South Africa: Survey Reveals Remote Learning Highs and Lows

Results from a survey conducted among University of Cape Town (UCT) students about their experiences of emergency remote teaching reveal the highs and lows of remote learning and offer course convenors and lecturers valuable guidelines for teaching online in the third and fourth terms.

Conducted between 2 and 15 July 2020, the survey was sent to a total of 22 328 undergraduate and postgraduate students via email, 3 818 of whom completed the survey, an overall response rate of 17%.

An initiative of the Teaching Online Task Team, the survey was designed and delivered by the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED). The overall purpose was to gauge students' experiences of remote learning during the second term to inform and improve the design of courses taught online during the second semester.

CILT published the survey results on 24 July 2020, categorising student responses into nine overarching insights, which course convenors and lecturers have been advised to consider in the planning and rollout of their virtual coursework.

Emergency measures

As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all courses were taken online at the beginning of April. Vula - UCT's existing online collaboration and learning system - was harnessed for this process. Formal online learning started on Tuesday, 28 April 2020.

In her announcement to students about these emergency measures, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning Associate Professor Lis Lange said that while the transition might have been uncomfortable for many, it presented an opportunity to not only continue with their studies, but also to practise online skills they would be able to use throughout their careers.

"We are facing not only COVID-19, but also the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where technology will play a more central role in everybody's life. We recognise that there will be challenges for all of us in working this way," she said. "Your input now and feedback during Term 2 will be valuable in helping UCT to improve our approach to online teaching and learning."

Understanding how COVID-19 is impacting students

The survey results underscore the many daily difficulties that students face in learning remotely, with those who left residences at short notice in March particularly affected (fortunately, some of these students have been able to return to residences for the second semester).

Challenges include finding a quiet space at home to study, carving out uninterrupted time in between caring for children or other family members, and technology and internet access issues. Interrupted electricity supply also looms large, with some areas suffering intermittent power cuts even before load-shedding resumed countrywide.

The student survey provided valuable feedback for the improvement of course content, structure, support and assessment in the third and fourth terms as outlined in the following insights:

Student mental health

The challenge the highest proportion of students faced was mental health (eg anxiety, stress or depression), cited by 2 518 students. Students are encouraged to reach out to UCT's Student Wellness Service, which is able to offer online and telephonic counselling and support.

Course content overload

Most students felt that there was too much course content for the available time. While the emergency remote teaching plans targeted a nominal 30 hours workload per week for students, implementation of this was uneven and many students still felt swamped.

Course site design

Students appreciate Vula sites, which are well designed and easy to navigate, but reported a large satisfaction gap between sites they liked the most and the least.

Assessments

Many of the difficulties that students faced with assessments arose from their personal and home circumstances. However, a surprisingly large number of students (38%) reported difficulties understanding the assessment instructions.

Social connectedness

The majority of students said that they do not feel strongly connected to other students in the online education space.

Data

Nearly 20% of students surveyed thought they had insufficient data for remote learning. This is higher in faculties such as Commerce, Engineering & the Built Environment, Science and Health Sciences, where students are expected to access more external websites.

Videos

While many courses used longer lecture videos (30 minutes or longer), students strongly preferred shorter lecture videos. When transcripts were provided, students found these helpful for a range of purposes, including creating notes or summaries and referring to them when revising. Subtitles were also found to be helpful when the lecturer's voice was unclear, to understand the content and recognise unusual terms.

Synchronous tools

While a number of courses used live sessions (synchronous tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams), not all students found these useful.

Great job

The majority of students reported that course convenors communicated well with them about what to expect, that they were able to access academic support when needed and that they received appropriate support when they ran into issues with remote assessments.

Improving negative experiences

In the document released by CILT, each of these nine insights is also accompanied by a list of practical action points that lecturers can implement to help improve students' experiences of online learning.

One recurring action point that came out of the survey results was a suggestion to establish a peer buddy system where students can check on each other and offer moral support where necessary. Having a class WhatsApp group also comes highly recommended.

In terms of combatting data as a barrier to access, CILT recommends that synchronous tools, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, should only be used when absolutely necessary and shouldn't exceed two hours. Recordings should also be made available to students who are unable to attend.

Apart from this, lecturers and course convenors are advised to keep video content short - not exceeding 10 minutes.

Benefits of remote learning

While students overwhelmingly missed in-person contact, many also valued the much greater flexibility provided by online learning and the freedom to learn at their own pace in a way that suited them, without being locked into a lecture timetable or the overhead of daily travel to and from campus.

Students reported deeper engagement with material and appreciated open-book assessments, which were less stressful than traditional sit-down written exams.

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