COVID-19: UP prioritises access to online learning and mental health as institutions adapt to remote tertiary education

Posted on May 27, 2020

Effective online learning is about more than just compiling slides and sending them to students, says the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Tawana Kupe.

“Typically, what should happen with online teaching is some degree of interactivity because the technology enables that, to the extent that you can have a comprehensive teaching and learning management system,” he said.

Prof Kupe was speaking as part of a panel on a newly launched online thought leadership platform called We Rise. The online panel discussion featured experts in secondary and tertiary education and its goal was to unpack the opportunities and constraints of utilising online learning in low-income countries, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An invitation was also extended to Charmaine Nyakonda, an alumna of the University of Toronto and an educator at the USAP Community School in Zimbabwe, and Jonathan Burdick, who serves as the Vice Provost for Enrolment at Cornell University, in the US. One of the founders of We Rise, Kapambwe Chalwe, who recently graduated from the University of Rochester, served as the moderator of the discussion.

Understanding Online Learning

Prof Kupe emphasised the overarching technological element that is inherent in online learning. He also distinguished between contact learning, or in the context of UP, hybrid learning, online learning and distance education. Prof Kupe made the assertion that it may no longer be easy to make definitive distinctions between the various kinds of methods because of the way lecturers utilise elements from various methods in their approach to teaching and facilitating their modules.

“Online learning is where the physical element, face-to-face or physical presence, is no longer present in the same locality. This is now delivered through technology. Online learning uses the abilities of the technologies for interaction.

“Online teaching is not just putting up a series of slides and sending them away,” Prof Kupe explained.

When asked about the measures UP had put in place, the Vice-Chancellor mentioned the laptop project, which entails supplying those who do not have a device they can use to do their academic work with a laptop and sending students who cannot use laptops physical study material. Prof Kupe also highlighted the introduction of the UP Connect platform, as well as the provision of data that students can use for online tests and assignments. He acknowledged that the process has not been without challenges, but he committed to doing everything in his power, with the help of his team, to address certain issues.

Highlighting issues around access, Burdick said technology can replace the sharing of information through big lectures “when everybody has access to it”.

“Of course, not everybody does; not the speed, not the equipment, and not the technology. So, thinking about the least among us and how they access, it is really important and we have given a lot of thought to that at Cornell,” he said adding that the University has also put measures in place to make sure that students continue their studies remotely.

“I think we are also learning [about] all the things we miss. All the casual interactions with people you don’t otherwise know. People you wouldn’t see in class, but you would see on campus in some other context,” he said.

Addressing Mental Health

The resultant cabin fever that lockdown regulations may have caused might have had a negative effect on those who are already struggling with their mental health. Nyakonda, who also teaches A-level biology, weighed in. “As a mental health activist, I have noticed that COVID-19 has caused a lot of people to be anxious, and if you do tend to focus a lot on just developing your curriculum just so students can access syllabuses and neglect the mental health aspect, it will result in poor outcomes of online learning. And that is why it is also important that even in that online learning, even in the moment, there has to be a few things and a few projects that allow students to have reflective thinking and to be open-minded and curious about things not only related to their syllabus, but also how whatever it is that they are learning in that moment affects them and the people around them.”

Prof Kupe used this opportunity to highlight what UP is doing to combat the negative externalities of online learning in the context of mental health.

“What we are trying to do at UP, because we recognise the [importance of the] mental health of both staff and students, is that we have organised forms of online counselling and other forms of counselling with the partners that we have that deal with issues of anxiety, depression and so on. You cannot ignore the psychosocial effects of what is happening right now on people.

“One of our partners, for example, has offered to give us more funding for the range of things we are doing. We are going to put in a budget line for expanded psychosocial support for both staff and students,” Prof Kupe concluded.

- Author Kaya Nocanda

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