As a result of COVID-19, education has changed dramatically in a short period of time. Many contact university programmes have had to adapt their teaching and learning pedagogies to online, technology-driven delivery methods. Daylan Staude, senior lecturer and taxation subject head in the Department of Accounting at the University of Fort Hare (UFH), has embraced the transition from contact delivery lecture methods to e-learning delivery methods.
Daylan has an enormous passion for the development of his students and feels duty-bound to equip his students with life-long learning skills. To achieve this, he has always incorporated some aspect of technology-based teaching into the curriculum. COVID-19 has, however, provided an opportunity to develop online materials and resources that will assist students to continue with their learning activities in times of non-traditional teaching and learning.
When lockdown was announced, all UFH students had to vacate their university residences and return home. The primary goal of the e-learning initiatives was therefore to ensure continued student learning while off-campus with sub-goals that included creating an environment for student consultation and motivation.
As many students had poor or no Internet coverage, poor Internet connectivity had to be taken into account during the design of appropriate e-learning initiatives. The type of devices available to students to access e-learning material also had to be considered.
Because of these constraints, data-hungry software could not be used. Blackboard was identified as the primary medium for the distribution of material because all registered students would have access to the platform and the online programme could easily be accessed through a cell phone web browser. The uploaded material could be viewed online or downloaded by users (based on their needs) and the platform provided for safe storage of the relevant learning content.
In developing the e-learning content, the following were taken into account:
- As students were used to a face-to-face lecture environment, the development of online material was focused on simulating, as closely as possible, the traditional lecture environment. This included the presentation of learning materials (slides, notes, etc) and the ‘virtual’ presence of the lecturer, just like in the class situation.
All video material was uploaded in MP4 format, which is compatible with most devices and allowed students to watch videos and download notes onto their cell phones. Video files were compressed before uploading to ensure that the smallest file possible was made available to students. This reduced download time, especially when network coverage was EDGE or 2G.
- A certain level of interaction was required to simulate the traditional lecture environment. To achieve an interactive learning environment in an online video, worked examples and tasks were included in videos and students were instructed to pause the video, execute the task, un-pause the video and continue with the lesson. Students were also asked to take out their textbooks and turn to a specific section.
- Lecture sessions were traditionally broken down into topics such as employees’ tax and capital gains tax. To reduce file size for uploading and downloading and provide students with smaller sections of work, each topic was subdivided into sections. A number of videos ranging from 10 to 20 minutes were recorded for each section, making up the full lecture topic.
- Each lecture video was supported with an online quiz, a set of lecture slides or notes, and a range of tutorial questions and solutions. Tutorial videos were prepared for selected tutorials. In the tutorial video, the tutorial question and solution were explained to students.
- The online lecture sessions were made available to students at the start of the week. The videos were uploaded onto Blackboard three days before the lesson instructions were issued to allow students to download the videos before the lecture week started. This was important for students who had poor connectivity. Students needed to be given clear guidelines and instructions on how to use the online content and therefore careful consideration went into the set-up of the content folders on Blackboard. The weekly lecture instructions were linked to the manner in which the online content folders were developed.
As many students continued to face challenges connecting to Blackboard remotely, a WhatsApp group was created and 98% of students joined the group. The main purpose of the group was to notify students instantly that content had been uploaded on Blackboard, allowing them to consult and ask questions as well as motivating them.
WhatsApp initiatives were used to keep students motivated and create an open learning environment. These included:
- A selfie study challenge − To start this initiative, Daylan posted a selfie at his desk preparing student material and challenged students to take a selfie while they were studying and post it to the group.
- An emoji mood challenge − Students were encouraged to share an emoji with the group that depicted their current mood.
- Quarantine nicknames − In this quick, fun interactive game students were asked to give their quarantine nickname by saying how they were feeling and the last thing they ate. This also gave Daylan a sense of the class’s motivation. Examples of names were ‘Hopeful Taco’, ‘Happy Orange’, ‘Grateful Potato’ and ‘Confused Coffee’.
- ‘Guess who am I’ − This game was live, and students were required to give immediate feedback. Like in the board game ‘30s’, the lecturer gave clues to sections in the Income Tax Act and students had to guess which section was referred to.
The WhatsApp group was also used for consulting between Daylan and the students. The benefit of WhatsApp consulting was that the students could ask questions while they were studying and the rest of the class was able to see the question and its solution. In this way a shared learning experience was created.
Some comments from students about their experience were:
‘WhatsApp communication usually provides indirect motivation and necessary pressure. For instance, when a student asks a question on a topic that we should be doing while I’ve not yet studied it, it motivates me to start as soon as possible.’
‘WhatsApp communication opened a platform for students who hardly ask questions in class due to shyness and lack of confidence. Questions can be asked without any fear.’
‘Online videos work as we study at different times and have different study environments. The videos allow us to study when it is conducive to our environment.’
‘By using online lectures or pre-recorded lecture videos it allows you to re-watch important explanations on principles that you may not have understood the first time.’
‘The lecture videos have been easy to understand, interactive and precise.’
‘The way the online videos are prepared makes me feel as if the lecturer is in front of me and I am part of the conversation.’
In future, technology can be used to complement the learning process. This will be done through the introduction of blended learning to give students the opportunity to engage with the online content before coming to class, thus allowing class time to be used for discussions, analysis of content and worked examples.