For two years, universities in South Africa and around the world have been doing their best to provide students with quality education under the adverse conditions precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), based in Johannesburg, South Africa, we implemented emergency distance teaching and learning in online mode in April 2020, less than a month after the imposition of the first national confinement.
We did this by ensuring that each course had an active site on our learning management system (LMS), hiring additional instructional designers to help scholars use the LMS effectively, and providing datasets, loaner laptops, and many online and telephone academic and psychosocial services. student support.
At the end of 2020, it was clear that distance learning and teaching should continue in 2021, but some contact sessions were necessary for experiential learning, such as laboratory work, practice, in studio and clinic. It was also clear that the existing LMS was unable to meet the increased demand.
So we developed a learning and teaching plan that included moving to a new LMS and planned experiential learning activities in blocks for small groups of students at a time.
From January to March 2021, we transitioned the entire university to a new LMS.
The new LMS, combined with support from an increased pool of instructional designers and greater familiarity and ease among academics with teaching in online mode, has enabled us to begin to emerge from emergency mode and begin gradually to implement the principles of good online teaching and learning.
A blended teaching and learning approach
In mid-2021, as vaccination rates increased and COVID-19 cases declined, based on the best available scientific advice, Wits implemented a blended teaching and learning approach in 2022, in line with our 2020-24 learning and teaching plan.
Government restrictions did not allow us to fill our teaching rooms to capacity, nor did we want to return to rooms full of hundreds of students quietly listening to a lecture.
Our version of blending would allow us to regularly bring students back to campus in limited-size groups for interactive educational activities, including experiential learning, discussion classes, seminars, and tutorials, while maintaining an active site for each course on the LMS for presentations, educational resource courses, certain assessments, and interactions with students, tutors, and scholars.
The Gateway to Success program is born
A big concern was how the 2022 cohort of new freshmen would fare. The different levels of confinement imposed in 2020 and 2021 caused them to experience almost two years of disrupted schooling.
We knew our usual one-week orientation program wouldn’t be enough to help these students find their bearings in college. We needed something wider, deeper and longer.
As Senior Director: Academic (Diane Grayson) and Dean of Student Affairs (Jerome September), we wanted to integrate the elements of academic and student life to create a holistic and seamless transition from high school to university and the Gateway to Success program was therefore developed.
Gateway to Success is a new three-week blended program for over 6,000 freshmen, featuring both online and on-campus activities.
It included a short, fully online, interdisciplinary course titled Climate Change and Me, which provided a common intellectual experience for all students, helped them develop specific academic skills, including academic reading and writing, and helped to learn how to use the LMS.
There were three other online courses: Digital Capabilities, Academic Integrity, and a faculty-specific content course. Taken together, the online courses were designed to require approximately 25 hours of student engagement per week.
During the first two weeks of on-campus sessions, students were divided into groups by faculty, and each group attended two half-day sessions per week, one faculty-led session and one student life, with trained mentors who will support them. throughout the year.
During the third week, students continued online classes and attended sessions on student life on campus for half a day each day, which included cultural, personal development, social and recreational activities and campus tours. On the last day, the students attended an exciting football match, during which they were officially welcomed into the university.
There were several challenges during the implementation of the program, including the precarious living conditions of some students, the lack of resources at home and the coordination of the multiple components of this intensive program.
However, good project management, combined with a shared sense of responsibility, allowed problems to be detected and resolved quickly.
We collect evaluation data throughout the year to determine the impact of the Gateway to Success program. In response to a survey conducted one week after the program, completed by 56% of students, the vast majority of students indicated that they had benefited from the program, and 95% said they were proud to be called “Witsies “.
Given the strong link between student success and a sense of belonging, this is a great start for our new freshmen. We hope to improve this program in the years to come and make it an effective means of facilitating the transition from secondary education to higher education.
Professor Diane Grayson is the Senior Director of Academic Affairs and Jerome September is the Dean of Student Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.