The arrival of the novel coronavirus has received much media attention coverage over businesses, vulnerable communities and the economy. This article highlights a few critical aspects of how COVID-19 has impacted CAs-in-training from the perspective of Wits School of Accountancy lecturers.
COVID-19 first hit South Africa in March 2020. Wits took the decision to bring forward their up-coming mid-semester break to reduce the impact on the academic year. This decision resulted in us delaying some tests, which ultimately were re-designed for the ‘new normal’. One of the more significant impacts has been on our residence students as well as those who reside at other student accommodation facilities.
From a final-year CA-in-training student’s perspective, the year began with the typical excitement and anxiety of just passing four major subjects at once1 − an already daunting task despite the other fears that accompany CAs-in-training. Added to this, there were strict lockdowns, returning home to various living conditions and circumstances, and a shift in the modes of both teaching and assessment. To reduce the added stress and anxiety as much as we can, we have aimed at mostly trying to replicate the usual face-to-face learning environment students are used to. Instead of seeing a shift to online learning as a paradigm shift, we have approached it from the viewpoint of trying to take advantage of the best of both worlds; the contact (albeit now virtual) of our typical learning approach with the technological advantages associated with online learning.
Our online teaching has taken the form of recording a combination of voice-over PowerPoint and blackboard lecture-style recordings. This route has the advantage of allowing students to watch the lectures at their convenience and to fast forward, pause or rewind as is necessary for each student, but in a manner our students are familiar with. In addition, comments were added to tutorials and online forums and virtual meetings used to facilitate consultations. Given that this route was unforeseen and relatively new for both staff and students, we think Wits’ School of Accountancy (SoA) has performed well and has adopted an approach of continuous reflection and improvement.
This new learning style, however, requires at least a smartphone and relatively stable and fast Internet connection. The connectivity issue has been addressed by Wits through various partnerships and initiatives with cellular network providers. But there are other not-so-obvious impacts which we will highlight below. With the SoA’s students coming from a broad range of economic, ethnic and geographical backgrounds, we understand the broader implications and discuss the negatives next. We focus on the negatives not as a doom and gloom story, but to bring attention to students to ensure they also receive due consideration and support from the accounting profession and beyond.
Motivation and student support are always at the forefront of our minds as 21st-century educators. One of the highly informative initiatives the SoA utilised with the final-year CAs-in-training was to require students to complete weekly self-reflections. Only basic guidelines were provided to allow students to make the most of this tool. The guidelines suggested that the self-reflections cover the student’s grasp of the week’s topics, including what they struggled with and how they overcame those, and to explain the concepts in their own words. Students were encouraged to discuss how they managed their learning process during the week. This initiative is designed to create active learning where students are conscious of their progress, challenges and learning style in a continuous process of discovery and improvement. An important part of the self-reflection process was that lecturers provided individual feedback to students addressing their specific needs and motivating them where needed. We expected to use this to inform us of areas of content concerns so that these could be addressed timeously. But what we did not foresee was just how valuable this would be for us to understand our students better under COVID-19.
Some aspects we learnt are common to all students, regardless of their socio-economic or geographical circumstances, while some are very specific. In general, the negative implications of COVID-19 on students can be categorised into three groups, namely students’ physical living environment, relationships, and IT and materials constraints.
Familiar to all students, power outages pose a challenge when they occur during important contact sessions (such as live group consultations) or assessments. In an assessment context, unforeseen outages may result in lost work if computers lose power, less time to complete assessments generally added to anxiety levels − which is negatively associated with student performance – and an inability to upload solutions. There are various ways to get around this, but none are ideal or conducive to a student’s learning.
Similarly, many students who live at Wits residences or student accommodation did not foresee the extent of the lockdown. The rush to vacate the student accommodation and get home resulted in many students leaving crucial study material and stationery behind. While those more fortunate are in a better position to replace this, not everything can be. A student’s notes and prior year’s material is not easily replaced and, even when one can copy and print from a friend, these are no substitute for one’s own work. For those that are either too far from stores (and printing facilities) or without means to replace material left behind, this poses a significant barrier to effective learning. Moreover, some students cannot print new learning material (and assessments) and must rely on either laptops or smartphones. Relying on screens puts a significant strain on one’s eyes. We often take items such as blank (or scrap) paper and pens or pencils for granted. These are critical for our degrees – there is nothing quite like paper, pens and a calculator2 to practice preparing a set of financial statements.
Typical gender roles have also arisen as posing a challenge for some students who would ordinarily use student accommodation. Completing – and excelling – in the CA programme is difficult at the best of times. When students must perform so-called typical gender roles such as looking after young children (often siblings), preparing food and general chores, this eats dramatically into their study time. This appears to affect young women most.
Keeping a focus on home, many of our students live with extended families in relatively small homes. This environment creates several challenges. Firstly, such students find it difficult to concentrate during the day owing to the constant interruptions. Secondly, this is compounded when the residences are apartments or, themselves, are within proximity to one another or businesses that are generally noisy. Thirdly, the lockdowns have provided added stress to the entire household on many fronts – economic, self-confidence/worth and being forced to continually be in one another’s space. These put stress on family relationships which may have already been strained pre-COVID-19. Finally, many students typically residing in student accommodation facilities do not have dedicated learning spaces at home – including suitable desks and chairs.3 While one might think back fondly on the days of studying on a bed in high school, the studying our CAs-in-training are required to perform is not suited to this – especially not as the default and for an extended period.
The above challenges often result in students having to resort to studying late at night when most people are asleep. This routine has the advantage of often improving their connectivity (especially in more remote areas) but upsets a student’s sleep cycle, which is crucial for learning. It may also have far-reaching effects such as fatigue, anxiety and mental health concerns. Working at night is also not an option for virtual face-to-face consultations and some assessments when under time constraints. The SoA does have procedures in place to deal with students struggling to access and complete assessments, but this is not ideal and can further frustrate a student leading to a general sense of hopelessness. Assessments are crucial for students in identifying how to adjust their learning strategies in order to improve continuously.
A generally contentious issue in SA has been the ban on alcohol sales. We cannot ignore that some household members, or neighbours, may indulge themselves with a variety of undesirable consequences. Even the possibility of alcohol abuse at home has created angst in some students. Again, the mandated confinement to living on top of one another for over three months aggravates this possibility.
What is the takeaway from this? Through our journey we have come to a far better understanding of the challenges that many of our students face. We have realised that students have done exceptionally well to carry on learning, submitting work and attempting assessments during this time, many of these students in extremely trying circumstances.
Considering what we have learnt individually, we would like to challenge you to consider how you may be able to help during COVID-19. Take a moment to consider students – all students regardless of age, gender, level and institution. Consider the small ways in which you may be able to help our future leaders. This help may be as simple as keeping aside scrap paper with blank sides which can be distributed for students to use when studying. Your promotional pens that are handed out like candy at conferences can be given to students. When shopping, if you see students with siblings, consider letting them go ahead of you so that they can get back to their studies. Recently qualified CAs can consider donating their old textbooks, legislations, standards, calculators and stationery. All of us can draw on our existing knowledge and skills to provide mentoring and tutoring to at least one student – be that primary school, high school or university students of any degree. Technology can easily be utilised for this purpose.
Finally, you can also help in ways that do not require you to give anything – where you know students, take a moment to let them know you understand some of what they are going through, support them and are proud of them. These simple gestures are sometimes the most valuable. The possibilities are endless if you open your mind and set out, in some small way, to make a difference.
1 This is a Wits requirement in order to prepare students for the professional examinations these students would take in the following year.
2 In addition, we use very specific financial calculators that are widely stocked at stationery stores, making replacing these difficult.
3 These students would ordinarily make use of available tutorial rooms at the SoA or the libraries to study.
AUTHORS | Lanelle Wilmot CA(SA) and Carli Jonker
CA(SA), Senior Lecturers, Financial Accounting Division, School of Accountancy, Wits. This was written in their personal capacity