If we all work together, we can minimise the coronavirus risk, protect lives and livelihoods, and safeguard the success of the academic project. WIM DE VILLIERS (Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University and Chair of Higher Health)
Stellenbosch and surrounding towns have of late become busier again in the runup to the formal start of our academic year on 15 March 2021. The return of students and staff may be a thrilling prospect for businesses, but some fears have also been expressed around COVID-19. Let me explain our approach, in collaboration with other role-players in our university town.
From an educational point of view, we are excited, as a world-class university, to be able to proceed with the academic project in a way that represents an enhancement of what we did last year.
Do not get me wrong: We did extremely well under difficult circumstances in 2020. When contact tuition was suspended we swiftly pivoted online, and in the end completed the year successfully, awarding a remarkable 8 979 qualifications – in line with previous years.
This year, however, we want to go beyond emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment. We want to get back to face-to-face interaction as far as possible, combined with online elements to provide an optimal learning experience.
In their book, The Innovative University, higher education experts Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring make that point that “a university’s professors and face‐to‐face meeting spaces … are unique and potentially invaluable”.
I agree, and would argue that SU, in particular, has two factors in its favour:
· place – the ideal campus for a unique student experience, in one of the most beautiful parts of the country; with top facilities and unparalleled extramural experiences; and
· people – leading researchers and lecturers, plus comprehensive student support to ensure academic excellence, along with stimulating exposure to diverse ideas provided by classmates from across the country and the rest of the world.
Under the current level-1 lockdown, higher education institutions may bring all of their students and staff to their campuses, but of course we are in the midst of a pandemic, so the number of persons allowed per lecture hall is restricted.
Learning and teaching
Our solution is to augment face-to-face classes with livestreaming. Students will rotate between attending lectures in person and participating online. We are installing advanced technology in nearly 200 venues to enable those following a class from elsewhere not only to follow proceedings, but also to take part.
Lectures streamed in this way will be recorded at the same time so that students can refer back to them at any stage. Making videos and podcasts available online was one of the factors that contributed to our student success last year.
On campus and in residence
So, where will “elsewhere” be? In most instances, on campus and in residence. We provide fast, free internet access to our students via WiFi and network points in residences, computer user areas, libraries and staff offices across our campuses. Therefore, those not in class will be able to join online.
With good town-and-gown collaboration, we can safely keep the University and surrounding towns and communities open and functioning optimally, for everyone’s benefit.
COVID-19 safety at SU
We consistently convey the same message of prevention: Wear your mask, maintain a safe physical distance from others, and wash your hands and clean surfaces. If we maintain this simple regimen both on and off campus, wherever our staff and students go, we stand a good chance of reducing the spread of COVID-19, and of thriving – as a university and as surrounding communities.
Everyone coming to our campuses must self-screen using Higher Health’s daily risk assessment tool, HealthCheck, which is available at https://healthcheck.higherhealth.ac.za. Students moving into residence and returning to campus will have to prove that they have self-screened for seven consecutive days before their arrival. Students who show symptoms of COVID-19, have tested positive, or have had high-risk contact, must self-isolate for ten days.
SU’s Campus Health Service, in collaboration with local and provincial health authorities and hospitals, is geared to attend to the well-being of our staff and students.