‘COVID-19 has highlighted the need for universities to constantly and rapidly evolve,’ writes UP Vice-Chancellor

Posted on September 11, 2020

In times of crisis we are compelled to change our strategies and move away from conventional approaches. Confronted as we are with the global COVID-19 pandemic along with climate change, education, unemployment, poverty, food security and economic crises, there is no place for ‘business as usual’ – because nothing will be ‘as usual’ again.

Our universities need to be engaged in creative and innovative research, teaching and learning strategies, to address the many different spheres required to solve the complex, intersectional African and global crises that the pandemic has further exposed.

The strategies we adopt for a better world require bold thinking and agile shifts. We need the research voices at Africa’s universities coming strongly to the fore with context-appropriate strategies and solutions. We need to partner with universities globally to accelerate discoveries, new knowledge and breakthroughs that make a positive difference. It’s good to see that this has already been happening and our voices are being heard.

One of the positive consequences for researchers in this era is the rapid switch to online platforms; this is opening up collaborations with African and international partners at an unprecedented rate. During the pandemic, staff and students at UP have been involved in transdisciplinary and trans-institutional research at multiple levels: from research on how the virus infects people, to participating in international COVID-19 clinical trials.

We are currently researching genome profiles to be able to profile risk in the future and identify who in the population is at higher risk of contracting killer viruses and other diseases. At the same time we are researching how people and society behave during a pandemic, because if we don’t understand this, we cannot optimally manage the spread. We have achieved this in certain sectors where our Faculty of Health Sciences quickly incorporated COVID-19 into the primary healthcare programme. 

Rapid response and multisectoral interventions are imperative, as we do not want to be caught off-guard again. Pandemics, as we know, require a multiplicity of knowledge and skills. Multi-, transdisciplinary and trans-institutional research has always been at the core of our work, but it is in an imperative in this era, as it will shape the future of research, specifically on the African continent.

In so many ways the COVID-19 pandemic is a game-changer, not only for how we think, research, create and innovate, but also how we deliver education. COVID-19 has exposed just how tech-savvy we need to be to adapt to an online world.

At the same time, the switch to hybrid teaching and learning models has exposed the glaring inequalities in education – from basic education all the way through to higher education. A lack of access to online learning and digital skills puts many young people at risk of falling behind their peers. This deepens the divide between students on the continent who have access, and those who don’t.

Fortunately, UP was not caught off-guard in the rush to move to online teaching and learning when the South African government announced the COVID-19 lockdown. We were able to continue to provide high-quality education because we acted five years ago, when our University recognised the global trend to hybrid teaching and learning. We had faced other crises that required this transition, such as during the #FeesMustFall student protests, when our campuses had to close.

In 2015, we therefore transitioned our University to a hybrid teaching and learning model. The percentage of online and face to face learning can adapt according to the context.

Last year we took this a step further when we invested R100m in our IT infrastructure to create the UP Connect portal. This enabled our students to access learning resources at no data cost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, 96% of our undergraduate modules were already online when COVID-19 struck.

Transitioning to a completely online mode during the pandemic naturally required adaptation and monitoring. Surveys we conducted revealed that the majority of our lecturers and students managed to adapt well. To facilitate the process, lecturers are present and available during regular, scheduled lecture periods to discuss difficult concepts and answer questions. This includes a 20-minute Blackboard Collaborate session, 20 minutes of online discussions through our Learning Management System (LMS) known as clickUP, and 20 minutes dedicated to email and telephonic engagement with students.

Data from the survey showed that this ongoing contact with lecturers and fellow students helps students feel safe, while the discipline of online attendance of classes during regular, scheduled class times keeps students on track.

We loaned laptops to all our students who did not have suitable devices (1 937 in total). Fortunately only a small number of our students experience connectivity and electricity supply challenges at home; these students have been allocated a telephone tutor.

We will be prioritising future spend toward sustaining and expanding our hybrid teaching and learning platform, and with donor funding we received recently we will be employing tutors and student advisors to take some of the online teaching load off the academics. The model we are using is certainly not a one-size-fits-all, and we are adapting it as required. With the partial return to campus, we needed to create special timetables for students requiring lab sessions and on-site practicals.

Like the rest of the world, we eagerly await a time when we can all safely return to campus. Everything should not remain online indefinitely, because education is a social activity that connects people and humanity. The pandemic has reinforced the simple, human value of being on campus and the face-to-face interaction it provides.

The additional costs to universities as a result of the pandemic have also hit home. These have been enormous, and governments should feel duty bound to provide financial assistance. After all, it is universities that produce professionals, specialists and leaders in every sector. The world urgently needs leaders who are well-educated, well-skilled and well-rounded citizens; leaders with wisdom and foresight who see the way forward to creating a better normal in a changed era.

To achieve, this we need strong institutions that nurture leaders, anchor truly democratic futures, and promote inclusive economic development, environmental sustainability, and social progress. Universities have a critical role to play in achieving this. Through all our collaborative efforts we will be able to defeat viruses like COVID-19. There will be more, and we must develop new knowledge to save lives, to live more sustainably, and, during our tenure, to substantively contribute to creating a better life for all.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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