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Digitisation of Teaching and Learning: Rethinking this essential part of the university’s business

By Eugene Seegers

Dr Engela

Dr Engela van Staden,
Vice-Rector: Academic at the UFS.
Photo: Sonia Small

As a result of the COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and a resultant South African lockdown, most of the 26 public universities across the country were forced to revise their academic calendars to still be able to educate students. Bult spoke to Dr Engela van Staden, Vice-Rector: Academic at the University of the Free State (UFS), to find out what this entailed for our institution.

What was the university’s strategy to rethink teaching and learning?

At the beginning of 2020, we started reconsidering the way in which the UFS deploys the teaching component, which we call Digitisation of Teaching. Part of this process was to ask How can we offer some of these modules, or themes within modules, or certain components in a programme, in a digital format?

This approach entails that, when we design a programme which needs face-to-face contact or lab work, we formulate non-contact theoretical components into self-learning ones through digitised content. Or it can be changed into a flipped classroom, where the preparation is done on a Blackboard discussion forum. This latter method takes students to the next level, augmenting their knowledge through supplementary content.

The UFS is also looking into innovative interventions and other 4IR concepts, such as the project-based learning in our Faculty of Health Sciences, which uses clinical simulation dolls.

How has the COVID-19 lockdown affected teaching and learning at the UFS?

We had to rethink our whole academic calendar, with input from all the faculties, considering which scenario would be the most plausible and practical. For the Bloemfontein and Qwaqwa Campuses, it posed a significant challenge to rewrite learning materials in accessible formats for this Emergency Remote Teaching.

So, the strategy we adopted was that – for immediate needs – teaching and learning must go on. The question, though, was how? We realised that our lecturers, as well as our students, needed access to technology, which would have an impact on effective teaching and learning.

We bypassed this hurdle by crafting a series of #TeachOn and #LearnOn editions from the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), which prepared academia to put their material into a digital mode or redesign content to be more accessible [also read the related article in this issue of the e-Bult]. With our knowledge of and insights into our student base, we realised that it would have to be a low-tech approach. To be able to access videos on our Blackboard learning-management system or YouTube, students would need data. However, ICT Services assisted us greatly by negotiating for zero-rated websites through the national process initiated by Universities South Africa (USAf).

Despite these challenges, we were able to go online on 20 April. We especially looked at what additional strategies we needed to consider, particularly for those who did not use the interventions or access Blackboard. The question then was: ‘How do we reach these students?’ For Qwaqwa Campus students, we are trying to reach them through printed material. We also supplied 3 000 laptops to students identified as ‘vulnerable’, using a Vulnerable Student Index developed by the Directorate for Institutional Research and Academic Planning (DIRAP). These are students from Quintile 1, 2, or 3 schools, and are funded by bursaries such as Funza Lushaka or NSFAS, along with other criteria. This process was implemented during the first two weeks of May 2020, with more than 400 laptops being issued in the first week alone. With the help of our ICT Services, we have been able to distribute these devices across South Africa to students who need them.

How has this pandemic impacted processes and systems at the UFS?

I have to compliment ICT Services: when we launched on 20 April with more than 20 000 students on the platform, our systems handled the amount of traffic exceptionally well.

The crisis has highlighted some areas where we can improve, though.

Our lecturers are also experiencing challenges. Many are parents – especially mothers – working from home, with household as well as home-schooling responsibilities. It is a tall order for them to fulfil these while preparing material for their students.

But I am confident that CTL’s #TeachOn series ( has equipped them to do just that.

How would you describe the resilience of the university’s systems and processes in such fast-changing and uncertain times?

A university is like a big ship. It takes a long time for it to move or change direction. However, this situation has shown us that universities can respond and can change direction quickly. Because the UFS has stable, mature systems, we were able to change our processes, behaviour, and culture much easier during this emergency. We also followed the precepts of a united university with a multi-campus model. Therefore, our institutional processes and systems served all our campuses equally and equitably. Through the systems and provisioning by CTL, we were able to make these changes. They certainly deserve praise for their proactive assistance to academia and students.

I am greatly concerned about first-years who did not have the opportunity to adapt to being a university student,” concludes Dr Van Staden. “The university is also supporting and showing compassion for academic and support staff who are ensuring that the essential business of the UFS continues.

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