Due to the global Corona virus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in South Africa, many South African universities have had to rethink their teaching strategies and online offerings. Below, Ruth Knoblich shares insights into online teaching and the accompanying challenges at the South African-German Centre for Development, based at the University of the Western Cape.

In March, when South Africa went into lockdown due to the global Corona pandemic, the South African-German Centre for Development Research had to transform face-to-face teaching activities into online formats, like all other higher education institutions in the country if not worldwide. Like all other South African universities, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) carefully considered how to design remote teaching structures to avoid an increase of already existing inequalities among the students. One of the main considerations was the disadvantage some students with an unstable internet connectivity and lack of data might experience during online teaching, which involves meetings of lecturers and students in a digital classroom. Passive e-learning was considered as an alternative to digital classrooms: lecturers would mainly provide teaching material via the conventional e-learning platforms, together with additional feedback mechanisms via email or messenger services. The UWCs digital policy, however, soon became clear: online teaching was the set goal.

As a first step, UWC, and in the case of the Centre, the Faculty of Economic and Management Science, carried out online access surveys with its students that were further substantiated by questionnaires from the respective individual institutes. The Centre’s Institute for Social Development (ISD), for example, was able to set up a list of all students, providing detailed information about available digital resources and equipment, about internet connectivity and the financial ability to cover additional data costs. Parallel to that, UWC put in place specific financial aid schemes to support students and developed substantial subvention by providing digital hardware. Additionally, four of the main South African ICT companies agreed to zero-rated internet access to all UWC university platforms.

When teaching resumed on 20 April 2020, lecturers and staff at ISD/UWC were happy and encouraged to see that the numbers of students attending the online courses were equivalent to face-to-face teaching numbers, if not even higher. All classwork is recorded and provided to all students via the UWC e-learning platform, iKamva, after each session, together with further supporting information. Additional contact channels such as messenger systems furthermore help to keep the distance short between lecturers and students. The School of Government (SoG), normally providing mainly distance learning programmes, was able to continue with its digital coursework with only slight adaptations.

The start of the Bochum Master in Development Management programme at the Centre within this academic year, however, is currently unclear. The new intake for international students arriving in South Africa in April/May 2020 is postponed for now. The group will probably start together with its twin group in Bochum by September this year. Depending on the development of restrictions under Covid-19, online or blended learning teaching elements will be integrated.

Written by Ruth Knoblich, DAAD Lecturer at the South African-German Centre for Development Research.