University Capabilities – Classroom Courses to COVID-19 Curricula was the title of a webinar hosted by UKZN on the Zoom platform.

Presenters included Professor Philani Moyo of the University of Fort Hare, Dr Wan Puspa Melati of Taylor’s University in Malaysia, Professor Nelago Indongo of the University of Namibia and Professor Katherine Lyon of the University of British Columbia in Canada. The webinar was moderated by UKZN’s Society and Social Change Cluster Leader and Clinical Sociologist, Dr Mariam Seedat Khan.

The University of British Columbia’s Lyon delivered a paper co-authored with Professor Siobhan McPhee on Teaching for Student Resilience: Feedback from Students in Canada on the COVID-19 Transition to Remote Education.

Lyon said the transition to virtual education took place with three days’ notice in mid-March in Canada. ‘Over a weekend, 99% of courses that had been face-to-face at the university went online,’ said Lyon.

She said they could keep their existing assessments, or change the structure, or they could even cancel their remaining papers and exams and let students keep the grade they had. ‘The faculty was advised that they could teach live or they could teach pre-recorded, so we had a lot of choices.’

Lyon and McPhee were motivated to conduct their study on emergency remote education as they reflected on the challenges faced by students during the global COVID-19 pandemic. ‘We knew that other COVID-19 barriers and demands compounded students’ educational challenges. We knew that many of these barriers were systemic and that all we had control over was our teaching and our interactions with our students,’ said Lyon.

‘Our motivation for the study was to inquire about students’ pedagogical needs in their emergency remote education and to use this information to inform immediate teaching practice.’

Lyon said student feedback indicated that non-academic barriers impeded their course involvement. ‘On average, students experienced a 32% decrease in their course engagement in the post-transition online context. Three-quarters of students were at some point ‘unable to focus on studies due to non-academic-related challenges. This lack of focus was due primarily to personal circumstances, as well as anxiety, stress, uncertainty, and low motivation.’

She said that students in the Canadian context asked for structured flexibility in remote course design, regular centralised communication, and consistency in educational tools and platforms.

Their findings showed that given their complex circumstances, students appreciated course components that kept them on track and on schedule but that also gave them some agency and freedom. ‘So live online lectures with required attendance were not manageable for at least 20% of students who responded to the survey. This was due to technical issues, personal responsibilities and time zones.’

She added that 60% of students said online lectures that could also be viewed later were their preferred method of lecture delivery.

Melati, a senior lecturer at Taylor’s University in Malaysia, presented on: Embracing COVID-19 Curricula: Are we ready?

She suggested disparity in infrastructure and resources, the readiness of the workforce, and the lack of access by students to the internet, data and computers could impact on adapting to a “new normal”.

To illustrate the disparity in access to “good, stable” internet, Melati relayed the story of a resourceful Malaysian university student Ms Veveonah Mosibin whose remote village has limited access to the internet. In preparation for taking her online exams, she built a small shelter in an area with internet access – unfortunately the make-shift building blew down on the day of the exam. The courageous student climbed a tree for access to broadband services to do her online reviews. Melati said the student stayed in the tree for 24 hours to complete two exams!

Moyo, who is the Director of the Fort Hare Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Fort Hare, focused on how the global COVID-19 pandemic had affected researchers and data collection in the field. ‘COVID-19 has forced us to change the way we do social science data collection in so many ways,’ said Moyo. ‘The change has meant that research is done via online platforms, with particular emphasis on re-thinking face-to-face data collection.’

A leading scholar and sociologist, Moyo emphasised his reliance on community-based researchers for two climate change research projects he is currently working on, along with a team of researchers. ‘We have done intensive remote training for these community-based researchers. We have taken them through training in research ethics, and we are doing this virtually through online platforms,’ he said.

Unemployed graduates are assisting with interviews for the research projects as ‘they have a much deeper and broader appreciation for academic, social science research.’ Moyo cautioned that conducting phone-based or electronic interviews could be challenging as there was a loss of rapport when doing data collection online and that it was impossible to do visual sociology online.

Indongo, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Statistics and Population Studies and Director of the Multidisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Namibia, shared her experiences and coping mechanisms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indongo said universities globally were affected in their service provision. ‘It was indeed business as usual at the beginning of this academic year. We prepared for traditional in-person classes,’ she said. However, things suddenly changed, and ‘the university corridors were inactive, lecture halls were quiet. The pandemic forced universities to close campuses and in-person classes.’

Indongo said the concern was: ‘How do we impart knowledge, skills and guidance under the given circumstance while ensuring the quality of our products is not compromised?’

She said universities were “somewhat prepared” due to embracing the fourth industrial revolution – so online learning was not new for many universities, including the University of Namibia, ‘however it was on a smaller scale, and easy to manage.’

She advocated using online platforms, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Moodle, and forming academic WhatsApp groups. She emphasised the importance of active participation of all students and excellent communication when conducting online teaching and learning.

Questions raised during the webinar related to the digital divide, research limitations and ethical clearances, the absence of visual sociology and human engagement, the urban, rural divide and the access to devices.

UKZN’s Professor Mogie Subban highlighted the impact of the sedentary lifestyles of some university staff who sit for long periods of time, saying it was important to note the “occupational hazards” and sedentary injuries employees were vulnerable to when working under such conditions. Subban suggested that checks be made on ‘the ergonomics of our re-designed work spaces and lifestyles’ and proposed that sedentary employees be encouraged to ‘exercise every day, striking a balance between competing work commitments and simple resistance activities in periodic intervals.

‘Exercise routines may include aerobic and anaerobic activity with flexibility training. Employees should guard against being at risk for musculoskeletal injuries and other long-term effects on their overall mental and physical health and well-being,’ added Subban.

To view the webinar visit: https://youtu.be/NSbN0fC6d0o.

Words and image: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer