A guest blogpost by Andrew Craig, Senior Mathematics lecturer at the University of Johannesburg .
The sudden transition to online learning that took place in mid-March was a shock to the system for university staff and students alike. While some lecturers have had online components of their courses for some years, the total transition to online learning required radical re-thinking of the way that teaching and learning takes place.
Firstly, this change did not happen as part of some mild-mannered experiment – it happened because of the most terrifying circumstances we can imagine.
The university routine got turned upside-down at the same time as our health, our families’ health and everything we had come to depend on was suddenly under threat.
Secondly, the transition to online learning was particularly stressful and difficult (or not even possible) for many students because of their limited access to devices, data, and reliable network signal. Navigating this unfamiliar learning environment with these anxieties hanging over everyone was particularly unsettling.
Once staff and students got into the groove of online learning we soon recognized some of the important aspects of contact learning that we had taken for granted. Two features stood out for me. The first is the importance of a routine. I had never really appreciated the steady rhythm that contact teaching brings to an educational environment. While we might sometimes complain about the Friday 8am lecture, or the back-to-back tuts until late on a Tuesday afternoon, the regularity and predictability of the campus experience helps to keep everyone on track. Both lecturers and students alike know what to expect from day to day, and week to week. Even the day of a test has its own routine: you arrive at the venue with a box of question papers while students wait nervously outside.
“It is eight thirty-two, you have ninety minutes – good luck!” In theory the most stressful situation of them all, yet, at the same time, it is reassuringly familiar.
The other important element of the usual lecturing experience that was missing from online teaching was being able to watch students learn in real time. And this doesn’t only mean seeing the “Aha!” moments when a new concept is first grasped. It also means seeing the slow struggle as students sit and work during a tutorial, all the time making small but incremental improvements in their understanding. Although various platforms such as Zoom, Teams, Collaborate, and WhatsApp have been used very innovatively for effective teaching, they still lack the natural in-person interaction that can be so valuable.
While working from home can be very isolating, both staff and students have been drowning in a seemingly unending tide of communication. However, this was mostly a constant stream of official announcements, policies and deadlines, rather than the irreplaceable student-lecturer exchanges that fuel our passion for teaching.
Let’s hope that as we navigate the second half of the academic year we can reclaim some familiarity and routine, and also share more of the interpersonal moments that make both studying and lecturing such rewarding experiences.
Written by Andrew Craig, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at University of Johannesburg.
About the #CapTheGap Student Relief Fund
With the continued lockdown, many students have been left behind, who are in desperate need of resources to access their education through online learning.
That’s why we are calling on you to invest in South Africa’s university students – your donation made securely online here, will allow more students to cross the digital divide and safely complete the academic year.