The Wits senior executive team has announced that academic activities will resume online.

Wits University has decided to take its academic activities online from Monday, April 20, but students registered for degrees that involve significant practical components, say they have reservations about the decision. 

Wits University announced the decision to take the academic programme online through the use of online portals such as Sakai and Microsoft 365 on Wednesday, April 1, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic which has South Africa in lock-down till the end of April 2020.

Students in the science/engineering, arts and medical faculties say they are concerned about their required laboratory sessions, fieldwork and stage/studio rehearsals that is required to fulfill the requirements of their degrees. Many of the students say they do not have the resources to do these at home as may be required.

Mongezi Ntukwana, a fourth-year theatre & performance student, told Wits Vuvuzela that his department has explored the idea of “self takes”, which involves the students using a digital device (smart phone, laptop or tablet) to record their performances that will submitted for assessment. He added though that, “it is, however, still unclear how the department plans to assess practical work online”.  

“I use my bedroom space to rehearse but I am restrained by the size of the space. I may have to deliver a performance that won’t show my full range (in terms of physical movement and vocal volume),” Ntukwana says. 

 Alyssa Cohen, fourth-year BA dramatic arts, says, “our degree requires putting theory into practice and we lose out if we only focus on the theoretical element, it changes the whole experience”. Cohen told Wits Vuvuzela that although she would be learning the theory, she won’t know if she is “implementing it correctly”. “I fear that I won’t gain the abilities and skills needed for my degree in the practical level.” 

Moeketsi Chakale, a third-year BSc mining engineering student, says that with the online system in place, he, “will not be able to do lab practicals which contribute 25% to the overall year mark.”  He added that “tackling the course alone in a remote area with no one to consult with will be difficult.”

The head of school for electrical & information engineering,  Professor Estelle Trengove told Wits Vuvuzela, “We are thinking of videoing some of the laboratories and setting quizzes on the laboratory videos on Sakai, but that will only be possible if some students are allowed back onto campus again”.

Trengove added that for students to attain certain exit-level outcomes, they will have to be in the labs, designing, building and testing things. “Many of the projects require specialised software or equipment and students will only be able to complete these projects when they are back on campus,” Trengrove says. 

Nicholas Makins, fourth-year MBBCh, says that practical work for medical students at Wits is also on hold at the moment. “Currently no academic activity is taking place. Once lockdown is over, practical teaching will resume,” Makins says.

While blending online-learning with practicals will prove to be a challenge, others have spoken out about connectivity issues and inaccessibility to smart devices. Bongane Sigauque, third-year actuarial science, told Wits Vuvuzela that he has no access to a laptop at home and has an outdated windows computer. 

Sigauque also says that zero-rated websites, (offered by the institutions in collaboration with various mobile networks) will not be enough to help him effectively engage with his course content. “I need YouTube and I need google to find certain information that will help me understand,” Sigauque says.  

In a statement released on Wednesday, April 1, the university says that it is aware that approximately 10-15% of its students do not have access to smart devices and that relevant faculties and deans have been asked to implement specific plans in this regard. The university says it is also in the process of finalising the adjusted university almanac for the rest of the year and is expected to release this in the next week. It remains unclear how long the university will resort to online classes but it says it is committed to offering extensive support to students when contact teaching resumes. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Students at Wits university express their concerns with having to adapt to the new academic structure as lectures prepare to go digital. Photo: File