University of Pretoria uses Blackboard Collaborate to support staff and students during the closure of campus

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The University of Pretoria use Blackboard Collaborate to support teaching and learning and administrative tasks during the closure of the University

The shutdown of South Africa’s institutions of higher learning is not a new phenomenon, with the country having experienced several severe interruptions to its university academic programmes in recent memory.

During these periods of disruption, primarily driven by social and political movements, universities have had to adopt online learning strategies to accommodate their students and lecturers. However, the current COVID-19 pandemic is placing unprecedented demands on institutions of higher learning to ensure academic continuity, amid a shutdown that could continue for some time still.

In recent history, during the period between 2015 and 2017, South African universities have had to endure prolonged spells of violent unrest and shutdowns that resulted from student-led protests such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, which impacted most of the country’s public universities.

To complete the academic year, universities were left to find blended learning solutions, to ensure some resemblance of academic continuity. As fully online learning was a new concept for the country’s universities at the time, each institution was left to adopt a unique approach. Approaches adopted were often supported by decisions around technology capacity and limitations in what these digital solutions offer.

Keeping it simple

“This came with the added pressures of providing training for teaching staff, who had to be familiarised with the new technology. Significantly, this was a learning curve for universities, many of which realised that they had to leverage existing systems, adapt to the devices and technology available to students while trying to keep things as simple as possible,” said Robert Speed, Vice President for the Middle East and Africa at Blackboard.

“It was also an eye-opener globally for many institutions of higher learning in terms of how their technology offerings were received by students and lecturers, specifically from a usability perspective. All considered this should have also been an opportunity for the country’s universities to take note and map their future technology needs,” added Speed.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is arguably the most disruptive event in the history of the global education sector, with South Africa’s universities similarly finding themselves in a space where online learning is firmly establishing itself as the new normal.

“Those that have been early adopters of digital learning solutions, or those who learned lessons from the previous shutdowns and mapped out their technology deployment needs, should have an easier time of adapting to the new model, as universities across the country reopen online,” said Speed.

Early adopter

The University of Pretoria (UP) is one such institution, having adopted digital learning solutions as early as 1998. In 2011 the University deployed Blackboard Collaborate, a virtual classroom solution that powered online teaching and was initially used to provide ongoing support to lecturers to facilitate post-graduate degree programmes in Africa.

“Collaborate Ultra made online teaching and learning much easier. Recording and playback of sessions was easy, and it integrates seamlessly with the new Blackboard Student application. The shutdown of the University in 2016 contributed to increased use of Collaborate. In subsequent years, on average, more than 10 000 sessions were launched with more than 17 000 users on average attending Collaborate sessions in 2018 and 2019,” says Dolf Jordaan Deputy director of E-Learning and Media Development.

Jordaan added that, subsequently, exam or test preparation classes became a frequent use case for the solution and even used by lectures as part of a ‘flipped classroom’ approach, where they provide recorded content to students to watch before attending the lecture. The value of the technology is also showcased through its use by a retired professor to provide online tutor classes to students. Prof Lou Pretorius values the functions available in Collaborate to engage with students and summaries this as follows:

“The one feature of Collaborate that has been a great help to both the students and me during the past more than four years is the polling tool. The students are given a problem, and by then posing the appropriate polling question, I quickly know how many students understand the work and how much explaining still has to be done.”

Lectures also used the platform to support students for consultations and post-graduate support, while students used to Collaborate to do project presentations. Collaborate allows lecturers to record their sessions and provide students who missed a live session the opportunity to access the recorded version. Dr Angelique Kritzinger values Collaborate as “it is a really useful tool for teaching outside of class. As lecturers of a large group, we have been using it for revision outside of normal face-to-face class time for a number of years with great success. The students love being able to interact in a less formal setting with the lecturers and are more willing to ask questions during these sessions”.

The events in 2020 changed the value of Collaborate as a secure, stable and scalable platform significantly. Blackboard, in collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS), invested in additional resources to allow Universities to provide ongoing support to students and academic staff to continue with teaching and learning.

“Collaborate played a substantial role during the last few weeks and will also in the upcoming months to provide support to students and staff during the pandemic. As such, academic continuity can be facilitated during the national lockdown period, which may be longer than expected,” Jordaan said. Its value to provide support for the University to continue is visible not only in its usage since the closure of the University but also through its use to provide support to the Executive Leadership of the University. Prof Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic, at the University of Pretoria describes his experience using Collaborate as follows:

“As a non-tech person, I am extremely impressed with Bb Collaborate. While sophisticated and advanced in what it offers (a recording facility, document sharing, PowerPoint presentation capabilities, polling), it is extremely easy to utilise. It is an invaluable asset not only for lecturers and students but also for others in the university community, such as administrators”.

The value of Collaborate to support teaching and learning during the recent COVID 19 pandemic is visible in the data of the first few days in May 2020 when teaching activities were resumed online for the second quarter at the University of Pretoria. The University created a unique solution for students and staff to access UP Services. In the first 11 days of May 2020, a total of 15 749 session instances were launched and 74 694 users attended Collaborate sessions.

“The university will, as in 2016, experience the value of its partnership with Blackboard and AWS as world leaders specifically through its dependency on the use of Collaborate, integrated into the Blackboard Learning Management System” concludes Jordaan.