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​Letter from DVCs Academic and Research and Internationalisation

14 May 2020

Dear Academic

COVID-19: UPDATES ON UJ REMOTE TEACHING AND LEARNING

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity as you heeded the call to resume teaching, learning and research remotely. We are aware of the enormous contribution that every single academic has made which has allowed us to continue with the academic term. This has been a tremendous challenge and we are cognisant of the considerable time that has been invested by you to give effect to our transition to remote teaching and learning. This has required providing student support while continuing the functions as an academic. We appreciate the complexities of juggling remote teaching with family responsibilities, and assure you of our ongoing appreciation and support for your work. We are proud of how you have risen to the challenge, and moved beyond what is comfortable and familiar; pushed each other to think differently and innovatively; and lifted one another up to ensure we continue to fulfil our mission.

In our last communication to staff (Friday 3 April 2020), we detailed the University's arrangements for the second academic term. Further to this, the Vice-Chancellor has outlined each week developments as they unfold and relate to the national response to the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, there are many positives worth noting. Academics who have required devices and data have been assisted. By the end of last week, 91% of our undergraduate students were able to log on and access Blackboard. Active measures are being taken to identify those students who have not yet been able to connect and to provide the support and resources needed where possible. As part of this effort, in Term 1, 1740 devices were distributed and now a further 4000 devices are in various stages of distribution. Data has been provided to students with the initial 20 GBs (Night Owl) and 10 GBs (Anytime). Students will continue to receive this data provision to support remote teaching and learning. By the end of last week, close to 48 000 students have received data. We continue to engage with the Interim Student Representative Council (ISRC) and students on a range of matters.

There remains significant challenges with network coverage in areas of our country and students have reported difficulties to the University. Connections are also not always stable or reliable. For this reason, it is best to go with asynchronous interactions as far as possible, especially in regard to assessments. It is essential that students be provided with the best chance of completing an assessment, noting that synchronous assessments across a variety of network types and strengths has the potential to compromise those students in areas with poor signal or bandwidth. We urge you to seek alternatives to synchronous assessment wherever possible. Repeat assessments are also encouraged. Without compromising on the quality of assessment and the achievement of the purpose of the module or specific learning outcomes, all efforts must be made considering the context of our students. Flexibility and creativity is essential if we are to strive for no student being left behind. We are aware that the challenges to work-integrated learning (WIL) and other practical learning components are difficult in the remote mode. We hope that the UJ Guidelines for Work Integrated Learning and Practicals provided some support.  At present, the national regulations only permit students who are final year medical students with access to campus. All other activities are to be conducted online. There is ongoing discussion about the applicability of this provision to other final year health science students that require placements. More information will be communicated as and when it becomes available.

We are appreciative of the fact that postgraduate supervision is continuing with online meetings between supervisors and students as well as online seminars (webinars) and student presentations. Online materials for supervisors is available for their use in interacting with students. Further support in the supervisory effort is available through language and statistical consultants. The online offerings by the Postgraduate School, the Library and individual faculties provides depth to the supervisory effort. Individual supervisors and students are responding in creative ways to the challenges that exist for data collection and these will continue to contribute to the scholarship of postgraduate teaching and learning at UJ.

As we continue with the academic term, the University continues to adjust and make sense of the rapidly changing context that we find ourselves in. This is a major adjustment for both staff and students. We are aware that many staff and students wish to urgently return to campus, particularly where access to university resources is essential to the programme. As a University, it is necessary to prioritise safety over access and as indicated in the VC Circular, only in exceptional cases will requests for permits for once off access to campus be considered. There is an institutional moratorium on international travel for 2020 and, depending on the global crisis and our national picture, will be reconsidered for 2021.

Changes to the academic calendar for 2020 were communicated and will have a knock-on effect on the 2021 calendar. As you can imagine, due to the uncertainty precipitated by the lockdown levels, planning is dependent on the course of the pandemic. However, it is important to note that in the context of uncertainty, the MEC, following discussions with the Executive Deans are advising planning for transitioning Semester 2 modules to online should begin at faculty and departmental levels.  The Centre for Academic Staff Development hosted a workshop for Heads of Department last week. Teaching and learning matters discussed have been submitted to the Management Executive Committee (MEC) for consideration. It is increasingly clear that we will need to maintain the online T&L modality into the second semester, and if the lockdown is fully lifted towards Sept/Oct we could consider adopting blended learning where relevant. The Centre for Academic Technologies (CAT) will provide you with assistance in developing your online content for second semester modules. Please contact your faculty/college ID for assistance or email blackboard@uj.ac.za.  

In addition, dates for the new academic year 2021 are dependent on the release of NSC results, the dates of which have yet to be determined by the Department of Basic Education. The UJ Academic Regulations are being revised to more appropriately reflect our current context. Departments and faculties should provide students with an appropriate number of  opportunities to complete their modules, and make provision for special assessments as needed. Blended with the phases of lockdown, a reintegration plan for the academic teaching and learning programme will be developed. Please do check the Frequently Asked Questions which will be updated on an ongoing basis.

The University of Johannesburg Choir's latest album was released yesterday "When the Earth Stands Still" is now available for download on all major streaming platforms. We selected the song "Konke" to uplift your spirits. It is a song which celebrates inner beauty – Konke okungaphakathi kwam, Okuhle okungaphakathi kwam (Everything within me, everything that is beautiful is within me).  

Here is a story that may provide you with some light relief and shape how we think of "2020" as hindsight: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=925284527912453.

We thank you for demonstrating so clearly what it means to be a UJ academic. We value the ways in which you have worked together within the UJ community to overcome the tremendous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are in this together. Take care of yourselves and of each other.

Kind regards

Professor Angina Parekh                            Professor Saurabh Sinha
DVC: Academic                                             DVC: Research and Internationalisation