/ 28 July 2020

Walter Sisulu University is playing catch-up with online learning

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Walter Sisulu University (WSU) has suspended all contact classes, examinations and assessments at its East London campus for two weeks. Students will also be confined to their residences.

Some historically disadvantaged institutions, such as Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in the Eastern Cape, have had to start from “zero” to set up systems that will enable them to offer online learning to their students.

Unlike other, affluent institutions that have long started with online learning, with some of them already having completed their first semester online, WSU is hoping it will conclude the process of distributing laptops to its students by the end of July —  only then can its online learning begin.

A Government Gazette last month by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said that under level three of the lockdown a maximum of 33% of the student population will be allowed to return to campuses and residences. He said these students would include — among others — final-year students who need laboratories, those due to graduate this year and students who are doing clinical training. Sixty-six percent of the student population will be allowed back under level two; only at level one will 100% of the student population be able to return to campus. 

However, it is not yet clear when South Africa will move to levels two and one, because the country is in the middle of its Covid-19 peak.

This means that institutions such as WSU have to catch up on implementing online learning. 

The Mail & Guardian spoke to the institution’s vice-chancellor for academic affairs and research, Professor Rushiella Songca, who has been heading the process to get the institution to begin offering teaching and learning online.  

“We immediately had to think about how to save the academic project … But it was clear that we had to include online learning in some shape or form. The original idea was to do both online learning and some form of distance learning, but then we realised that we had nothing in place. So we had to start from zero,” Songca said. 

Developing policies

In the first week of April, the university began working on its online learning policies. Part of that work included forming a technical task team comprising people who had experience teaching online and in ICT, with not all of the latter being academics. 

Songca said it is this team that has been at the forefront of driving the online learning project. The team also included deans, who had to report back to their faculties to ensure that all staff were onboard. 

In the middle of the planning and strategising, team members posed questions, such as, “What is our reality and what does it mean to go online as WSU?”

The university was then confronted with the reality that some of its lecturers did not have laptops and or even desktops. There could be no talk of online learning if lecturers did not have laptops. 

“So then we said we must impress the management committee that all lecturers must get laptops and data … Everything we were doing, we were under pressure and running against time. So we started with the laptops,” Songca said.

After receiving laptops, lecturers were trained in online teaching and learning. The training included how to upload study materials for students. 

Laptop distribution

Last month WSU also began distributing laptops to its students. It is aiming to distribute 27 000 laptops to students who are funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas), as well as those who fall into the “missing middle”. Last Tuesday, Songca told the M&G that 18 500 laptops had been distributed so far. 

Songca said the distribution of laptops has not been easy as many of WSU’s students come from in deep rural areas. She said, in such areas, the university has been working with local police stations and nearest schools, with a communiqué being sent to students to collect their gadgets there. The university sends data to the students through their cellphones. 

There have been glitches in the process and not all students have received the gadgets, Songca admits. 

“It would be naive to say everything is smooth, it is not. But given where we were and where we are … we are doing this.”

The process has also offered the institution insight on protocols to implement in future to ensure that it is not caught off guard. 

Songca said one of the resolutions that arose from the process is that when the university hires lectures they must be given laptops and trained in how to upload study material online. 

“It must be compulsory, because initially they did not have tools of trade but it was also ‘aah, I don’t need to do that’,” she said, adding that a few lecturers did it because they believed it was the right thing to do. “Now it is not going to be an option,” Songca said.