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Learning in a pandemic. Learning for success

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“I was trained as an anthropologist — we tend to anticipate what’s coming — which is why I think I started feeling anxious in January last year. I was watching what was happening in the rest of the world and I knew it was a matter of time before it hit us. And when it did, it hit us hard.”

Hemali Joshi is the Senior Manager of Integrated Student Success in the Academic Development Centre at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). That’s quite a long way of saying that, when universities across South Africa were forced to adapt to the stringent lockdown regulations that were imposed in March 2020, she was among the people at the heart of UJ’s response.

This response was multipronged: it was technical and financial, academic and practical, emotional and psychological. It was designed to ensure that as many of UJ’s 50 000 students as possible were able to continue to learn, despite enduring the most disruptive period of education in living memory. Included in these many thousands of students was Jacqueline Luhlanga.

One student’s experience

“So much happened last year; I don’t really know where to start,” Luhlanga says hesitantly. “At the beginning of the year, I was looking forward to completing the third and final year of my Public Relations and Communications Diploma, but by March, everything had changed. I had to move out of res and go back to Nkomazi, my home in Mpumalanga.”

Moving home for lockdown wasn’t easy for the 26-year-old UJ student. Initially, she found it difficult to focus on her studies and perform the household chores expected of her. And her family didn’t quite understand her academic commitments: “Whenever they saw me on my phone, they thought I was playing games,” she says. “They didn’t understand what studying online meant. And they were there all the time — I had to find my own secret place to study.”

The mental health implications of studying from home weren’t missed by the UJ team. UJ’s Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development was aware that some students were now working in environments that might not be conducive to learning, or were battling with the shift to online. The team made an emergency helpline available to support students and staff, and their colleagues at Academic Development Innovation created resources to help students cope with stress.

Rallying with the right resources

Student access to devices and data were two of the major challenges that UJ had to deal with at the start of lockdown. In response, its device and data distribution process was immense: over 5 000 laptops were made available to students in need and data was regularly dispensed. 

“We were fortunate because UJ has been driving the 4IR narrative for years,” explains Joshi. “Many of our staff and students were already familiar with online learning and with our learning management system, Blackboard. Our task during Covid-19 was to make our communication about online learning easier to access and clearer, to answer any questions consistently and quickly, and to use the tools at our disposal to greater effect.”

In no time at all, modules and videos on online learning were created, a live chat function was set up, and students were informed about apps that would make their experience easier. One of the most important of these was also the simplest: WhatsApp. Class WhatsApp groups made it easy for learners to ask for help and to receive an instant response from their lecturers or peers on a platform that didn’t consume too much data.

Learning, innovating, succeeding

All of these tools served Luhlanga well, and her results, when she completed her exams in June last year, were exceptional: she passed all her subjects, received several distinctions and was placed on the Dean’s List for Academic Merit. She wrote all her exams from Nkomazi: “We were given 24-hours to complete each exam and so I wrote mine at night, when the house was quiet.”

Today, Luhlanga is completing a learnership in the customer care department of MultiChoice, while continuing to study towards her Advanced Diploma in Communications Management. Like so many others, she can’t wait for Covid-19 to be over. She wants to complete her honours degree in 2022 and find permanent work where she can apply her skills. “I’m always positive,” she says, “I know I’ll get through this — it’s just a challenge to be overcome.”

Lessons for a new year

When the 2021 academic year dawned, UJ was better prepared than ever to support its students — its first-years in particular.

Flexibility, adaptability and an awareness of the ways in which space and time affect learning have become primary preoccupations for UJ. They’re now integral to how the university approaches education, and this is helping its learners to succeed despite overwhelming odds. 

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