Editor’s Note: We would like to thank Alaji Friday, Writing Centre Tutor of University of the Western Cape, Cape Town (South Africa) for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Alaji Friday. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Globally, the impact of the pandemic, COVID-19 is been felt. It has swept through almost all aspects of human endeavor and the education sector is not left out. The government of different countries including South Africa started by imposing restrictions on certain areas and later a complete lockdown to be able to contain the spread of the virus. Mid-March 2020 Universities across South Africa started shutting down to be able to curtail the spread of the pandemic. In addition, these institutions quickly shifted to online teaching and learning platforms. However, this drastic migration to online teaching and learning took more than 12 million public school South African students unaware because teaching and learning have always been done within the four walls of the classroom. Moreover, the total shift ignores the digital and gender divide that exists among different categories of students found in almost all tertiary institutions in South Africa. As of today, there are few days to the end of the month of May and there is still no exact date or period when schools will reopen. It is indeed a difficult time for South Africa and its education sector to be specific.
At the University of the Western Cape, the story is not different. The UWC Writing Center is not insulated from the impact of the coronavirus. The pandemic has affected and changed the way the Centre carries out its activities. Being a public institution, UWC has been locked down since on 19th March 2020 even before the national lockdown. However, the Centre is running its activities (consultations and meetings) virtually to make sure that all students who need assistance from the Centre are attended to with all possible means.
The lockdown sped up the adoption of technology. The use of the ‘New Comment’ option on Word, WhatsApp, Zoom and other e-learning platforms to give feedback to students became the ‘new normal’ and have been helpful this period. Tutors and students have to adjust to the ‘new reality’ However, from my experience, there are different kinds of students that use the Writing Centre in terms of feedback before the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown. At this point, I will only limit this to three broad categories and they are:
A. Student (s) who ask questions and contribute during a consultation
B. Student (s) who do not ask a question, never say a word nor contribute during a consultation
C. Student (s) without online learning infrastructure; laptop and access to the internet (the least)
A face to face consultation
In the face of this pandemic, attending to these three categories of students virtually requires extra care and patience. Sometimes, how to ascertain the impact of feedback on students becomes very difficult during this period of lockdown. In addition, this is where a face-to-face meeting with students play a vital role. Here, the Tutor can easily read the body language of student(s) and facial expression including nodding and verbal response to know if the student (s) really understands or not. For type ‘A’ students, in as much as the feedback is online, few of them still ask follow up questions for clarity. Considering dealing with the type ‘B’ student(s) (where most students fall) during this period, it becomes more difficult to know if the feedback, comments, or suggestions make sense to them or if they understood and accommodate them in their work. What about the type ‘C’ student? The online teaching and learning radar could not find or capture them during this period. Therefore, while online technology is vital in terms of teaching and learning, there is a need to relook at its impact on type ‘B’ and ‘C’ students.
There is no doubt that technology has the capability to increase the quality of education globally and improve teaching and learning outcomes but, this cannot be achieved until all the needed infrastructure is also provided to the poorest of the poor, less privileged, and remotest communities. Again, in as much as this is the right time to test run technology in education through online teaching, learning, and assessment, we should have at the back of our minds the huge digital and gender divide in South Africa. Finally, even as the COVID-19 has accelerated the need for digital teaching and learning, we should be constantly reminding ourselves of those who cannot afford food to eat not to talk of to own a laptop and pay for the internet for remote learning.