Johannesburg- The Covid-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions to daily life, and the conventional way that university students learn and study has not been unaffected.
Disrupted learning has had an impact on students in different ways.
However, most students have flourished in embracing hybrid learning models and have grown in confidence by having more one-on-one contact with lecturers.
As many learners make the transition into higher education in 2022, Professor Heather Nel, Senior Director of Institutional Strategy at Nelson Mandela University, offers the following advice for ensuring students engage and interact with flexible learning in a meaningful and productive way.
- The importance of being digitally ready
Students must ready themselves for a combination of mask-to-mask and online learning. Being ‘digitally fluent’ can ensure that students are prepared and that they embrace the digital tools and online learning platforms to successfully navigate the flexible learning environment.
Not all students, however, are expected to enter their first year of study being equally digitally prepared. Students embarking on their university journey may feel isolated or overwhelmed. So, therefore, it is vital for students to tap into the student support services offered by universities.
As part of Nelson Mandela University’s orientation programme, students are prepared for hybrid learning models through digital readiness interventions.
The University’s GetDigiReady portal gives students access to the tools needed to prepare for lectures and coursework and to be able to thrive in their new environment.
This is complemented by psychological and emotional support, guidance and professional counselling offered to students by Emthonjeni – Fountain of Student Wellness.
- Preparing for on-campus and remote learning
It is extremely difficult to predict what the 2022 academic year will look like. Considering that we are on the cusp of the fourth wave of the pandemic, which is predicted to continue into early 2022, most university programmes are expected to take a hybrid approach, comprising both online content and mask-to-mask learning.
Mask-to-mask learning that takes place on campus is the first prize, but higher education institutions will only be able to ramp up such sessions on campuses if population immunity amongst students and staff is attained. Nelson Mandela University is encouraging students to get vaccinated, as this remains the only way to return fully to on-campus learning.
More than 70 percent of Nelson Mandela University staff are fully vaccinated. The proportion of Mandela Uni students who have been vaccinated is more difficult to determine due to a lack of access to the Electronic Vaccination Data System (EDVS). We do know, however, that the University has vaccinated about 5 000 students to date.
As in the past, given the ever-changing trajectory of the coronavirus, Mandela Uni continues to remain agile, by being proactive and responsive to any challenges to keep staff and students safe.
- Understanding e-assessments
The way that students are assessed has also changed. Pre-COVID, most courses would have had some form of formative assessment – for instance, assignments, tests, and practicals – occurring during the term and then a formal exam at the end of the term. Universities have had to shift to continuous and e-assessment methods because this is a much better indicator of progress in an online environment.
All assessments are conducted in a way that is fair to students but also ensures academic quality and integrity. In this way, the final marks obtained are a true reflection of the student’s knowledge, understanding and ability to apply the content.
- Student well-being
It is easy for a student to feel overwhelmed when transitioning to higher education. Given the added pressure of COVID-19 restrictions and the responsibilities that come with flexible learning, students may need support to ensure that they are able to cope effectively.
Mandela Uni has numerous pillars of support designed to promote student success.
- Peer-to-peer support
In addition to professional counsellors and psychologists, Emthonjeni Student Wellness has passionate peer helpers who are trained and supervised to support fellow students. With their assistance, students are empowered to deal with academic pressures, career-related issues, employability, and any other issues that may impact the student’s learning experience or personal development.
- Student success coaches
There are student success coaches in each faculty who monitor student academic performance through a data platform. This enables coaches to identify academically vulnerable students during the course of a term. The coach then advises these students on what kind of interventions are needed to address the challenges they may be experiencing.
- Student Health Services
Mandela Uni provides various kinds of health and well-being support to students through student health clinics on each campus. These clinics provide primary health care services and qualified staff play a critical role in administering COVID-19 vaccinations, caring for students undergoing quarantine or isolation, monitoring COVID-19 statistics amongst students, and also collaborating with other divisions in running awareness campaigns.
- Embracing beyond-the-classroom activities
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of living a balanced life. Sitting at a desk and being fully immersed in coursework for the majority of the day, can have a negative impact on one’s well-being in the long term.
Being a successful student is more than just preparing oneself academically. Student success is also about cultivating the kinds of qualities, attributes, values, and skills in addition to the disciplinary knowledge gained at university to add value to society.
Students are encouraged to adopt this thinking from the start of their university journey, otherwise, they get locked into their studies and this becomes the sum total of their university experience.
At Nelson Mandela University, we live up to Madiba’s legacy of bettering the lives of all. That’s why students are urged to get involved in beyond-the-classroom activities, to empower them to leverage their studies to become well-rounded graduates who actively contribute to a more socially just and sustainable world.
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