Tips and strategies for online learning in the era of COVID-19 pandemic


We, Ntsundeni Ndou and Mafule Moswane would like to share collective suggestions and recommendations of tips and strategies for online learning for students and learners during the extraordinary times of COVID-19 pandemic.

Both of us have master’s degrees from University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in Chemical Engineering and Environmental Sciences respectively. We have served students with ideas; as authors, speakers at many events and programs in high schools and students’ clubs and societies, university residences, as well as substantive corporate and non-profit gigs. We will share a perspective relying on our previous work as well as acknowledging the crisis of COVID-19 and material conditions of students from poor and working class, which are mostly students from rural and township schools, served by organizations such as Bono Foundation, Faculty of Best Advisory, and Club Readership among other institutions we are committed to their ideas and values. As a point of departure, we situate the conversation to series of knowledge crafted in Club Readership and its partners surrounding the pandemic and its implications to society.

The fundamental objective is to advance ideas about online learning, connect students to resources, be it people, organizations or materials to use, but more so now, remind individuals about already existing support systems which include the above mentioned organizations and many other organizations supporting students across Higher Education Institutions (HEI). Secondly, we share tips and strategies about how students can use their time strategically to best make use of their limited resources at their disposal.

The challenges and impacts of online learning to teachers and learner have been addressed comprehensively in the previous club readership article, “Teaching during the global pandemic: Shift to online teaching and learning.” This article will focus on tips and strategies of online learning. On the second article, Mafule explored, “Learning during COVID-19 pandemic: leveraging on the 21 st century technologies for online learning,” broadly in different contexts for the Club Readership COVID-19 publications series. This articles is the third of our knowledge output shared with the public, in particular learners, students, and their teachers.

Online learning requires the students to learn by themselves remotely at home, and engage learning materials for the purpose of attaining knowledge and acquiring skills. We acknowledge the challenges and constraints faced by students, however, we believe there are opportunities for online learning during the Coronavirus pandemic even beyond formal academic learning. This articles shares ways to overcome some of the possible challenges while acknowledging the recommendations are not universally viable.

Challenges:

  • Access to learning materials : One of the challenges faced by students from the rural and township areas is access to learning materials; lecture slides and videos are uploaded on universities’ online platforms like Wits’ sakai, UP’s clickup and UJ’s blackboard to mention but just a few. Some students also attend online classes through platforms like Microsoft Teams. This obviously requires a lot of Gigabytes (data). At their homes, most students from rural areas and townships don’t have WiFi or Fibre which they enjoy on campus. High data prices in South Africa continue to make people “breathe through the wound” as young people of Mzanzi would pronounce. Juxtapose this, with poor network connection in deep rural areas and some townships, you will see that accessing learning materials for poor students is a complex matter like what going to the Mars is for Elon Mask, an incredibly tough mission, although not impossible. It is not only soft copies that students may struggle to access, hard copies are also hard to come by. One of the students we spoke with said they left some of their books at university residence during the quick evacuation. They were of the idea that they will get back to university residence and continue to learn as they did not anticipate prolonged stay at home. There are also students who rely on libraries to get study materials, where will they get the books now?
  • Conducive study areas : The environment of students at home is different from the one they have at school. For many students, a study table, a chair and a study room are luxuries. During these tough times of Covid-19, students are forced to study on the floor. This is a barrier which is not only physical, bust also psychological. Some environment simply do not inspire learning. Additionally, some students may not be used to studying at home. Other students may see home as a place of rest rather than work. However, this is a mental barrier students can overcome.
  • Distractions : If learning had an antonym, it would be distraction. Robin Sharma would say “education is inoculation to distraction”. The level and rate of distractions students are faced with at home can be overwhelming. From kids running around and crying to neighbors playing Amapiano on high volume, to parents arguing inside the house, distractions are too many for students. In most families’ context, where the culture is highly patriarchal, things are much worse for female students. A female student told us that her family still expect her to cook, clean and wash the dishes every day. She has to juggle that with her studies.

Opportunities
It is so difficult to see opportunities during a time of distress, yet at times like these, opportunities keep on presenting themselves to us. Students do have the following opportunities for online independent learning.

  • Catch-up : It is common knowledge that some students are always behind their lecturers with their study
    curriculum. In a case of South Africa, the lockdown presents an opportunity for students to
    catch up on their academics where there is a possibility and conditions allow. Many HEI have
    delayed their online classes while there has been little to zero online classes on the basic
    education level for public schools. Outside the normal high paced, jam-packed learning model,
    students and learners can take this opportunity to slow down and breathe, this time not through
    the wound. At their own pace, students can understand more and learn better. This would be
    aided by the recorded online classes which allow students to revisit content.

 

  • Time and energy : Two of the areas students have the biggest gain are time and energy. Think about this, students spend few hours per day preparing to go to school, as well as traveling to school and from school. Additionally, there is a lot of time slots lost between classes, tutorials and breaks. Studying in isolation offers students at least 10 fresh hours per day where they can focus on their studies, provided they have no distractions. This conserved energy can be used constructively to study new content. As basic science would tell us, energy is the ability to do work. While students are studying on their own, they encounter academic challenges. This is where the last and highest stage of learning takes place, where you find a problem and are challenged to look for a solution based on the content you have consumed. This stage that requires students to connect with other people. Consultations, tutorials and group discussions all fall under inter-dependency. This part of learning is based mainly and almost solely on human interaction.

They say, “Collaboration is the new innovation”. The irony of it is that, now students have to be innovative in order to collaborate. Online forums do help to a certain extent. These are platforms where students can ask questions and get answers from peers, mentors and teachers alike. The downside of platforms like this is that response is very slow. This could be that not everyone will be available at the same time and others may shy away from the responsibility of answering or responding. This may lead students to being frustrated as they struggle to move on to the next chapters or concepts before they understand the current concept. Learning is designed to be sequential in its nature. It is very hard to understand if you skip some concepts. With the absence of face to face consultations, lecturers’ assistance is hard to come by. For a start, most lecturers and students alike are not used to online meetings although there are platforms like zoom, Microsoft teams etc. It is much easier to knock on the door of a lecturer than to call him on Microsoft teams. Lecturers need to make slots available for students to consult online to avoid dealing with multiple calls at once. Alternatively, students can send their most pressing questions to the lecture for the lecturer to respond to all of them in one video or written document. However, this hinders the progress of active students as they have to wait for questions to accumulate.

As far as group discussions are concerned, one brother noted that “Out of sight is out of mind”. The WhatsApp group they created to discuss their course content and material is now a ghost town since everyone is at home. He noted that, different people are studying different concepts, if they are studying at all, so it is hard for one student to ask questions in such groups. In few cases questions are posed, answers are hard to come by. One must admit if WhatsApp groups are used effectively, they can have a positive impact on interdependence learning. There should be few group leaders and groups’ rules and regulations in place for engagement to be progressive and productive.

Mentors and tutors come very handy more than ever. These support systems should provide an option for students to directly find assistance. Mentors should reach out and their mentees or “tutlings” should do the same. Organizations like Bono Foundation, Tutoring Skeem and Faculty of Best Advisory can encourage virtual presence of tutors and mentors via Facebook messenger and WhatsApp to be accessed by the students they serve. This also helps protect students from cyber bullying in the name of “online tutoring”. Students should be wary of who they receive online tutoring from.

This pandemic has, amongst other things proved that there is a need for reputable, safe and convenient online platform to help students solve their academic challenges. At this point, it is important for students to keep in touch with their fellow students and mentors they know and seek assistance from them, because learning, really is not a one man’s job!

We have taken our time to share these ideas with you as a response to the clarion call by Miss Universe 2019 Zozibini Tunzi that “Nothing is more important than taking up space in society.” We have taken the space of ideas for our practices as per the injunction of Miss Universe 2019, and we do so with the highest level of intellectual generosity, emotional humility and cultural sensitivity. Today, like, tomorrow and yesterday, ours is to lead. Written by Ntsundeni Ndou and Mafule Moswane
15 th April 2020

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