UCT pivoting to online learning

25 May 2020 - 12:45
UCT alumna and Higher Educational Consultant in Vancouver BC, Vivian Forssman, visited the University of Cape Town in 2019 to assist in the development of an online education strategy and implementation plan.

What a wonderful professional opportunity, to be offered an international consulting contract with University of Cape Town. In October 2019, I would travel from Vancouver to South Africa, stopping en route at a conference in Dublin, and undertake interesting work in my business of online learning. I would enjoy the pleasures of Cape Town and renew connections with friends from long ago. I couldn’t resist!    

I am a Canadian alum of the UCT Graduate School of Business (MBA 1982). After spending a few years in Cape Town in the early ‘80s, I returned to Canada, and for the past 25 years my career has focused on online teaching and learning practices in public education. I have worked for universities in BC and Alberta, and am now an independent consultant bringing years of experience in online learning and curriculum change to higher education clients. 

I enjoyed my morning walks in springtime Cape Town, trekking up the hill from a quiet guesthouse in Rondebosch to the beautiful campus, which felt no different than my experience in 1981, still rife with political messaging. Signage, art expressions and student activist voices are everywhere, in stairwells, fields and walkways, creating a very engaged on-campus vibe.

In late October, after three intense weeks of “roadmap development” with UCT’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), I submitted my recommendation to Director Laura Czerniewicz and the team focused on online education strategy and implementation (Sukaina Walji, Janet Small, Nawaal Deane, and Stephen Marquard).

I discovered deep knowhow within the CILT unit, and an energetic passion for serving the UCT community.  The university has distinguished itself in the past 5 years with exemplary production of not-for-credit Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which have been successfully marketed worldwide. My recommendations aligned with the department’s realization that it was time to re-focus and build online and “blended” credit courses and programs, for the UCT community, to provide more flexibility for how, when and where students learn. My recommended improvements included updating course design and maintenance approaches, undertaking a technology renewal, assuring students are adequately supported with integrating technology into their learning experience, and applying a framework to better align curricula to the contemporary values of South Africa. The proposed roadmap was not radical; it focused on getting the house in order, developing about 15-20 online courses over the next year.

As I departed Cape Town, my sense was all that was needed at CILT was a few design improvements and some updated technologies, and UCT would be underway with practices second-to-none in the worldwide higher education community!

Neither UCT nor I could have imagined that four months later, the world would be turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every post-secondary institution, worldwide, would suddenly have the urgent requirement to get their courses online. UCT’s transition to online learning would be more complex. The challenges of technology accessibility, including students’ access to personal computers and wifi, remain a significant issue. I spoke with Sukaina Walji in early April to see how things were evolving as a result of the lock-down. She reported that UCT is reframing the current pandemic situation as “emergency remote learning,” distinguishing the current situation of Zoom video conferencing sessions, from CILT’s aspiration to provide well-designed online learning experiences. What is required over the medium term is to break up long lectures into short videos, interspersed with learning activities which can be done anytime, anywhere, and not necessarily in an “everyone-at-the-same-time” Zoom call. For many professors who have not been exposed to online learning in their own academic journey, shifting from lecture-format to new ways of teaching is challenging. This transition is not unique to UCT professors; the rapid shift from classrooms to online learning is a worldwide challenge.    

Sukaina is a gracious and very capable leader, but I sensed her exhaustion from being in the eye of a tornado, “pivoting to online learning” and now building those 15-20 courses in a week, not a year, while dealing with technology infrastructure that is a bit long-in-the-tooth. CILT was experiencing intense challenges and long hours, but I sensed Sukaina’s pride in her team as they were adopting and adapting new practices and skills, rising to the occasion.

This energy and commitment from the UCT community will keep the university alive in these difficult times. But the longstanding inequalities will again be apparent, requiring leadership and stewardship from many to make sure all students get the education they require to compete in global and local economies. With many demands for public funding, there is an urgent need for investment at the university, not only in bricks-and-mortar, but in digital infrastructure. This is a call-for-action from the alumni community, to help support UCT as it takes on the “pivot-to-online,” in circumstances far more complex than what Canadian universities are experiencing.

At every lunch hour in the CILT staff eating space, I loved getting to know people of all color and culture, who share a wicked sense of humour about everything South African. UCT will move forward, against many odds, because of the people who care so deeply about this institution. My consulting assignment re-instilled my pride in being a UCT alum, and I made new friends with whom I hope to keep in touch, for years to come.

By Vivian Forssman