Wits University in Johannesburg will be switching to the online remote learning environment from Monday, April 20. Various measures have been put in place to address remote learning challenges.

A quick overview of the measures put in place by Wits University as the institution prepares for remote online learning from April 20, 2020. GRAPHIC: Emma O’Connor GRAPHIC TEXT: Vetiwe Mamba. 

Wits has announced that it will switch to “remote online teaching” from Monday, April 20, as South Africa remains in lockdown until at least the end of April this year. The university went into early recess on Tuesday, March 17, in light of safety concerns due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The full statement from the university is included below:

“The University of the Witwatersrand (aka Wits University) will switch to remote online teaching and learning from 20 April 2020. This is alongside a range of other contingency and continuity plans.

Wits academics have spent the past few weeks adapting the academic programme to go online largely through the University’s learning management systems, in developing additional resources for remote learning and in preparing to host these sites in the cloud. The University has also put in place additional measures to address challenges related to the lack of appropriate mobile computing devices and access to data.

“We are acutely aware of the anxiety and uncertainty that online teaching and learning presents for both our colleagues and students. The world as we know it is in flux, and it will take our collective courage, dexterity and commitment to fend off the effects of this pandemic and to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning,” says Professor Adam Habib, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal. “While the faculties will ensure that the requisite support is in place, our students will have to make an extraordinary effort to adapt to remote online learning, particularly over the next few months.”

The University is aware that the playing field is uneven and that whilst many in society and our community enjoy greater levels of privilege, the consequences of the pandemic have illuminated and amplified the existing inequalities in our society – with the poor, marginal, precarious and under-resourced disproportionally experiencing its fallout. “We understand that our emergency remote teaching and learning plan has to take into consideration the different learning environments of our students and their access to learning resources, appropriate devices and data,” says Professor Ruksana Osman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic.

Access to devices, data and learning resources

Multiple surveys across the institution have revealed that between 10% and 15% of Wits students do not have access to appropriate computing devices, adequate access to data or conducive learning environments. To this end, the University is putting in place the following measures to ensure that the majority of students are able to learn remotely:

  1. Wits has established a Mobile Computing Bank which will enable qualifying students who do not have access to appropriate mobile learning devices to loan basic devices from the Bank. These basic computing devices will be suitable for educational purposes and will be pre-loaded with the required learning resources before being delivered via the South African Post Office to students who absolutely need them. The cost of the device will be added to students’ fee accounts and will be reversed if the device is returned in good order at the end of the 2020 academic year. The students most in need will be prioritised when devices are allocated.
  2. The University has finalised an agreement with four telecommunications service providers: Telkom, MTN, Vodacom and Cell C to zero-rate Wits’ library and learning management sites from 15 April 2020. The full list of zero-rated sites is available via this link: https://www.wits.ac.za/mywits/zero-rated-data-to-students-and-applicants/

There are specific disciplines that may be patient-based, laboratory-based, studio-based or involve creative practices that cannot be undertaken online. In these instances, the University will explore high intensity immersion classes when it resumes contact teaching, resequencing the academic year to allow for theory to be taught online upfront followed by the practical and laboratory-based components later in the year, and perhaps even recalibrate the almanac.

In cases where students do not have access to any device or data, other options are being explored, including the possibility of using the South African Post Office to deliver paper-based material to our students. Additional support will be made available for students when contact teaching resumes, and particularly for students who will have had difficulty in transitioning to online learning. It may be necessary for face-to-face lectures to be extended through the September and December vacation breaks and for some cohorts, to extend the academic programme into 2021.

Students pursuing their Masters or PhD degrees will continue to research from home. A list of the library sites that have been zero-rated has already been shared with all postgraduate students.

“The next few weeks are going to be challenging for us as a country and as a University. We have no choice but to stand strong in order to overcome this common invisible enemy. We should galvanise our resources to achieve one common goal – to see our students succeed. In so doing, we will develop the high level skills to rebuild our country and produce the problem-posers and problem-solvers needed to tackle the complex problems that confront our society,” adds Osman.

Professor Habib concludes: “We will emerge from this crisis – stronger and more resilient than ever. This is a complex challenge that will require multiple responses from all of us. Let us use this time to find each other and to work together towards a common goal for our students, our staff and our common humanity.

FEATURE IMAGE: Wits switches to remote online learning from Monday, April 20. Photo: File.