Wits team honored with award for work in online learning and teaching during Covid-19 pandemic

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Johannesburg – It is multidisciplinary teamwork and the desire to connect people during a global health crisis that has seen a team of researchers and academics from Wits University receive a leading honor this month.

The Teaching and Learning Center received the Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Award for 2021 for its work connecting academics and students during the highest levels of the Covid-19 lockdown between March and June of Last year.

The team consisted of four learning and teaching professionals from the Teaching and Learning Center of the Faculty of Business, Law and Management.

They are the Head of the Business, Law and Management (CLM) Department of the Danie de Klerk Teaching and Learning Center, Academic Director of Digital Learning Dr Greig Krull, E-Learning Project Manager Fiona MacAlister and Tshepiso Maleswena , responsible for the Road to Success program, which is the unit for success and support for students at the faculty.

While they are touched by the award, the team is also grateful that their hard and valuable work has been recognized.

“To be recognized in this way is positive, especially given the challenges of the past 18 months,” De Klerk told the Saturday Star.

“It also illustrates the social nature of learning and teaching, and how the principle of collaborative and collective approaches that require many people to work together, has helped ensure that our students can continue to learn in 2020.”

After recently receiving this award, the team is already planning how best to use the grant money to move their work forward.

“We are very excited to take a fair approach to teaching and learning, so this is another area that we are going to focus on and on which we intend to move forward. “

But De Klerk insisted that their award-winning online teaching and learning system was a collaborative effort that included the help and contribution of speakers, administrative and support staff.

He also attributed divine fate and timing to receiving their initiatives.

“The establishment of the CLM T&L Center and the subsequent appointment of Dr Greig Krull and Fiona MacAlister who formed the CLM Online Learning and Teaching Unit (COLT) just before the mandatory national lockdown in March 2020, meant that all academics have turned to them for help and support in the rapid transition to emergency distance education and learning.

He explained that Krull and MacAlister already had years of experience in the field of online learning and teaching and had taken several approaches to get the award-winning system in place.

“This includes daily and weekly lunchtime webinars, a centralized support site in the university’s learning management system (LMS) that shares information, tailors or creates new resources as and when able to support staff when needed.

But De Klerk said that despite their previous work in the online sphere, they had never worked on a project of this magnitude before.

“Never before have we had to quickly develop strategies to help staff and students when the world was figuratively (and in some cases literally) on fire.

“There were no examples or guidelines to address the teaching and learning challenges faced by academics and students during a global crisis and obviously we weren’t able to meet in person. so we had to find ways to work together and collaborate virtually. ”

Despite these unique and innovative challenges at the time, the director of the Wits CLM teaching and learning center said that “the team dynamic went wonderfully well”.

“Even when we didn’t agree, we were able to come back and find a workable solution, as the benevolent vision of staff and student well-being that underpins our work was shared by all of us.”

But academics also had to overcome resistance and reluctance from students and academics who were skeptical of going online during one of the most unprecedented times in world history.

From left to right: Dr Greig Krull (Academic Director: Digital Learning), Fiona McAlister (Project Leader: Online Learning), Professor Ruksana Osman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Education), Tshepiso Maleswena (Leader: Road to Success Program) and Danie de Klerk (Head: CLM Teaching and Learning Center). Image provided.

De Klerk said they thwarted this with patience and humanity.

“As Wits is a contact university where staff and students are used to being present in person, there has been general resistance to bringing technologies into the learning and teaching space of more meaningfully for many years, but we let them know that their concerns were valid and allowed them to voice those concerns without judgment and helped them trust us when we offered solutions.

He also believes that their initial skepticism about the new online virtual system for teaching and learning will now help academics and students more in their future endeavors.

“We hope that the experiences of the past 18 months, while far from ideal, have shown many people that technology can support quality learning and teaching, and that these are skills that can be developed over time. time.

“Our feeling is that the skills learned by academics will be particularly useful for the rest of their teaching careers. “

De Klerk and his team also had to deal with inclusiveness issues such as access to laptops and data for those who couldn’t afford it.

Here, he explained, Wits came to the party when they implemented the laptop loan program in April 2020 during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Universities in South Africa have worked with mobile network providers to ensure students are supported on monthly data plans, while Wits has also successfully zero-rated their learning management system ( LMS) to allow students to use it with minimal data.

“All the resources were made available in ‘low bandwidth’ options,” added De Klerk.

But his team was also aware that the novel coronavirus outbreak was also going to be one of the most difficult times in modern history and that outside of studies, students and academics were also going to be affected emotionally and psychologically.

For this reason, the award-winning Teaching and Learning Center has also included topics such as personal well-being during social isolation, guiding family members at home on what is required of a student to study remotely, and how to access mental health support, in addition to the academic elements of guidance, to their system.

“Knowing that we have played a fundamental role in providing clarity and support during a time that will no doubt be remembered as a terribly uncertain and tumultuous time has been the most rewarding aspect of our work,” said De Klerk.

As the rate of Covid-19 infections declines in South Africa and elsewhere as vaccination rates rise, De Klerk believes systems like the one created by his team during the pandemic will continue to be helpful in a post-coronavirus world.

“ERTL opened up a world of possibilities that many had not realized before and it provided new perspectives and an opportunity to improve and increase in-person teaching in a way that would not have been evident before. going online made necessary by the pandemic, ”said De Klerk.

“As such, we would like to build on the momentum this has created in terms of the advancement of blended online learning and continue to use our skills and knowledge to support academics in their exploration of blended and fully-fledged offerings. online, to better serve our students. and ensure that our graduates can succeed in an increasingly digital world.


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