Wits is tackling the Covid-19 pandemic head-on

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The University of the Witwatersrand has adopted a multi-pronged approach to managing the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a bold move, the university took the academic programme online this week, with thousands of academics and students switching to online teaching and learning. This was after weeks of preparation by staff, the delivery of 5 000 laptops to students in need, the zero-rating of Wits’ learning and library sites, and the provision of 30GB of data to each Wits student to enable access to online learning. 

“We are aware of the anxiety and uncertainty that online teaching and learning presents for both our colleagues and students. The world as we know it is in flux, and it will take our collective courage, dexterity and commitment to fend off the effects of this pandemic and to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning,” says Professor Ruksana Osman, deputy vice-chancellor: academic. “We have put in place contingency plans to accommodate students who are unable to transition to online learning. Additional support will be made available, including high-intensity immersion programmes and other programmes.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic may have disrupted life as we know it, but it has also galvanised our rapid adaptation to change and the adoption of new technologies. There are thousands of Witsies on the frontline in testing stations, hospitals, laboratories, computer centres and innovation labs who are confronting this pandemic and its effects on South Africa and the world, a few of whom are featured below. 

Innovation that saves lives

In recent weeks Wits engineers and students custom designed, manufactured and delivered laser-cut face shields to protect healthcare workers and are now devising assistive breathing devices for patients. PhD candidate Michael Lucas pioneered a revolutionary self-sanitising surface coating. This infection control solution helps mitigate hospital-acquired infections and assists in the prevention of Covid-19 contamination.

On the healthcare frontline

Understanding the coronavirus pathogen is critical to protection and prevention. Together with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and the national department of health, Wits epidemiologists, virologists, biologists, and others at the vanguard of science are working to decode, predict, tame and suppress Covid-19, and to manage the public health and socioeconomic impact. 

“Test! Test! Test!” is the message from Professor of Vaccinology Shabir Madhi, who advocates physical distancing, mass testing for Covid-19, and quarantining the infected as the optimal public health strategy. In partnership with Gift of the Givers, Wits now hosts a Covid-19 testing station on its Braamfontein campus.

Professor Helen Rees, executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute and Professor Jeremy Nel lead the South African research team in the Solidarity clinical trials. Rapidly constituted by the World Health Organisation, these 10-nation clinical trials aim to identify the most effective treatment against Covid-19. 

Expert analysis informs us of the impact Covid-19 may have on our world, but how will our healthcare workers in hospitals cope? Professor Feroza Motara, academic head of emergency medicine at Wits, has prepared her team and the hospital to care for those infected with Covid-19. 

Drawing Big Data battle lines

Predicting and anticipating the trajectory of the virus to mitigate casualties and inform policy requires number crunching, modelling, and analysis of Big Data. A multidisciplinary team led by Professor Bruce Mellado has developed a comprehensive Covid-19 South Africa Dashboard (https://www.covid19sa.org) to help track and visualise infections in Africa, and to provide predictions for the spread and impact of the virus. The Gauteng City-Region Observatory, of which Wits is partner, has developed an interactive map to illustrate the province’s vulnerability to Covid-19. Biomedical researchers are also developing a model to demonstrate the effect of intermittent quarantines, which will help maintain essential services and sustain economic activity.

Influencing policy

Several Witsies including Professors Glenda Gray and Martin Veller have been appointed to ministerial and other tasks teams to advise government on how to manage the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects. Five leading professors recently proposed a blueprint to replace the current lockdown with one that balances South Africa’s healthcare, social and economic imperatives. 

Economist Professor Imraan Valodia, dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management says: “The Covid-19 crisis is first and foremost a health and humanitarian crisis that we are all living through, which is likely to have lasting impacts on how we live.” He believes we must manage the economic impact of Covid-19 in a way that creates the least long-term harm, and says South Africa won’t flatten the curve unless all citizens have the means to stay at home. 

Wits’ voices on Covid-19 

Wits researchers and experts continue to educate, advocate, influence and inspire — visit www.wits.ac.za/covid19 for the latest Covid-19 updates.

Wits vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib concludes: “We will emerge from this crisis, stronger and more resilient than ever. This is a complex challenge that will require multiple responses from all of us. Let us use this time to find each other and to work together towards a common goal for our students, our staff and our common humanity.” 

Keep learning moving

For educational institutions that have the immediate challenge of moving learning online in a country without widespread access to tech devices and unlimited data, mobile learning may provide the ideal solution. 

“Gamification” may be a well-worn edtech buzzword, but it’s still worth paying attention to. Consider the widespread success of apps such as Duolingo — in which an animated owl guides users through the acquisition of the basics of a new language — and you may get some idea of the power of a learning platform in one’s pocket. The quiz-style design of the app, along with the incentives reminiscent of just about every computer or mobile game you’ve ever played, make for an accessible experience. Combine this with the owl’s famously persistent reminders to keep up with your lessons, and your learning becomes a habit. 

Using participation data, mobile learning platforms will enable lecturers to track if they managed to keep their students engaged. (Delwyn Verasamy)
Using participation data, mobile learning platforms will enable lecturers to track if they managed to keep their students engaged. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Coding apps like Grasshopper use similar methods, and this mode of teaching specific skills to adults seems to be spreading. Locally, Cape Town studio Sea Monster has used animation, games and technology such as augmented reality to tremendous effect in creating workplace training tools. 

Could these lessons be applied to the concepts of tertiary education? Quite possibly. Wooclap is a Belgian-designed learning platform that’s gained traction not only for its ability to keep students engaged, but also to help educators better understand the learning process. By allowing facilitators to easily create their own quiz for students to “play along” on the platform during in-person or online lectures, it aims to transform phones from a distraction into a tool for engagement. 

For those students who’ve struggled with the lack of person-to-person communication that distance learning has brought in the past few weeks, this could be a powerful remedy, or, at least, a diagnosis. Using participation data, the platforms enable lecturers to track their own performance: did they manage to keep their students engaged? Did their audience’s attention or understanding lapse at any point? 

Mobile learning is a deceptively simple example of how edtech can enhance learning, and perhaps that’s what makes it an ideal bridge from the idea that “e-learning” is nothing more than lecture slides uploaded online. The educational possibilities of virtual reality, augmented reality and more are vast, but for solutions accessible to South Africa’s mobile-first audience, it’s difficult to beat the potential of purpose-built learning platforms for smartphones. — Cayleigh Bright

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