Emergency Remote Learning and Teaching in response to the Covid-19 pandemic

Takalani Rambau

The past 18 months have been unprecedentedly disruptive in so many ways. All universities have been impacted academically, professionally and communally by this pandemic. For many, it has been really challenging – to keep engaged in learning and teaching. All institutions have had to find different ways of working. However, all have been committed to making space for the diverse experiences of faculties and of their students and to work towards establishing a teaching and learning environment that responds as broadly as possible to the contexts in which they find themselves.

Participants in the Saide 2021 Siyaphumelela Student Success Conference presented and shared information and learnings on their Emergency Remote Learning and Teaching initiatives implemented in response to the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020.

This article highlights a number of emerging issues that have become starkly apparent in South African universities since Covid-19 has unmistakably changed how learning and teaching are conceptualised, conducted, and executed here and globally. The result was a very rapid move from traditional face-to-face and contact teaching to remote forms of teaching and learning. The initial need to move to remote forms of learning precipitated by the Nationwide lockdown regulation at the end of March 2020, caught everyone by surprise. Emergency measure were put in place with little or no time to engage in proper planning or preparation. In many cases, both students and lectures were negatively affected.

Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) generally, took the form of online teaching through technology-enhanced applications and devices. A move that has, in particular, underscored the significant gap that exists between the rich and the poor and those who have and those who don’t have access to digital devices, connectivity, access to data, electricity and a suitable place to study.

In August 2020, four months into the national lockdown, a national survey of Students Access to and Use of Learning Materials (SAULM) was administered by DHET and led by the University of the Free State (UFS). It was conducted to determine whether a revision of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding policy in terms of the learning materials allowance was needed. Data gathered was also used to guide discussions on other pressing matters such as, digital inequalities; the need to engage more with digital or open educational resources; the need to enhance digital skills within the university sector; and on student readiness and ability to engage in online learning. The SAULM survey revealed that just under two-thirds (64%) of students said that they owned at least one device that could be used for online learning during lockdown. Smartphones were the most frequently used device for engaging with off-campus studies. This was true for both students owning their own device (90%) and for those who had to borrow a device (77%). Assessment activities dominated student online engagement with 91% of students reporting that they had submitted assignments and 75% reporting that they had taken tests/quizzes. However, over a third (34%) of students believe that they were not adequately prepared to use the technology needed in their courses when they entered university.

Faced with the reality of over one third of university students not having access to a digital device; not being adequately prepared; many lacking access to data; and/or access to reliable connectivity, a key question to be asked in South African Universities was, how can students be supported to successfully participate in remote learning?

In responding to the question of support to enable students to successfully participate in online learning and teaching, Venicia McGhie, a Senior Lecturer at University of the Western Cape (UWC) stressed the importance of institutions and academic staff developing a proper understanding of their students’ lived realities and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In doing so, it is also important to differentiate between first year and more senior students. It is likely that many first year students were even more dramatically impacted by the disruptions to on campus teaching and learning than more senior students who may have had more experience of student life and be more aware of the available institutional support services.

To gain an understanding of the student experience, 398 out of 550 first-year students in the Business Faculty who participated in an online learning and teaching system were asked to reflect on the impact of Covid-19 and the lockdown as a section in a term test. The students were also asked to make suggestions on how they could overcome their challenges identified in the term test with the assistance of their households and communities. They were asked to reflect on their learning experiences and on what the move to online learning and teaching meant for them. The section on the term test had multiple-choice questions wherein students were required to select the correct answer from a choice of five possibilities, combined with yes/no, and true/false questions. In the year end examination, the students were required to write an essay in which they explained their learning experiences, both positive and negative.

The test responses were analysed using an Excel application, while the qualitative essay discussions were analysed through content analysis, using a three-stage open coding process. A list of positive and negative findings emerged from the students’ responses. Positive responses included students not having to worry about funds for travelling to the university and not having to rush from one class to another. The students also expressed their appreciation at receiving recorded lectures and tutorials, which they could listen to multiple times and at their own convenience. The negative responses included not having resources; not having adequate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure in their residential areas; not having a space to work at home; and not having a conducive learning environment. Domestic and community challenges included the fact that many students were required to engage in time consuming household chores which cut into study time; having to negotiate shared space with siblings; high levels of noise from neighbours and shebeens; and the closure of community libraries due to lock down. These honest and heart-felt reflections gave the university greater insight into the students lived realities and helped to shed light both on the student’s challenges as well as on the various ways in which students attempted to navigated through these challenges to participate in the university online learning environment. The findings and suggestions gleaned helped various institutional role players to better understand how to assist and support the students, empowering them to succeed academically, despite the current ongoing challenges and uncertainty. A better understanding of the range of difficulties experienced by students emphasise the need for a pedagogy of care in which lecturers developed a greater sense of empathy for the student’s situation and provided ongoing encouragement and motivation. It also highlighted the need for differentiated support as not all students found themselves in the same circumstances.

Innovative ways of combining old and new tutorial systems were explored to provide relevant options to optimise student access. One such innovation was the use of a telephonic tutorial system which was introduced as a key emergency remote teaching support strategy for homebased students during the lockdown period at the University of Pretoria (UP). Ntji Shabangu (Postgraduate Students Advisor) and Kgadi Mathabathe (Deputy Director: Academic Development) reported on the application of the telephone tutoring system which was used to address challenges experienced by students in remote rural areas and townships who were unable to access online courses using the UP Learning Management System (LMS), ClickUP because of poor or no connectivity. The ClickUP LMS was used as a teaching and learning platform for student to access online learning materials, engage with lecturers, student advisers and peers. Students that had been unable to participate in academic activities, including the submission of written assessments and participation in online examinations, were identified by student advisors and recommended for the telephone tutoring system.

Student advisors monitored and quality assured student interactions on the ClickUP and in so doing were able to identify inactive students. Eventually 54 students across 38 course modules were enlisted on the tele-tutoring intervention. Not surprisingly, of this number, 67% were first generation students. Forty-three assistant lecturers, administrators and tutors were given airtime and data to facilitated the tele-tutoring. The process involved tutor training, follow up meetings, engagement with students and tutor reflections at the end of the term. Twenty-three students who had received tele-tutoring were identified to provide feedback on the effectiveness of the tutoring system. It was found that despite some of the limitations of this system, a number of students that participated in the tele-tutoring intervention, passed with distinctions. The intervention also impacted the Tutor’s, providing them with a far deeper understanding of the student’s lived experience and context. Engagement in this intervention drew the tutor’s attention to the need to enhance their own pedagogical practices to enable them to be more responsive.

The study undertaken to explore student and tutor experiences of telephone tutoring intervention at UP, revealed that both groups found it to be a very positive intervention, helpful in removing barriers to learning. It was fit for purpose and relevant to the context that many students found themselves in during the lockdown. While the study pointed to some challenges and weaknesses such as poor or no mobile connectivity in some areas and underscored the limited pedagogical experience of some tutors, overall, the emergency telephone intervention model was found to be successful.

Durban University of Technology’s (DUT’s) quest to implement online learning and teaching successfully was driven by the findings of the SAULM survey implemented at DUT. Kudayja Parker, Mandla Lukubeni, Pregalathan Reddy and Simon Ndlovu, working within institutional planning, data analytics and student support centres at DUT, shared their experience of their institution’s shift to remote learning and teaching during the 2020/2021 academic period. The results of the SAULM survey pointed to changes in students’ ability to access and use learning materials before the Covid-19 pandemic (the period up to March 2020) and their access to learning materials during the pandemic lockdown period, commencing from April 2020 onwards.

Prior to March 2020, 61% of students relied on hard copies of learning materials provided to them by lecturers. After April 2020 it was found that only 34% of students had access to this type of material. A change was also registered in the number of student that were able to download materials from their institutional Learning Management System. Whereas 51% of students had downloaded materials from the LMS before March 2020, during lock down this figure rose to 64%. Further results are depicted in Figure 1, below.

Graph depicting students access to learning materials before and during the Covid-19

Figure 1: Graph depicting students access to learning materials before and during the Covid-19 lock down period

In terms of the type of digital devices used by students during the Covid-19 pandemic, it was highlighted that 90% of the 4 458 DUT student surveyed used smartphones to engage with their studies. This result does not differ significantly from the results of the SAULM survey which showed that 89% of the 48 981 students surveyed nationally used smartphones. Further results are shown in the Table 1, below. 

Table 1: Data related to types of digital devices used by students to study

digital device use

Acknowledging the digital inequalities, particularly regarding access to devices, data and stable connectivity highlighted, DUT focused their emergency responses on strengthening ICT infrastructure and financial support to enable staff and students to participate productively in the online environment. The support measures introduced include, but were not limited to, aligning the institution’s digitisation strategy to improve student experience of blended learning; utilising the University Capacity Development Grant (UCDG) from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to offer targeted training to up-skill students in learning technologies as well as prioritising internal funds to provide students with mobile data to access DUT online services.

Apart from the focus on ICT infrastructure and access to digital devices, DUT also realised the importance of providing pedagogical support to both academic staff and students to enable them to transition successfully to offering and engaging in online teaching, learning and assessment.

Like DUT, the need to implement Emergency Remote Learning and Teaching concentrated the University of the Witwatersrand’s attention on the need to procure the necessary ICT infrastructure to provide effective online teaching and learning. Professor Diane Grayson Senior Director: Academic Affairs, reported that three weeks after lockdown commenced, all teaching and learning at Wits moved on line. Although Wits succeeded in keeping a meaningful academic programme going in 2020, the dramatic increase in usage placed a severe strain on the existing LMS.

In late December 2020, it was decided that Wits would procure a new LMS which needed to be up and running by the beginning of the 2021 academic year. Concomitantly, with the installation of the new LMS, Ulwazi (knowledge), academic staff and students needed to be equipped with the skills to use the system effectively. To achieve this goal, a multi-pronged approach was initiated. ICT software installation specialists were brought on board to integrate the new LMS with Wits’ existing Student Information Management System. At the same time, learning designers were tasked with offering support to the academic staff to prepare teaching and learning material - more than 100 online webinars on the design of online learning were implemented.

Communication and marketing staff ensured the dissemination of information related to the new LMS and academic requirements. Assistant Deans, Student Advisors, Student Affairs staff and the SRC were all engaged in various facets of information sharing and student support. All students were auto-enrolled on the Ulwazi support sites, “Learning How to Use Ulwazi” and “Helping You Learn Online”.

Task teams, working groups and committees met weekly in virtual fora to plan and manage the technical implementation while academic communities of practice were established to share and build pedagogical practices. Dozens of people from across the university, worked together, constantly communicating, trouble-shooting, learning to use the system as they went along. When classes resumed on 8 March 2021, the new learning management system was operational.

In conclusion, the presentations made by a number of universities, reflecting on various methods used to implement emergency remote learning and teaching, highlight the positive value of a data driven approach. Results from survey’s implemented provided the universities with a much better understanding of their student’s contexts, thus enabling them to respond in a more targeted way to student needs. The value of a well thought through and a formalised approach to planning and implementing the necessary shift to online and blended modes of teaching and learning was also emphasised, as was the importance of integrating old and new technologies and old and new tutorial systems.