Learning in a pandemic. Learning for success.

Johannesburg – When Covid hit, Jacqui Luhlanga was just beginning the final year of her diploma at UJ.

Forced to return home to Nkomazi, she spent the next five months juggling her academic and household responsibilities, studying online and writing her exams late at night when the house was quiet.

Moving home for lockdown wasn’t easy for the 26-year-old UJ student.

Initially, Jacqui found it difficult to focus on her studies and perform the household chores expected of her. And her family didn’t quite understand her academic commitments: “Whenever they saw me on my phone, they thought I was playing games,” she says. “They didn’t understand what studying online meant. And they were there all the time – I had to find my own secret place to study.”

UJ’s response to the pandemic was technical and financial, academic and practical, emotional and psychological.

It included providing students with data and devices, running a live chat function, and being resourceful and innovative.

“We were fortunate because UJ has been driving the 4IR narrative for years,” explains Hemali Joshi from UJ’s Academic Development Centre. “Many of our staff and students were already familiar with online learning.”

Student access to devices and data were two of the major challenges that UJ had to deal with at the start of lockdown.

In response, its device and data distribution process was immense: over 5,000 laptops were made available to students in need and data was regularly dispensed.

“We were fortunate because UJ has been driving the 4IR narrative for years,” explains Hemali. “Many of our staff and students were already familiar with online learning and with our learning management system, Blackboard. Our task during Covid was to make our communication about online learning easier to access and clearer, to answer any questions consistently and quickly, and to use the tools at our disposal to greater effect.”

In no time at all, modules and videos on online learning were created, a live chat function was set up, and students were informed about apps that would make their experience easier. One of the most important of these was also the simplest: WhatsApp. Class WhatsApp groups made it easy for learners to ask for help and to receive an instant response from their lecturers or peers on a platform that didn’t consume too much data.

The mental health implications of studying from home weren’t missed by the UJ team.

UJ’s Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development was aware that some students were now working in environments that might not be conducive to learning or were battling with the shift online.

The team made an emergency helpline available to support students and staff, and their colleagues at Academic Development Innovation created resources to help students cope with stress.

These efforts helped Jacqui and others to succeed despite overwhelming odds.

Jacqui passed all her subjects, received several distinctions and was placed on the Dean’s List for Academic Merit.

As Covid disrupts education the world over, it’s the consistency of students’ success that matters most.

Visit www.uj.ac.za/4IR for more 4IR in Action stories.

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