Dr Greig Krull
Academic Director: Online Learning
University of Witwatersrand
In my previous short piece, I highlighted the importance of lecturers evaluating their readiness for moving to emergency remote teaching and learning. In this piece, I would like to focus on supporting students to prepare for remote learning. Many contact universities in South Africa are providing orientation periods before embarking on remote teaching and learning to help students learn how to use new technologies and become aware of the various channels to obtain support. We should not underestimate how stressful and challenging this period of learning is going to be for our students. In addition to dealing with the socio-economic and health challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, students need to transition to a completely new way of learning in a short space of time. For first-year students still adjusting to the transition from high school to higher education, this transition becomes even more daunting.
In the Commerce, Law and Management (CLM) Faculty, at the University of the Witwatersrand, we developed a short orientation programme that focused on the following priority areas:
- How to get started: Introducing students to a new way of teaching and learning, whereby students can learn about how remote learning works, what equipment is needed, what to expect for the rest of the semester, the availability of various university services and who to contact for various types of support needed.
- How to develop study skills: Providing students with guidelines on how to manage their time, create a study timetable and routine, setup a home study environment (where possible) and how to engage online.
- How to use the various tools and technologies: Providing students with guidelines on how to use the various tools and technologies needed for remote learning and giving them an opportunity to practice using these tools.
- How to ensure well-being during the disruption: Providing students with guidelines for how to maintain physical, emotional and mental well-being during the disruption and where to get support or information if they need help.
- Inviting dialogue and feedback: Providing opportunities for students to share their expectations, concerns and frustrations. These can also be used to build up a set of FAQs.
In the South African context, many students will experience connectivity and technology challenges. A concerted effort to provide a “learning with low tech” approach will help to cater for as many students as possible. For example, orientation resources should be available in various formats (such as video, audio, pictures and text) so that students can access materials in a way that is possible for them and can work through these offline. Students may have other responsibilities at home or be sharing limited resources with other family members, so it is important to be flexible so that students can go online when it is convenient for them.
In addition to a general orientation at an institutional or faculty level, specific orientation also needs to happen within individual courses. Lecturers need to provide guidance and support to students when introducing new types of learning or assessment activities or requiring students to learn how to use new tools. Orientation should not be limited to the week before online classes start, but take place throughout this period of disruption. Clear and simple instructions will help students to understand what is expected of them throughout this period.
During this challenging time, the most important thing is to keep your attention focused on your students and be empathetic and open. If you share your vulnerabilities with your students and that this is new for you as well, you can embark on this unique learning experience together.