“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.” We had to figure out how “learning in a pandemic for success” can happen.
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,” Jacqui 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, Jacqui 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 “(learning in a pandemic for success)”. 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 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.
The move to online learning wasn’t particularly disruptive for Jacqui. Some of her pre-Covid classes and assessments had already given her online learning experience, and this stood her in good stead. One of her largest frustrations, instead, was Nkomazi’s network coverage. Although she had her own personal computer and UJ provided her with data, it wasn’t always easy to connect.
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.
Remote access, which so affected Jacqui’s experience, was also a major concern. To address this, every attempt was made to ensure information was as data-friendly as possible. “Relevant links were made available on Google Drive since this was less data intensive, and videos were shared with supporting documents, in case the videos couldn’t be downloaded,” says Hemali.
“We were fortunate because UJ has been driving the 4IR narrative for years,” explains Hemali. “Many of our staff and students were already familiar with online learning and with our learning management system, Blackboard. Our task during Covid 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 Jacqui 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. Jacqui 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.”
In the last half of the year, Jacqui completed her work-integrated learning, and, together with a few friends at the UJ Students’ Public Relations Association, started an online campaign: #myonlinelearningexperience. “We wanted to encourage students to share their experiences of studying online, and to provide a platform where they could receive help,” she explains. This opportunity – to put her studies to the test in the middle of a pandemic – was deeply stimulating.
Today, Jacqui is currently 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 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. “We’ve established a website, Find Your Way (https://findyourway.uj.mobi/), to help students orientate themselves and to answer important questions,” says Hemali. “And we’ve collaborated with colleagues who have created virtual campus tours to try and give our new students as much of a sense of life at UJ as possible, even though they’re not yet on campus.”
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.