Photo: Stellenbosch University, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert Institute for Student Leadership Development
Join us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter
Related Links
Online learning – The pandemic cannot change reality
Universities prepare for online teaching and learning
University shutdowns bring new challenges to academic freedom
The shift to online learning calls for global cooperation
Online learning in universities – A missed opportunity?
Research universities’ multiple responses to COVID-19
Going online – What cost to the social justice agenda?
University shutdowns – What we learnt from ‘going online’
Zero-rating online learning – Not as simple as it sounds

Navigating uncertainty in the move to online learning

Stellenbosch University (SU) in South Africa, like many other higher education institutions across the world, is navigating a profoundly uncertain period. In order to adapt to a shift from predominantly on-campus, contact teaching, to a fully online delivery mode, we recognise that – especially as an African institution – we need to rapidly generate pragmatic solutions for the complex challenges faced by our diverse student body and other stakeholders.

To do this, we are maintaining our focus on two overriding priorities: ensuring that students can successfully complete their academic year; and ensuring the sustainability of our institution.

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, SU kept a close eye on relevant developments in the global higher education sector and geared up early to handle this volatile period. On 17 March SU's rector and vice-chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, announced that all on-campus lectures would be suspended.

A week later the lockdown in South Africa was announced. Although absolutely necessary, the lockdown signalled the start of a daunting time for lecturers and students, as they prepared for a period of online learning before the new term’s start date of 20 April. They would have to do this equipped only with the (in many cases, limited) software, devices and internet connectivity in the places where they reside during these weeks.

History of technology use

Fortunately, SU has a long history of using technology in learning and teaching which it could build on. It had furthermore, prior to the lockdown announcement, taken proactive measures to prepare for the very real possibility of a sustained period of temporary, fully online teaching and learning.

On 19 March, two days after it was announced that lectures would be suspended, an interactive website was launched on SUNLearn (the university learning management system or LMS), offering step-by-step guidelines on all the essential online tools and relevant approaches that could enable academic staff to set up efficient online communication channels with students, and to design pedagogically sound online learning activities.

The next day, a (still ongoing) series of daily online webinars was launched, focusing on preparing all lecturers for online teaching. Although many lecturers have already explored blended teaching strategies in the past, fully online learning and teaching is unfamiliar territory for most of our staff. Whereas their LMS spaces were often used only as a repository for learning material, lecturers now had to approach these online course pages as fully functioning virtual classrooms.

To facilitate this, the webinars feature guidelines for designing predominantly self-paced (asynchronous) online activities and formative assessment opportunities. Rather than attempting to ‘duplicate’ face-to-face teaching (for example, by live-streaming all lectures), our approach is one that acknowledges that an over-reliance on synchronous (or ‘real-time’) online engagement would be unfair to students who do not have high-speed internet connectivity during lockdown.

Keeping it simple

Similarly, requiring students (and staff) to explore too wide a variety of online tools and applications could add unnecessary pressure during an already demanding time. Rather, a simple yet effective approach was recommended, which involves lecturers structuring their online modules around weekly, mostly self-paced activities that are all hosted from our LMS and accompanied by clear audio or text-based guidance.

Accessible yet flexible communication channels such as forums and chat rooms pose opportunities for students to engage with and receive timely feedback from lecturers and tutors.

In response to these suggestions, our academic staff have exhibited an encouraging ‘can-do’ attitude, even amidst understandable anxiety. At the time of publishing, more than 2,000 lecturers have actively engaged in the live training sessions, while many more have watched the webinar recordings and consulted with support staff on their individual needs.

SU is fortunate that it could rely on a central professional academic support staff team from various support centres in its Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement to develop these institution-wide training opportunities for lecturers over a very short period.

These staff members have also for the past six years partly worked in a devolved model within faculties. Through the relationships built between academics and these support staff, they are continuously grappling with context-specific solutions to complex challenges such as online assessments and the facilitation of highly practical modules that require access to on-campus equipment and facilities.


As with any time of crisis, the imperative to adapt has generated potential opportunities, amidst the numerous challenges. It has become apparent that, in order to remain responsive to the needs of our stakeholders, an all-hands-on-deck response from academic, support and administrative environments is required.

As in any other complex institution, universities' individual departments often operate in silos. Now, however, there is a marked sense of productive synergy as colleagues rely on one another to process unrelenting waves of new information relating to the COVID-19 crisis, and to find pragmatic and immediate solutions.

For example, the majority of South African data providers have by now zero-rated SUNLearn (ie, making the SU LMS free to access), which will allow many students to learn online using only a smartphone during the lockdown period.

However, the reality is that not all students have access to high-speed internet and downloading large data files – even if it will incur no or minimal cost – may take hours. So it became necessary for various support centres to collaboratively develop training and self-help resources that would quickly sensitise lecturers to what constitutes ‘data light’ material, and to guide them through the (rather technical) process of reducing the file sizes of media such as educational videos.

Other needs for new training interventions (ranging from information sessions on copyright legislation of online learning material to online tutor training) are identified and responded to on a daily basis. Interventions that may have taken weeks to months before are now rapidly tested and implemented in order to help our students continue their studies online.

Support for students

As our first term of online teaching starts, it is expected that our students will have to negotiate a period of discomfort as they transition from on-campus engagement with lecturers and peers, to virtual learning. In order to help prepare them, a host of practical guidelines and mechanisms have been made available, via text based and video resources.

Examples include guidance on time management for self-paced learning, tips for appropriate online communication, and ways for students to contain mobile data costs. Students have continually been updated on emerging developments via email communiqués that are collated and publicly shared on a dedicated web page.

Through these communications, students have been assured that there is an acute awareness that some may not have sufficient access to the necessary digital devices or internet connectivity to allow them to proceed with fully online learning for the rest of the first semester. To address this need, SU managed to procure 1,500 laptops that will be made available on a loan basis to socio-economically disadvantaged students.

An online survey completed by approximately 19,000 students (supplemented by text message responses from students who did not complete the survey and feedback from faculties) allowed SU to compile a list of students who only have access to a cell phone and-or who indicated that they would like to make use of SU’s laptop loan offer.

Furthermore, for students who cannot complete semester 1 online due to digital connectivity issues (device or internet or both), a re-run of semester 1 modules in hybrid learning mode (a combination of fully online learning periods, supplemented with only essential contact time) will be available in the second half of 2020, with an exam opportunity in January 2021 for specifically semester 1 (2020) modules.

The hybrid learning mode will consist of mostly online learning of archived first-semester lectures and other materials, with limited contact teaching sessions, as far as practicable.

Steep learning curve

The learning curve for adopting an online mode of delivery is certainly a steep one, especially for a so-called ‘traditional’ contact university. Over the past two years, however, SU has been increasingly building its capacity for online learning design and support, partly due to a growing need for fully online short courses.

This year, SU is also commencing its development of hybrid learning offerings, which involves the development of accredited offerings delivered in a predominantly fully online mode. As a result, there is already a shared sense at SU that digital technologies can have transformative potential on our continent.

We've also retained a healthy sense of pragmatism: based on our experiences we can also acknowledge the very real concerns relating to e-learning, ranging from issues around privacy, to the implications of digital literacy gaps and questions around accessibility. We are allowing our experiential knowledge and a healthy sense of realism to inform our decisions, while allowing for a sense of hope and possibility.

Unforeseen challenges will certainly unfold as SU starts its first term of online teaching. We will address these with resilience, but also with empathy for the immense stress these uncertainties are causing our staff and students. In the process, we hope to find many creative solutions that will serve our institution in the longer run.

Professor Arnold Schoonwinkel is vice-rector: learning and teaching (deputy vice-chancellor); Dr Antoinette van der Merwe is senior director: Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement; and Miné de Klerk is advisor for online and hybrid learning at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters
Top Stories Last Week