and teaching, and that these are skills that can be developed over time.

“Our sense is that the skills learned by academics will stand them in particularly good stead for the rest of their teaching careers.”

De Klerk and his team also had to deal with issues inclusivity such as access to laptops and data for those who were unable to afford it.

Here he explained, Wits came to the party when they put the laptop loan scheme in place in April 2020 during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Universities across South Africa worked with the mobile network providers to ensure that students were supported through monthly data bundles while Wits also managed to zero-rate their Learning Management System (LMS) to allow students to make use of it with minimal data.

“All resources were made available in “low-bandwidth” options,” De Klerk added.

But his team were also cognisant that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was also to be one of the most challenging periods in modern history and apart from studies, students and academics were also going to be affected emotionally and psychologically.

For this reason, the award-winning Teaching and Learning Centre also included topics such as personal wellbeing during social isolation, orientating family members at home to what is required of a student to study remotely, and how to access mental health support, in addition to the academic elements of the orientation, to their system.

“Knowing that we played a fundamental role in providing clarity and support during a period that will, undoubtedly, be remembered as a terribly uncertain and tumultuous time has been the most fulfilling aspect of our work,” De Klerk said.

While the rate of Covid-19 infections are dwindling in South Africa and elsewhere around the globe as vaccination rates increase, De Klerk believes that systems like the one his team created during the pandemic will continue to be of value in a post-coronavirus world.

“ERTL has opened up a world of possibilities that many did not realise previously existed and it has provided new insights and an opportunity to enhance and augment in-person teaching in ways that would not have been obvious before the shift online that was necessitated by the pandemic,” De Klerk said.

“As such, we would like to build on the momentum that this has created in terms of advancing blended online learning and continue to use our skills and knowledge to support academics in their exploration of blended and fully-online offerings, to better serve our students and ensure our graduates can succeed in an increasingly digital world.”