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Data problems stack up but lecturers push hard online to keep students on course

06 May 2020 - 10:23 By Mpho Koka and Amina Asma
Lecturers and tutors are using technology to communicate and facilitate course work with students but there are communication challenges.
Lecturers and tutors are using technology to communicate and facilitate course work with students but there are communication challenges.
Image: Pixabay

Lecturers at the North West University (NWU), Rhodes University (RU) and University of the Free State (UFS) have opened up about some their experiences and challenges with regard to the roll out of online teaching and learning at their respective institutions.

Prof Barry Hanyane of the NWU faculty of humanities’ school of social and government studies, said the institution’s e-learning medium and “The Chatroom” allowed him to communicate with students during the lockdown.

“The NWU has an already existing platform of eFundi as an e-learning medium which allows interaction with students remotely,” said Hanyane. “Critical functions within the system such as 'The Chatroom' can be utilised to reach out to students,” he added.

Hanyane was quick to hasten that these e-learning methods of communicating with students come with their own difficulties.

“However, some students from disadvantaged backgrounds may find access to these functions impossible given their socio-economic status.”

For Paloma Giustizieri, a first-year journalism and media studies tutor at Rhodes University,  WhatsApp has been her method of communication with students during this phase of online teaching and learning.

She said tutors have been in communication with the course co-ordinators constantly and have been mainly communicating with them and students via WhatsApp.

“We’ve been trying to update each other and be on the same page through texting and I’ve managed to call each of my tutlings [students] at least once since the beginning of this term to fully explain things to them,” said Paloma.

Like Hanyane, she said there were challenges.

 “Challenges have been a lack of data. Some students see important messages a few days later and the communication lines are not very clear,” she added.

In her department, course co-ordinators have set up assignments and tasks each week for the students to complete. Students then submit their work via e-mail and the tutors have a few days to get back to them with feedback.

She added that “the journalism department at Rhodes University is communicating well — from my own experience”.

“However, not all departments are on the same page and students are suffering because their voices and needs are not being heard. The process is slow and requires patience to fully gain anything out of the experience.”

Similarly, first-year politics tutor Tsholofelo Manamela, also at Rhodes, says the nature of her job means she is the first go-to person for students who need help with their course work under normal circumstances, and that this move to remote learning would double that demand.

“The guidelines that have been put in place have not changed much, because there is an understanding that with online learning students are going to go at the pace that they can go due to an array of reasons, and in turn the conditions for DP removal [due performance — what students avoid otherwise they are unable to sit for the exams] have been altered accordingly,” said Manamela.

She told TimesLIVE that she plans to give her students learning plans and hopes that will help keep them up to date with what is being taught and when. Regarding students who are yet to receive the needed learning and teaching devices and mobile data, her plan is to keep them in the loop via phone calls.

“The most important thing is consistency, supporting them and working according to a good work schedule, which is what I am trying to do right now,” she added.

For UFS lecturer Dr Jacques Jordaan, a research methodology and social statistics lecturer to social sciences students, a combination of physical and online means is how he communicates with his students during the online teaching & learning phase.

“I lecture Research Methdology and Statistics to Social Sciences students and I tried to stick to my way of lecturing as much as possible as my students already became used to my methods of teaching. I therefore created video recordings of my outstanding lectures, with subtitles, for my students to understand the work better and to visualise and see what I am explaining,” said Jordaan.

“This was a better option for me than to expect them to do self-study of the material,” he added.

“They can work through the original PowerPoint slides, watch the lecture videos that I have uploaded on their student platform (i.e., Blackboard), work through the exercises in their workbooks and then start sending inquiries when they struggle with anything.”

Jordaan further explains how he adopts flexible teaching methods to cater for the needs for all his students.

“I also uploaded extra material explaining the work should there be students who are not visual learners, but who prefer reading more about the material. We are also covering one topic per week to ensure that no student falls behind and that they have enough time to master each week’s work.”

UFS had its orientation of online teaching and learning orientation from 20 – 30 April. This mode of learning will be used to complete the first semester at the institution.

NWU ran its orientation of online teaching and learning from April 17 -30. Actual online classes with assessments began on May 4.

Rhodes had its online teaching and learning orientation phase from April 20-30. Online classes involving assessments began on May 4.  

When the coronavirus pandemic hit SA, minister of higher education, training, science and innovation Blade Nzimande ordered institutions of higher learning to go on early recess from March 17.

Since then, SA has been on lockdown, starting on March 27, affecting the resumption of the second quarter of the 2020 academic year.

This led to institutions exploring the route of e-learning to salvage the year.

Last Thursday, minister Nzimande said his department had resolved not to resume campus-based academic activity at any university or TVET college, both public and private, during level 4 lockdown.