South Africa: UCT's Approach to Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning

Introducing emergency remote teaching and learning at the University of Cape Town (UCT) amid the global COVID-19 pandemic has been a multipronged, cross-disciplinary process that has required agility and collective buy-in from role players across the university.

Formal remote teaching kicked off on 28 April and UCT's Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), based at the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), has played an integral part in ensuring this temporary learning methodology is effectively enabled and runs according to plan.

Laura Czerniewicz, the director of CILT, and Sukaina Walji, the acting deputy director, unpacked the university's emergency remote teaching and learning plan, the strategies that are in place and some of the stumbling blocks.

"The move to remote teaching was unusually rapid. There was no time for the usual deliberate course design or online teaching strategies," said Czerniewicz.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in mid-March that the country would enter lockdown Level 5, he also called for the immediate and indefinite shutdown of university residences. Czerniewicz said her department needed to shift gear completely. It was critical to support academics and course convenors to develop course material fit for remote teaching in order for students to continue the academic programme from their homes.

"We knew that the type of [online] learning would need to take into account the contexts of our students."

"We knew that the type of [online] learning would need to take into account the contexts of our students and we advocated for low-tech remote teaching," Walji added.

Low-tech remote teaching uses technical teaching strategies that promote asynchronous learning and allow learning to take place in different environments using little bandwidth.

Tech innovations in place

The department successfully enhanced Vula, the university's online collaboration and learning system, for the second semester to include several engaging features:

a new tool, similar to a Facebook wall, for posts and updates

redesigned text editor content templates, which boast speech bubbles and idea icons

a simple assignment grading tool, which includes a student progress bar

rubric grading to integrate assignments, tests and quizzes in a single gradebook

a template that enables easy course set-up and design using 2020 course site and page templates.

Prior enhancements include Zoom video conferencing and improved learning analytics.

Strategies to support academics

CILT has taken a "multipronged" approach to supporting academics, and it continues to evolve. The team developed the Design Studio short course, a four-week programme tailored towards academics and course convenors at UCT. It provides a "rapid design space" that offers academics tips on how to restructure or redevelop course material fit for remote learning using a "structured approach".

The course offers live check-in and discussion sessions that provide reviews and instant feedback. To date, more than 250 academics have signed up and participated in this short course.

Further, the team also devised a course design checklist, which highlights the areas convenors need to "pay attention" to, based on students' interactions and responses, as well as resource guidelines, weekly webinars and regular hands-on consultations.

"Teaching and learning remotely happened [as a result of] hard work from everyone across the university, by working together crossing traditional boundaries and silos during what was often a contested discourse," said Walji.

The drawbacks

Conceptualising and developing this integrated learning methodology required assistance from different functions across the university, including UCT Libraries, the Student Wellness Service and the Disability Service, all of which have played critical roles in this process.

In some areas the remote teaching and learning experience can be enhanced. Such strategies are constantly being reviewed and include improving the quality of course material, restructuring the course site and introducing a better support system for students' tutorials, discussions and assessments.

Studying online means students need to implement their own time management strategies to keep track of their coursework. In addition to this, students have had to face many common challenges, which include feeling "disconnected" from peers and experiencing network connectivity problems.

Recalibrating the course workload has also been "particularly challenging" and a steep learning curve for academics. The lessons learnt during this process are being drawn on to implement changes in the second semester and beyond.

Beyond COVID-19

While challenging in many respects, emergency remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed creative and innovative thinking. It has also provided a vantage point from which to reflect on and review this new learning methodology in comparison to traditional learning for the coming post-COVID-19 world.

In recent weeks, the department has facilitated "fruitful" discussions on alternative (online) assessment techniques for beyond the pandemic.

"It is likely that there will be more digitally mediated learning as academics have experimented with different tools and experienced a range of learning strategies made possible through the online environment," Walji said.

"This may well lead to new forms of blended learning in the future."

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