Student success in a time of crisis: How UP’s Dept of Education Innovation (EI) achieved almost seamless adjustment to online learning

Posted on June 03, 2021

The University of Pretoria (UP) has been praised for its success in 2020, despite the COVID-19 outbreak and remote working for the larger part of the year.

On 15 March 2020 the University of Pretoria closed its doors ahead of the government’s national lockdown, as the pandemic and its potential devastation became a reality. Amidst the anxiety and uncertainty, academics at UP agreed that not only was it important to save the academic year, but also to ensure optimal levels of student success.

“The agility with which the University pivoted to online instruction can only be described as doing justice to our motto, Ad destinatum persequor – which loosely translated means, ‘with zeal and perseverance, strive towards the goal’. The goal was, and remains, student success, even in a time of crisis,” said Professor Norman Duncan, Vice Principal: Academic at UP.

“This achievement was largely due to the commitment of our lecturers who had to invest significant time and effort into ensuring a successful transition, as well as the strong leadership collectively offered by our Department for Education Innovation and our Deputy Deans: Teaching and Learning. Without their dedication we would not have been able to offer an uninterrupted, quality academic programme during the lockdown period,” he said.

Professor Gerrit Stols, Director: Department of Education Innovation at UP, explained that the University adopted a hybrid approach to teaching and learning in 2015, with all faculties requested to ensure that every module was taught in a combination of contact and online modes. This eased the switch to remote teaching significantly. “Of course, it also has to be remembered that we have a fairly mature learning management system [clickUP] that we have been using for several years, which both lecturers and students are familiar with,” he said. “During the orientation programme for first-year students we endeavour to ensure that all students attain a reasonable level of digital literacy largely by means of the first-year module, Academic Information Management (AIM).

“Nonetheless, teaching and being taught solely online was a new experience for all. Furthermore, given the size of UP’s student population – 53 000 students to be exact – the transition required complex logistical planning and processes. EI developed a series of intensive courses to enhance the digital literacy and fluency of academics who felt that they needed to upskill, while the Department of Information Technology Services developed a platform, UP Connect, that provided students with free internet access and gratis data when the platform was slow to connect. Loan laptops were provided to those who required them and, when it became apparent that there were about 200 students who could not access clickUP due to living in areas with no internet reception or access to electricity, a team of dedicated EI staff developed a strategy to ensure that these students received at least hard copies of their study material as well as telephonic tutoring.”

During the first week of fully online teaching and learning in 2020, 21 791 students attended virtual online classes on a daily basis. This figure compares relatively favourably with earlier statistics, which indicate that for the same period in 2019, on average, 23 319 students accessed the University’s campuses on a daily basis.

In order to get a better understanding of the success and challenges experienced by lecturers and students, EI developed surveys for both lecturers and students. These showed that the vast majority of staff and students managed to move with confidence into the new dispensation of remote teaching. A total of 87% of students indicated that they were fairly/mostly/fully able to manage studying online. Encouragingly, 85.47% of students reported participating in online tutoring sessions in order to better understand their course content.

Prof Duncan said that in the early stage of the lockdown period there was the realisation that some students were (intentionally or through ignorance) compromising the integrity of assessments. “A campaign was developed to remind students of their obligation to themselves and the University to conduct themselves with integrity at all times,” he said. “Faculties also had to work hard to ensure that the type of assessments they developed were rigorous and suitably designed so as to not be affected by potential dishonesty.” On the whole, Prof Duncan said that the students displayed honourable conduct and he wished to commend them on their grit, resilience and courage during this tough time.

“Having seen the possibilities of online teaching over the past 15 months, I believe that it is unlikely that we will ever again revert to contact-only teaching and learning. Having a good hybrid mix, in my opinion, enriches students’ learning experiences and affords them as well as the University the levels of flexibility that will become increasingly important and valued as we move into the future. As a result, the Deputy Deans: Teaching and Learning and I will soon embark on a strategic planning process to develop a teaching and learning framework more suited to the needs of our time as well as the future world of higher education,” Prof Duncan concluded.

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