Universities South Africa (USAf) News Update

Standard Bank-sponsored laptops help to restore students' normality at SMU

Sheer gratitude is the sentiment shared by four students drawn from the 83 recipients of laptops at the Sefako Makgatho University of Health Sciences (SMU), that were recently purchased through a R 500 000 donation from the Standard Bank Group.

The grant to SMU was one-sixth of a R3 million contribution solicited by Universities South Africa (USAf) from the Standard Bank Group earlier in the year to assist students across the university system, who were struggling to access remote emergency teaching and learning. The funds are being divided equally among six institutions, which get R500,000 each.

After public universities were forced to suddenly shut down around 20 March, vice-chancellors, in subsequent emergency meetings, decided to kick-start remote emergency teaching and learning from 20 April. By that time, South Africa was already in hard lockdown. University leaders were concerned, right from the onset of the national lockdown, about a significant number of students who would struggle with remote learning during this period, due to an inadequate supply of learning devices and potential connectivity issues in some parts of the country.

How SMU coped through the national lockdown

At SMU, a survey was undertaken across faculties to identify vulnerable students, that is, those without adequate devices for remote learning and those needing support with data to access the internet and the University's learning management system. It must be mentioned that even completing the survey proved challenging for some students. Although the survey was distributed via the University website and to students' mobile numbers by SMS with links to the survey on the website, many could still not fill in the forms without access to internet. Many students lacked smart phones. To assist these students, academic advisors from the institution's Centre for University Teaching and Learning called them individually and completed the forms on their behalf until all the affected students were assisted.

Of the 6 250 registered students at SMU, 2 850 (46%) were identified as needing laptops. A larger number did not have access to internet. The results identifed even those whose homes did not provide a conducive study environment and who, even with provision of a device and data, could not adequately engage with teaching and learning online.

As a response to these findings, the University adopted a multimodal approach to remote emergency teaching and learning. This, according to Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching, Learning and Community Engagement, Professor Eunice Seekoe (right), entailed dispatching printed learning guides and learning materials to students in their home localities at the height of the lockdown. However, even that presented its own challenges as students, without lecturer guidance through difficult subject matter content, could not progress on their own.

Meanwhile, an increased demand for laptops throughout South Africa resulted in a severe shortage of these devices. Delays in importing stocks amidst closed borders in the middle of the pandemic rendered remote emergency teaching and learning even more difficult to achieve. Although SMU started procuring laptops from as early as May and started dispatching them to the students in their localities, online learning could not be fully implemented until students were adequately equipped across the board. Those who could access online teaching, either via laptops or with their mobile phones, continued to study. For the rest, online learning was halted until SMU could appoint a supplier with sufficient stock in July. This meant many in the latter group could only receive their laptops during the month of August.

Professor Eunice Seekoe

Therefore, some students resorted to using their mobile devices to access the web-based learning management system. The institution also devised a catch-up plan for students who could not fully engage online. While medical students were invited back to campus to do clinical practice from as early as May, and others in phases through June and July, the large majority of vulnerable students in their first year of study were invited back on campus in August while the rest returned in September.

83 Standard Bank-donated laptops
83 Standard Bank-donated laptops
83 Standard Bank-donated laptops
83 Standard Bank-donated laptops
83 Standard Bank-donated laptops
83 Standard Bank-donated laptops

August was therefore a happy month for the first-years and the institution at large. The University began to dispatch the rest of the 83 Standard Bank-donated laptops (above) which could not be procured earlier due to stock shortages. Students were sent to the Centre for University Teaching and Learning to collect their devices when they returned to campus after the ease of lockdown conditions for universities. We share their stories below.

Restoration of almost shattered dreams

Mr Dumisane Matye

Mr Dumisane Matye (left), a BSc Mathematical Sciences student, who hails from the Diepkloof informal settlement in Soweto, is one of those who could only catch-up on learning once back on campus in August.

Matye, 23, was the first in his family to pass matric and to set foot at a higher education institution. He says the pandemic nearly shattered his dreams. It was a stressful period in his study life as the possibility of losing this one opportunity he had been longing to receive -- for years, was real.

At some point, he and his peers contemplated cancelling the academic year -- experiencing it as 'unproductive'. He remembers how his morale sank, occasionally, after hearing how some students who could access online learning did not care to attend classes. His father's constant encouragement and motivation kept his hope alive, nonetheless.

To stay informed on university developments, he would go to the nearest internet cafe and access important notices. That is how he was able to access the survey exploring students' need for laptops. He wasted no time in completing the survey, and applying for the laptop.

Since he received the device, he says even his average has improved. He now also finds enough time to prepare for lectures.

The device has certainly helped, but learning online remains difficult

Ms Nosisa Nkosi, 18 (right), a Bachelor of Dental Therapy student from eJozini in KwaZulu-Natal says not being able to do any academic activities took an emotional toll on her. When students were dismissed from campus in March 2020, they were hardly two months into their first semester of study.

Upon receipt of her laptop during late August, Nkosi immediately returned to school so that she could access the WiFi and get on with her studies. She admits that this mode of learning is still difficult to adjust to. She wishes that things could go back to normal.

She says she takes comfort in knowing that her family is fully supportive. They understand fully that if she failed this academic year it would be due to causes beyond her control.

Ms Nosisa Nkosi

Determination will see Masilela through 2020

Mr King Masilela

Determined to pass his first year, Mr King Masilela, 20 (left), a BSc Occupational Environmental Sciences student from Delmas in Mpumalanga, says, although he could access the web-based learning materials from home, using his mobile device, it sometimes proved difficult. Having the laptop, lately, meant that he could now view documents and slides with added ease.

Masilela is deeply thankful that he received a laptop - something he truly needed.

He says even though he had not anticipated this mode of learning in his first year, he knows that adapting to the situation is crucial for his success. For him, studying from home was never an issue as he was attending extra tutorial sessions online.

Ledwaba's spirits are back up

Ms Thato Ledwaba, 21 (right), a BSc Life Sciences student from Polokwane, says for her, the quiet period from March to August was devastating. With no access to teaching and no means to do assignments, she felt as though she was losing out completely.

Ledwaba says receiving the laptop upon her return to campus at the end of August, has restored her academic excellence. She has been passing her assessments with distinctions. "I have even been awarded a bursary. I only need to focus on my studies and do well," she says.

Ms Thato Ledwaba

Thanks to Standard Bank and other donors, SMU has survived the pandemic - Professor Eunice Seekoe

On how the institution coped over this difficult period, Professor Eunice Seekoe commended both staff and students. "The unavailability of devices and data significantly thwarted our early ambitions to continue fully with academic activities," she said. "The staff and students have to be commended on the resilience that they have demonstrated during this period of uncertainty. The pandemic definitely caught the sector unawares and largely on the back foot. SMU is however now well on its way to completing its academic year in the first quarter of 2021 even with the constraints it faced."

She says SMU's success can undoubtedly be credited to the Standard Bank Group and many other donors who extended a helping hand to their students. "The institution is grateful for these interventions that provided the access that will surely ensure success," she said.

According to Dr Linda Meyer (right), Director: Operations and Sector Support at Universities South Africa (USAf) who led USAf's fundraising in this regard, the Standard Bank Group paid the funds directly into USAf's account. Once the receiving institutions have procured the laptops and presented proof to that effect, also providing serial numbers of the correct number of devices, USAf reimburses them the full amount of R500,000.

The R3 million from the Standard Bank Group benefitted six institutions, in total. Apart from SMU, the other receiving institutions were the Central University of Technology (CUT) in the Free State, Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) in KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in the Eastern Cape, the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) in Gauteng and Walter Sisulu University (WSU), also in the Eastern Cape.

USAf continues to raise funds to ease the effect of CoVID-19 on staff and students at its member institutions.

Dr Linda Meyer

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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