A good news story in the wake of COVID-19 comes from the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (EMS), where viewership of their YouTube channel, a repository for their Summer School lectures and recent webinar series, has grown dramatically. Riding on this success, Summer School will now be presented virtually from 11 to 30 January 2021.
EMS's YouTube channel has recorded 54 099 views to date, with 31 454 views for Summer School offerings, thanks to the efforts of EMS team members Zuleiga Adams and Fezile Kama. As they were unable to host their Winter School this year, the centre opted to offer webinars and short courses during the year, starting in mid-May.
The series goes under the banner "Unlocking COVID-19: Current realities, future opportunities?" and hosts virtual conversations with leading authorities, academics and alumni. By mid-July their webinars had 22 645 views.
The implications for broadening their audiences are significant, said Dr Medeé Rall, the director of EMS, which is housed in UCT's Development and Alumni Department (DAD).
"There is no doubt that this has furthered the reach of Summer School offerings, both in numbers of people registering for the webinars and courses, as well as in the more diverse audience and the international participants," said Rall. "We're seeing new people on the RSVP list each week - names that are not on our Summer School mailing list."
The high number of participants in the webinars shows how UCT's communities value learning, which is what Summer School offers - learning for all regardless of qualification.
"We're seeing new people on the RSVP list each week."
The webinars have raised important issues at a time of change and uncertainty and the growing call for society to do more to eradicate inequity and extend inclusivity. The webinar on 5 August, for example, dealt with disability and COVID-19. Other COVID-19 webinars have focused on community engagement, economic fallout and the changing nature of the "frontline" in managing the pandemic.
"By addressing difficult and important issues, EMS is contributing to making it possible for people to be informed citizens," Rall added. This is central to their work.
That many of the new audience are representatives of mainstream business and commerce points to the value and topicality of the series during a time of great uncertainty.
Other learning needs are addressed too. For example, EMS senior lecturer Dr Finuala Dowling's diary-writing course drew 50 participants from around the world. Three other writing- and arts-related courses that were recently advertised are also full.
In her launch of the Vision 2030 document to staff via a series of webinars, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said that the pandemic has forced institutions to adopt new, virtual technologies. This has also shaped EMS's thinking and planning, said Rall.
"We realised early in the pandemic that we were unlikely to be able to offer our Winter School. And as we got further into the pandemic, we realised it was unlikely [that] our international and national lecturers and participants would be able to travel. We also realised that with social distancing, we would be able to offer courses to fewer people in lecture theatres during Summer School next year."
The risk of infection in the normally bustling Summer School would also deter participants, she said.
"We embraced the future by at first thinking of a blended Summer School by offering a reduced live Summer School and some online ... courses. But as time went on and the pandemic remained, we opted to go online ... completely for Summer School 2021."
"We have become much more future focused and have been able to think big."
Rall said that the "phenomenal uptake" of the webinar series had persuaded the team; they could enter the online learning sphere and continue to offer courses throughout the year.
"This is what we plan to continue doing, even when we can go back to an in-person, live Summer School. We have become much more future focused and have been able to think big, which has been a huge pleasure - the big learning curve notwithstanding."
Online presents an opportunity to offer participants much more than just a lecture, said Rall.
"For example, with the diary-writing course participants were able to watch narrated PowerPoint presentations, receive diary entries to read and could do an assignment. With language courses, not only will course materials be provided, but participants will have instruction on Microsoft Teams and will be able to receive recordings of correct pronunciation via WhatsApp. We're able to add to the experience of learning by embracing technology in this way, making learning a richer experience."
Summer School will now offer its most popular courses, and some practical courses, such as language and some art courses, live. Participants will be able to do the rest in their own time between 11 and 30 January 2021.
"We will be making use of Microsoft Teams and the options available on this platform to offer courses - this includes the possibility for people to ask questions."
And those who love the hustle and bustle of Summer School will still be able to enjoy that in time, Rall added.
"There most certainly is still a place for the social aspect of Summer School."
"There most certainly is still a place for the social aspect of Summer School, in particular the experience of being on campus and being part of the university for three weeks and for learning at a university; appreciation for which is expressed in the evaluation forms," said Rall.
"The school itself includes the film programme - many from the [UCT] Libraries' Special Collections holdings each year - browsing at the bookshops, eating in the cafeteria, meeting up between lectures to discuss the lectures, all the elements of creating a festival of learning in the true sense. This can't be replaced by an Summer School."
"The role that Summer School can play in helping to transform UCT into a more inclusive university is immeasurable."
She added: "But we can have a traditional Summer School and online learning opportunities throughout the year to reach those who still work from and who live across the country, on the continent and abroad."
Rall and her team are upbeat.
"This is a marvellous and very exciting opportunity to reimagine, reinvigorate and in a sense relaunch Summer School in its 71st year. It is an opportunity to open the doors of learning for adults and non-traditional UCT students further and to widen access to the university and learning."
Dr Russell Ally, the executive director of DAD, added: "The incorporation of Summer School (and EMS) into the Development and Alumni Department has added another dimension to the role of the department in fundraising and alumni engagement. New avenues are being opened for funding and sponsorships and enriching the alumni experience with their alma mater. And the role that Summer School can play in helping to transform UCT into a more inclusive university is immeasurable."