University of Johannesburg

TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE ERA OF COVID-19: UNIVERSITY OF JOHANNESBURG (UJ)

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) is an institution that embodies the principles of critical thinking and meaningful collaboration, anchored in Africa and dynamically shaping the future. UJ is also one of the largest residential universities in the country and has close to 50 000 students across four campuses. One of the strategic thrusts of UJ is to lead Africa into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), otherwise known as Global Excellence and Stature 4.0 (GES 4.0), and UJ’s excellence in teaching and learning (T&L) has been underpinned by innovative efforts made to integrate technology into curricula and overall learning experiences. UJ has leading experts that ensure that the University community embraces all new technology and impart the knowledge necessary to bring the 4IR to the continent and its people. UJ’s experts are led by Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, who advances the University’s vision of excellence in teaching, research and innovation, internationalisation, public scholarship and community engagement, and importantly, to fulfil the strategic goal of UJ to become Africa’s epicentre of critical intellectual inquiry and a leader in the 4IR.

  • Institutional approach towards digital learning

Prior to the national lockdown, UJ had already prioritised the repackaging of knowledge via the implementation of online courses, and blended modules – teaching strategies being augmented by ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) – which combined online learning with traditional face-to-face classroom learning. UJ has not been oblivious to the challenges presented from the outbreak of COVID-19, and while many students have faced difficulties with accessing devices and data, UJ has continued to search for appropriate T&L solutions to make the transition from face-to-face learning to remote learning as efficient and inclusive as possible for all students and academic staff members. UJ supports the continuation of the 2020 academic programme, and Monday, 20 April 2020 marked the start of the second term and the official switch from face-to-face content delivery to remote learning until UJ closes for the autumn recess.

  • Role of different professional support structures during the remote teaching period

Some of the divisions in UJ that have worked tirelessly on ensuring the smooth transition to remote learning include the Information and Communications Systems (ICS) division, Finance, and the Centre for Academic Technologies (CAT) in the Division of Academic Development and Support (ADS). The Division of Academic Planning, Quality Promotion and Academic Staff Development has been available to assist with amendments to existing programmes, programme development, and effecting these online, with staff development workshops and other engagements currently being moved online. The primary purpose of CAT has been to promote the use of innovative academic technologies in advancing UJ’s strategic intent of attaining GES 4.0, and UJ’s student portal (uLink) is housed and maintained within this centre, where students and academic staff members access Blackboard – a learning management solution at UJ. Blackboard allows students and staff members to access academic modules and helps students stay informed, up-to-date, and connected. Academic staff members currently use Blackboard for online assessing, communicating announcements, hosting virtual discussions, and delivering module material via PowerPoint slides and recordings.

  • Professional support / learning opportunities for academics during this period

To support senior academic staff member’s efforts, Senior Tutors, Tutors and Assistant Lecturers have been included in all T&L processes, teaching evaluations are currently being implemented online, and all academic staff have access to the Blackboard module ‘The UJ Online Teaching Toolkit’ which is designed to assist academic staff in navigating the Blackboard environment. The toolkit provides comprehensive details and instructions on how to convert traditional lecture material into bite-size, digestible online content for students. ICS has further supported these efforts by providing instructions on how to use WhatsApp groups, Microsoft Teams and Zoom to effectively facilitate online discussions with colleagues and students. Currently, the UJ Library has been pioneering online discussions, training sessions, and public lectures via Zoom – all of which have run smoothly and have been supported with additional video material uploaded on the Library’s YouTube channels and Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook social media pages, respectively. UJ also recognizes that fully online learning and remote working may lead to anxiety and decreased morale during this time. As such, the Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development (PsyCaD) in ADS has provided a 24-hour crisis line and online consultations for staff members and students who require psycho-social support and advice on how best to emotionally navigate an entirely online environment over the next few months.

  • Learning support offered to students during this period

After countless attempts to support our students’ requests, and in partnership with South African cellular network providers (MTN, Vodacom, Cell C and Telkom Mobile), access to data has been temporarily addressed and our students would have already received 30GB data, along with those students who qualify for devices to receive them at the earliest date possible. UJ will continue to engage with telecommunications providers and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to arrive at more sustainable solutions to data access to support online T&L over the next few months. Additionally, supervision for postgraduate students and postdoctoral research fellows will continue using electronic platforms. Overall, our academic, professional and support staff’s response to this crisis has been outstanding, demonstrating their commitment to seeing the 2020 academic year completed while still ensuring that our students are not disadvantaged in any way, and that content delivery is done so meaningfully and purposely without having to take away from the students’ overall learning experience. This, in itself, has also shown the importance of having educators who are not only agile, but also have a deep understanding of their subject matter and how it can be repackaged given the current circumstances. In addition, our University’s investment and commitment to positioning UJ within the 4IR have paid off, as demonstrated by various 4IR solutions and free online courses such as ‘Artificial Intelligence the 4IR’ – a fully online, self-paced short learning programme offered to all students and staff members at UJ.

The University leadership continues to monitor the COVID-19 situation and any updates regarding the lockdown and T&L are communicated via the University’s official communication platforms. We thank our UJ community for working with perseverance and passion during these trying times to ensure that the shift to fully online working and T&L is as seamless as possible.