The 2020 academic year will be globally remembered as a time of personal, social and educational upheaval and disruption. All spheres of society had to rapidly adapt to unknown circumstances of isolation and lockdown. Higher education, as all other educational fields, had to swiftly rethink teaching, learning and assessment (TLA) in this period of unpredictability and fully online learning.
The onset of COVID-19 in South Africa came near the beginning of the academic year. Academics across South Africa were obliged to rethink their TLA offerings. Academics at Stellenbosch University (SU) were compelled to prepare for and institute emergency remote teaching (ERT) to replace conventional face-to-face (F2F) student interaction with fully online learning. It was communicated in the SU community that the purpose of ERT was not to create a robust online educational ecosystem. The aim, rather, was to establish a temporary online initiative that could be easily set up and provide opportunity for continuous, just-in-time support by responding to the evolving needs of students and teaching staff. Consequently, ERT required the rethinking and adaptation of our existing offering for delivery via SUNLearn, the university’s Moodle-based learning management system (LMS).
Our objective was to design for active student involve-ment and to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning whilst keeping the approach as simple as possible.
Reconceptualizing TLA for a research-intensive residential institution that is home to an academic community of approximately 29 000 students and approximately 1000 academics was not an easy task. Although teaching and learning practices at SU are mostly embedded in a blended mode of delivery, moving to fully online learning came with its own challenges. Various factors, such as academic expectations and standards, a diverse student cohort and different contextual dynamics, placed pres-sure on academics and professional academic support service (PASS) staff to create a seamless and integrated online learning experience for all students irrespective of background and ability. The Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement (DLTE), consisting of the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the Centre for Learning Technologies (CLT), the Language Centre and the Centre for Academic Planning and Quality Assurance, played a central role in supporting academic staff and students via a wide range of individual consultations, collaborative webinars and targeted resource development.
As part of interrogating and reflecting on our own practice during the first semester (March to June) of the COVID-19 pandemic and ERT, the authors were invited to reflect on their unique professional experiences. Apart from a focus on scholarly reflection, we also aimed to provide an opportunity for collaboration by inviting teaching academics to coauthor with PASS staff from the DLTE. The authors reflected on their contextualized experiences during the first semester by asking the following questions based on the framework of Rolfe, Freshwater and Jasper (2001):
It was furthermore suggested to the authors that they align their chapters with the Designing Learning, Teaching and Assessment (DeLTA) framework. The framework was conceptualized by the CTL in its mandate of sup-porting lecturers with their teaching function. ‘DeLTA’ is the acronym for this process and framework, but ‘DeLTA’ is also the mathematical symbol for change and is represented by ∆. During COVID-19, the DeLTA process and framework was adapted for the ERT environment to align all TLA functions. The adapted DeLTA framework is available here.
Two overarching themes serve as key threads across all the chapters. Firstly, a reframing of the notion of change can be observed – from merely a disruption to an invitation to adapt and respond to emerging and discomforting conditions in the context of TLA. Each chapter illustrates how the COVID-19 crisis in some way triggered a necessary change, whether this manifested as a new perspective, a developed professional practice or the implementation of a new TLA approach.
Secondly, the notion of ‘care’ underpins the narrative of nearly every chapter. The authors reflect on highly collaborative and iterative processes of finding new and practical solutions in the ERT period whilst ensuring that they maintain their awareness of sound pedagogical principles. Institutional role-players that may not have worked closely together prior to the pandemic describe how they became increasingly dependent on one another’s professional expertise and knowledge domains. They had to invite a larger number of voices and consider other staff members’ and students’ lived experiences more attentively in order to balance the implementation of practical solutions with the shared objective to maintain the quality of SU’s academic offering. Consequently, the chapters reveal a heightened awareness of the need at SU for a professional academic support approach that is firmly rooted in empathy and a TLA philosophy that draws on a pedagogy of care.
This publication is written by professional academic support staff and teaching academics who experienced educational challenges and opportunities during the first semester of the COVID-19 period.
“This book attempts to offer honest, reflective insights into the scholarly and practical activities of a proportion of staff members involved in the continuous support of sound TLA practices during this period of ERT. We celebrate lessons we have learned, but also aim to build on identified opportunities for change and further critical reflection.”
Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D. & Jasper, M. (2001). Critical re-flection in nursing and the helping professions: A user’s guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.