Rhodes University gears up for virtual learning

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Online teaching on the cards
Online teaching on the cards

In the wake of the Covid-19 global pandemic, the Minister of Higher Education Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande, instructed Universities to close and let the students go home. 

Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, has emphasised the importance of preparing for online teaching and learning. He said Rhodes University staff should not view the 21-day national lockdown period (27 March to 17 April 2020) as a vacation, but to use these days responsibly to prepare for online teaching and learning methods for when the university reopens on 20 April 2020.  

According to Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Dr Peter Clayton, national efforts are ongoing to get data zero-rated for the ac.za domain to support students and staff. 

Arrangements are being made by Universities South Africa (USAf) and service providers for zero-rated mobile data to access specific institutional online resources, so that students do not have to carry the costs of remote learning. Zero-rating domains was a successful strategy implemented during the 2016 #FeesMustFall student movement that has been  allowing for more equitable access to the internet for all students. 

Globally, universities have implemented online teaching interventions during this time. While the levels of success are not known yet, lessons from developed countries are of little use as South Africa has unique contextual issues.

Rhodes University has formed a Teaching Continuity Task Team to ensure appropriate plans are in place should the university need to implement alternative teaching methods during the Covid-19 pandemic. The team conducted a survey of student and staff members’ internet access, device ownership and digital practices to inform teaching and learning support. The Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) has also been collecting second-hand smartphones from university staff to distribute to students in need. 

The Educational Technology (EdTech) Unit in CHERTL has coordinated online and face-to-face workshops and developed online resources to assist teaching staff to teach online. The Unit will continue to offer online sessions and provide assistance for staff and students online during the lockdown period and can be contacted via edtech@ru.ac.za. The Unit’s Educational Technology Specialists have been advising staff about strategies to develop online learning materials and activities and advocating mobile accessibility. Their approach has been both technical and social, in that they encourage staff to be sensitive and sensible in their approaches. 

An important consideration has been around realistic expectations and what online engagement might mean within the context of Covid-19. Lecturers are encouraged to consider flexibility of deadlines for online assignments and to design their lessons as microlearning opportunities. 

Students are already making use of the Android version of the RUconnected app, as demonstrated by CHERTL staff member and PhD student, Kelly Solomon, in this video. The RUconnected mobile app on Android has been installed more than 1000 times and many students are already using it. The Unit hopes to publish the Mac iOS version soon. The EdTech Unit will be developing online orientation for students in collaboration with teaching staff to better prepare students for online learning.