EXPERT OPINION: ‘Technology has become the pivot on which everything turns’ – UP COO on how COVID-19 has reshaped universities’ relationship with technology

Posted on September 03, 2020

When I started working at the University of Pretoria (UP) in January, I thought I would predominantly be supporting in the background. Although the position is part of the executive management team, as Chief Operating Officer, I am in charge of facilities, Information Technology Services (ITS) and Security Services – none of which are the university’s core missions of teaching, learning, research and community engagement.

Then, two months later, we went into COVID-19 lockdown. And, practically overnight, the focus shifted to me. The IT network and support had always been a key feature of the running of the university, but suddenly it became the centre of everything that needed to happen – a situation which looks set to remain for the foreseeable future.

All teaching and learning moved online, and IT needed to enable everyone to participate in the learning space. Even now, at level two of lockdown, the bulk of teaching is still taking place remotely.

What is not as well known is that moving everything online, with all its ramifications, was not just about clicking a switch. The transition was easier said than done. Fortunately UP had invested hundreds of millions of rands in upgrading its IT infrastructure. Just in time, too, as the last improvements were finished earlier this year.

This meant UP’s Chief Information Officer, Xolani Hadebe, and his team could focus on the software – the learning management systems (LMS) that the students and the lecturers use to communicate the learning material.

At UP, the LMS is BlackBoard, which can be accessed from any smart device such as a phone. BlackBoard includes the real-time video conferencing tool, Collaborate, and clickUP, a personalised section which accesses specific schools and their resources.

Using BlackBoard, students can create and send videos, take part in quizzes, write tests, view their grades, keep journals and post them, and get notifications when assignments are due. UP also uses the real-time video meetings app Google Meet.

None of this was new. UP has had a strong online component since it adopted hybrid teaching and learning – contact teaching with a strong online presence – in 2014. The difference was that learning was now not being accessed from campus with its wifi-enabled spaces, but from wherever students were, even from different countries.

Not all our students, or staff, could afford to be online. The university sector negotiated with the four major telecom companies to zero-rate access to our URLS (Uniform Resource Locators), or web addresses.

The telcos offered three free URLs per university, which had to have static Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. This created some challenges, as we use dynamic IP allocations to prevent some of the more common cybersecurity attacks.

It’s like in the Matrix sci-fi movies: If one character opens a door, and the next opens the same door, it doesn’t always take them to the same place. If a hacker opens the door, they can get into the system. But now if the hacker opens the door, we’ve already moved away from where the hacker thinks he or she is going.

UP overcame technical problems by creating a platform called UP Connect. Now both students and staff have free access for teaching and learning.

Initially there were two main complaints about our portal. Because it was free and not a priority for the telcos, when their systems were congested they sometimes dropped the zero-rated users. To prevent this during exams and assessments, we had to provide data bundles for students.

We also frequently received calls, saying: “My data was eaten up. Yet you said this thing was zero-rated.” Those users were going to their browser and typing in web addresses directly and being charged, instead of accessing them through our zero-rated UP Connect portal.

Pre-lockdown, most of the queries to our call centre operators – many of whom are now working from home – were about passwords, which had been forgotten or needed resetting. Now it’s mostly about access to the portal and data charges.

We are uncertain when the campus as a whole will return to normal, if ever, so we are continuing to upgrade the technology. We have to ensure our IT infrastructure is intact, we need to improve our upload and download speeds, upgrade our backup systems as well as some systems that have aged, and ensure all our facilities, including all residences, have wifi.

One of the plans is to establish a super-computing environment, a central high-performance computing area to service research needs of subject areas such as engineering and microbiology. We do already have such pockets but instead of having a couple of spaza shops, we want a central area with hubs. It’s more cost-effective, and we are busy looking at proposals to find the best solution.

Technology has become the pivot on which everything at a university turns. Not only UP and the other universities in South Africa, but worldwide.

The World Economic Forum published an article titled “4 ways COVID-19 could change how we educate future generations”. One of these was about unlocking technology to open up the “possibilities to do things differently and with greater flexibility”, and so potentially benefit more students across the world.

An 8 August article from The Economist, titled The Absent Student, refers to how “COVID-19 is catalysing innovation” and the “huge scope for using digital technology to improve education”.

That has been UP’s strategy since 2014: a hybrid approach of digital combined with contact learning and teaching, a methodology that has been proven to make education more accessible and, best of all, more effective.

We are constantly enhancing our technology to stay ahead of the pack. And we are ready for whatever challenges, technological or otherwise, are in our path as we continue to provide quality and cutting-edge education to our students; an education that will help them be the leaders and solve the problems of the future.

- Author By Sandile Mthiyane

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences