Academic digital literacy – A journey we all need to take – University World NewsCMS
Upasana G Singh 02 July 2020
The present global pandemic has forced all sectors, including higher education, to rethink their delivery strategies. For universities, with the lockdown came the abrupt interruption of the academic year, and the drastic decision to move all tuition at the traditionally face-to-face higher education institutions to online teaching.
As the pandemic evolved, so did the challenges. Common terms emerged, which established themselves as buzzwords. While many of these, such as “digital literacies”, “digital empowerment” and “digital divide” revolved around technology adoption – the new norm – it was the term “remote multimodal learning” that seemed to take the education sector by storm.
Since many face-to-face higher education institutions in South Africa were not prepared for the sudden shift required, each adopted its own coping mechanisms in an attempt to cater for the diverse learning needs of their students.
Engagement with staff and students
At the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), processes of engagement with both academics and students within the institution proved to be the key to mapping the way forward from early April. Regular surveys were sent to academics and students to gauge their training and adoption requirements, leading to their readiness and competence by the end of May.
As with many other institutions internationally that are faced with the limitations that the lockdown posed, creative ways had to be adopted to support academics. One of these adopted at our institution was a series of digital training webinars to empower academics with skills in the prescribed learning management system (LMS), Moodle.
Many academics who, willingly or unwillingly, had to rethink their teaching and assessment methods due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were frantically trying to learn Moodle tools to support this new mode of teaching.
They were also required to conduct needs analyses, to understand their students’ access requirements and abilities for study online, and develop procedures and guidelines for the implementation of online remote teaching and learning. The sense of panic was evident when the webinar sessions were booked out within one hour of being advertised. This forced us to continually increase the numbers per session – from 40 to 100, then to 150, and eventually to 180 in institution-wide sessions that were further supplemented by smaller college-based sessions.
A fulfilling teaching experience
It was initially strange for me, as the facilitator, to teach practical concepts through a virtual environment, where, due to the large number of participants, screen sharing, video and microphones had to be controlled. However, the experience was extremely fulfilling and gratifying, with academics appreciative of the efforts being made to equip them with the skills to support their transition to an online environment.
The delivery strategy for these sessions had to be redesigned to teach basic digital literacies as some participants were not tech-savvy. The assistance of a technical support person at each session helped me, as the facilitator, to focus on the content that had to be delivered, and address ‘academic’-related queries.
In tandem with the virtual sessions offered, a self-paced, interactive Moodle course on digital pedagogies helped academics to understand why the pedagogy adopted in a face-to-face classroom is not effective in an online environment. Thus academics were given the opportunity to learn the tools, and where these tools should or can be applied effectively.
Understanding the implementation of digital tools in different schools and disciplines has been a great eye-opener. Learning occurred as new ideas from the attendees came to light. In essence, despite the unexpected shift to online teaching, the virtual sessions to “empower” academics clearly assisted in introducing them to already-existing tools within the prescribed LMS, and guided them in the basics of implementation and adoption of these tools to support their shift to online teaching and assessment, for implementation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond.
The multimodal approach suggested for teaching was also adopted for the digital literacy training of academics, where various forms of support were offered after the virtual training sessions. The development of an online teaching portal with resources such as customised instructional guides, videos and webinar recordings, meant that academics could refer to these as they experimented with tools on their own.
The support of a team of dedicated “academic computing” staff to address email queries, as well as the introduction of an academic support discussion forum, provided the individual support academics required. Finally, individual support provided by me, as the facilitator, often encouraged and reassured academics who lacked confidence in the tool, and, at times, in themselves.
From the student perspective, besides the institutional infrastructural support provided, similar digital literacy support was designed. An informative online learning portal is available for students to consult for customised instructional guides and videos on the new interaction methods required for learning and assessment with the LMS. Email and discussion forum support is also available for those who require individual attention.
With the above measures in place, UKZN then transitioned to the next phase of the “pilot run” early in June. This two-week period gave academics and students the chance to engage with each other in a mock lecture and assessment environment. The feedback received during this phase was filtered, through discipline leaders to senior management, to improve student support such as data packages, access to technology, and student geo-location.
Laying the foundations
UKZN formally commenced its remote online learning on 1 June 2020, and is ready to welcome its first one-third of students back to campus at the end of June. Some academics seem to have settled into the new mode of delivery, while others are still finding their way. Likewise, students are also transitioning at their own pace. In an attempt to ensure that no student is “left behind”, UKZN decided to postpone all formal assessments for the month of June. Likewise, academics have been encouraged to adopt continuous assessment strategies for semester one.
While institutions, academics and students are trying to wade through unfamiliar waters, the initiatives undertaken at UKZN to support both academics and students are commendable. Within a short period of just five weeks, the foundations for the transition from face-to-face to online remote teaching, learning, and assessment, have been laid.
While we acknowledge that there are still many aspects to which academics need to be exposed, such as quality assurance and evaluation, the current initiatives ensure that we are progressing, albeit in baby steps, towards the inevitable equilibrium of a blended mode of teaching and learning.
Digital teaching, learning and assessment is a journey we all have to embrace.
Dr Upasana Singh is a senior lecturer in the discipline of information systems and technology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville Campus, in Durban, South Africa. She lectures on a wide-range of IT-related subjects and she has a keen interest in educational technologies. In 2019 she completed her fellowship in ‘Teaching Advancement in Universities’ from the Council on Higher Education. Her primary area of research is digital teaching and learning in higher education.