When the 2020 cohort of the Master of Philosophy in Social Policy and Development started their academic year, very few people in the world had heard of the novel coronavirus that had closed down the Chinese city of Wuhan. But by March, when the first South African case of the coronavirus – now called COVID-19 – was reported, it was becoming clear that the world was about to undergo a seismic shift.
In the months that have followed, everything has changed. That includes higher education institutions, which have had to move classes and tutorials online. It's not yet clear when in-person teaching might resume, and the MPhil class has become used to logging on for lectures. The verdict? It's been tough at times, but it's also been an excellent opportunity to watch social policy on the move and in action. Three students have recorded short videos detailing their experiences of learning under lockdown and their reflections on the MPhil so far.
Didintle Mputle says the shift to online learning has also necessitated a "shift in mindset". She has only good things to say about how the University of Johannesburg, and particularly the team at the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA), has risen to the challenge. The pandemic has created an opportunity to see much of the theory around social policy put into action; lecturers have introduced COVID-related content into the course schedule "to bring us up to speed on what is going on around us, and to remind us of the importance of stringent policy".
Wayne Saldanha is an Anglican priest who applied for the MPhil because he's "always wanted to be more actively involved in agency for change and social justice in our country, and more specifically in the various local communities in which I work". He hopes that the spread of COVID and the subsequent lockdown, which have both exposed the extent of inequality in South Africa, has highlighted the need for people to "step up" and help, and says the MPhil "can help you develop the skills you need to do that".
The virus and government responses to it have given this year's MPhil cohort a "unique opportunity to see policymaking unfold", with constant policy implementation and adjustment in the past few months, Saldanha says. This in turn has given the class much to debate and learn about in online lectures and tutorials. He also has only good things to say about the CSDA's response to the many changes wrought by the pandemic: "Our second three-day block of lectures had to be facilitated online, but the administrative staff, lecturers and guest lecturers made sure the process flowed smoothly for most of us." He acknowledges that some classmates had grappled with connectivity issues.
Finally, Tshegofatso Ramatsetse, who is also in the first year of the MPhil, hails the way that online classes have been structured, saying the experience has remained "interactive – we (can) do group work and ask questions of lecturers even though everything (is) online". She's been able to adapt to this new world of learning with her laptop, cell phone and data, as well as setting up a "nice quiet environment to study in".