16 July 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Pixabay
The UFS received a grant to the value of R1,3 million from the Oppenheimer Trust, which will be used to enhance online learning and communication initiatives.

The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust awarded the University of the Free State (UFS) a grant to the value of R1,3 million. The School of Accountancy, the Department of Communication Science, and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Development, and Extension (CENSARDE) are benefiting from the grant. 

All three entities will use the funds to support their emergency remote teaching and learning initiatives.

CENSARDE and the Department of Consumer Science mainly have as a centre of interest the development of sustainable food systems. CENSARDE concentrates on processes of growing, harvesting, and food production, and Consumer Science focuses on the processing, preparation, and packaging of food.

Prof Johan van Niekerk, Head of CENSARDE and acting head of the Department of Consumer Science, believes the two academic entities hold the potential to lead research, develop capacity, promote leadership, and to create partnerships that will benefit the agri-business sector both on a local and national level.

He says they plan to design an up-to-date online education management system with the funds they received from the trust. He believes teaching should be adaptive, with an increased focus on online teaching – to mitigate the current COVID-19 challenges and ensure continuous student access to learning programmes without major interruption.

They will train eight personnel members to develop their subjects into new online courses. 

School of Accountancy

In the School of Accountancy, Prof Frans Prinsloo, Head of the school, says they will use the funds to develop a ‘ChatBot TaxChat’, which will form part of the school’s strategic initiative of leveraging technology to enhance teaching to its students.

The chatbot, a software application hosted on WhatsApp, will be used to conduct online chats using a chat service. The chatbot will be developed by Lizelle Bruwer, Senior Lecturer in the School of Accountancy, who specialises in teaching taxation.  

Bruwer explains that as lecturers, they experienced challenges with the sudden transition to the online learning environment. Firstly, students did not take all their study material with them when they left, and secondly, a number of students are studying at night and have to wait till the next morning for answers to their questions.  

“Both these issues have the potential to create significant learning gaps that pose serious risks for the academic success and well-being of our students,” she says. 

“The chatbot – due in September 2021 – will focus on fundamental South African tax theory and content. If a student has a tax question, they can access WhatsApp and type in their question, or select an item from a pre-populated list of frequently asked questions. The student will get an immediate response, at which point he or she can exit the application. They can also engage with the chatbot for additional examples and explanations in the form of videos, podcasts, diagrams, etc.”

Besides helping students who do not have textbooks to access theoretical content in a unique and stress-free way, the chatbot will also decrease the lead time for students to receive a response to their questions.

Prof Prinsloo believes that the development of the chatbot will also contribute to the digital acumen of both staff and students in the department, which is a crucial skill in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Department of Communication Science

Rentia Engelbrecht, Lecturer in the Department of Communication Science, explains that she is exploring instant messaging technology (IMT) as part of a research study to reach all students in the time of asynchronous online learning.

Engelbrecht says she is investigating the use of WhatsApp to reach students who are unable to access or engage with the university’s online platforms, and to add an element of synchronous communication. Research has indicated that WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in Africa. “Nine out of every ten internet users in South Africa are active on WhatsApp,” she says. 

Her study is guided by the effectiveness of IMT in reaching students who are unable to participate in the online platforms of the university’s learning management system (LMS). She also explores the student needs which can be met through IMT that the current LMS cannot tend to. 

She will use the funding to buy data for first-year Communication Science students and students enrolled in the Higher Certificate in Humanities taking Communication Science. “This will allow all students to participate in the WhatsApp classes and in research interviews, reflecting on their experiences during this time of distance learning.”

Engelbrecht believes the study will provide useful information on students’ needs in online distance learning in general, and particularly on the use of online distance education in times of crisis. More specifically, she hopes that the study will address the shortcomings of the online platform caused by the digital divide in South Africa.

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