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What we learnt from “going online” during university shutdowns in South Africa

Ed. I have avoided posting much lately, as there is so much availalable information already about the Covid-19 shutdowns and schools moving delivery of face-to-face classes online. In general, I don’t want to add to the confusion and only post unique views. The following is a guest post from Laura Czerniewicz from the University of Cape Town, offering historical lessons from their shutdowns in 2015-17, which I think fits the bill for unique, useful views.

By Laura Czerniewicz

With thanks to Sukaina Walji, Janet Small, Sam Lee Pan, Jeff Jawitz, Shanali Govender, Andrew Deacon, Tabisa Mayisela.


Universities are “going online” on a scale never seen before because of Covid-19. Advice, tips and communities are springing up to support academics and students. Teaching and learning professionals in numerous roles are working flat out to be of assistance. It is not the first time this has happened – after natural disasters such as the Christchurch earthquake and the New Orleans floods, there was a hasty shift online. During periods of political disruption, such as recently in Hong Kong, the same has happened. And in South Africa, where I work, there were periods of “moving online” during periods of university shutdown amidst student protests.

In the period from 2015 to 2017 long-standing simmering tensions in higher education in South Africa came to the fore, resulting in university shutdowns. Most prominent were the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student-led protests. It is impossible in a post like this to capture the details, force and power of the protests. At varying points toward the end of each academic year, universities were shut down across the sector. This affected all 27 public universities in the country.

In order to complete the academic year, senior decision makers announced that “blended learning” would be one of the strategies used to enable students to complete their courses. This caught academics and professionals supporting teaching and learning off guard, especially in the first year.

This piece tries to summarise what we, in one centre of teaching and learning, 1 learnt during this period. Although the current situation of shut down associated with pandemic containment measures is of course very different, and one would hope far less contentious, there are likely useful lessons to be shared.


We all know that technology is never neutral. During protests and shutdowns, the decision to use “blended learning” was especially political and politicized. As it was such a fluid, fragmented and contested time, it was hard to ascertain what was actually going on. “Blended learning” became drawn into existing political agendas and extreme claims were made. Conspiracies flourish.

This current period is also likely to evoke political responses, in ways that we may not expect. And fake news will certainly infiltrate the system. The use of technology will also be appropriated to serve a range of conflicting agendas. So don’t be surprised when it does.

During the period of protests, every university “went online” differently, shaped by their specific institutional contexts. This means not only designing strategies appropriate for specific contexts, but also being aware that technological decisions will be shaped in ways that reflect existing differences, alliances, discourses and perspectives in particular institutions.


It may feel like the last thing on one’s mind, but it is important to be aware of what message is being sent when explaining the need to replace face-to-face teaching with virtual alternatives. At the time of the protests, the general term used – by VCs’ , government, and in communications was “blended learning”. The protest leaders as well as some academics saw this as an attempt to circumvent the shutdown of institutions they were enforcing. It is really hard to design well for effective, meaningful learning under those conditions and the hurried, incomplete and rushed efforts to “teach online” together with this highly charged context gave blended and online learning a bad name, forever associated with managing protests as opposed to pedagogical innovation.

It is something else, so call it something else!

People people people

We, as in our centre, were ambivalent about the “move online” for different reasons and had to negotiate our own tensions, anxieties and differences of opinion. We knew that we in the teaching and learning centres, and our colleagues in the faculties were underprepared. Some wondered whether we were doing the right thing. In addition to these anxieties, we ourselves generally felt unevenly ready regarding “going online”. Online was a very recent phenomenon for residential universities in the country. It was important to support our own staff – each other – practically and emotionally. Many of us worked day and night, and we did our best to give people time off as soon as we were able to. Given the circumstances, we often had to do this informally. Getting HR to come to the party would be a real help.

Even when all classes were cancelled, even when the senior executive directed that university staff should work from home and we put in place the technology to enable our own staff to work from home, even though it was a very tense and anxiety-provoking environment on campus – most people preferred to find ways to work together, including teams getting together in coffee shops or in one person’s home. We found buildings which the university owned that we had not known about, and set up working spaces and help desks there so that our own staff had company and support. It was strongly brought home to us that even though so many of us work in digitally mediated education, we depend on the f2f team interactions for a sense of collegiality and support.

In the Covid-19 context where social distancing is encouraged, it will be essential to pay attention to human connection in virtual teamwork and to find ways to ensure that human support is continued.

During these periods of uncertainty and contestation, we found ourselves in challenging situations where it was essential to remain calm, measured and respectful. This was extremely difficult at times, especially when provoked but it was essential. It was also hard but necessary to forgive oneself and one’s peers when we failed at times.

It often felt like we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t. We had to develop thick skins and look out for ourselves and one another. And later, we had to (and still do) live with the after effects, because these things do not end when the immediate crisis is over.

The focus of attention was, and is, appropriately on educators and students. However, one group to remember is administrative staff who face extreme pressure during such periods. During the South African shutdowns, administrative staff had to adjust as the normal systems and timetables were disrupted. Of course this was not simply due to the “move online”, but due to the protests and also because exams were moved to the post Christmas period after the normal end of semester. Their work loads shot up and leave was cancelled. Anecdotally, it became clear that administrative staff were not always acknowledged and treated with the respect they were due. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

Digital Divides and social inequalities

At the centre of all plans and possibilities were students (and staff) who did not have access to technologies and connectivity. This impacted on everything and was one of the greatest sources of anxiety about “going online” from our perspective in a teaching and learning centre.

Addressing these issues requires deep, challenging and ongoing work at the best of times, which we were not in. So the practical strategies were just that – practical and immediate.

  • We developed a Guide on Strategies for Addressing Unequal Technological Focus http://bit.ly/unequal_access

  • We created a very short survey to get information about existing access http://bit.ly/brief_survey

  • The university sector negotiated zero rating to educational materials for all students in the country (i.e. educational materials/ sites were exempt from data charges). Some companies were slow to join in, but eventually all cell phone companies did so.

  • From a design point of view, the general advice was “keep it simple”. However, all this meant that faculties generally focused on delivery strategies as little to nothing could be done regarding formative assessment.

The university bought laptops and these were distributed to students on financial aid.

This initiative turned out to provide one of the unexpected outcomes of the overall shift as we had for several years been piloting a laptop project (and a Personal Mobile Device project with one of the faculties) and trying to raise funds to extend it. After the shutdown years, this was mainstreamed so that all students on financial aid automatically receive a laptop on arrival.

Of course inequalities extend way beyond technological access, and even in the last few years digital literacies have become so much more complex.


There is a lot available about supporting teaching virtually at the moment, and a very welcome focus on Teaching Continuity with Care. There was no one strategy, rather there were multiple strategies. Some of us did share our experiences at the time.

So just a few observations here: firstly that our own existing materials were hard to find and secondly that the rough-and-ready guides we created at speed did not have to be perfect. We were mindful though, that what was happening was not actually online education, so we raised funds for later refining and developing resources, resulting in our Teaching Online Portal.

We also contacted all heads of department to let them know we would run department level and discipline specific sessions. Their function was usefully to answer questions, enable colleagues in the department to share their own knowledge and to form disciplinary communities of practice.

Our MOOCs project was in its beginning stages, but during the teaching suspension time a few academics used MOOC materials they had prepared for students to access, or directed students to MOOCs as temporary compensatory measure for formal teaching.

Technologies and technology companies

Technologies used did not go through normal selection processes and those technologies chosen hurriedly tended to stick. We had to ensure that it was on record that these were not the final decisions regarding these choices, and that due process would later be followed.

We ourselves had to learn new technologies very fast. For example, we had never used online proctoring for exams before and learnt how complex it is. A lot of administrative planning and organisation needed to go in beforehand, in addition to the myriad of other issues it raises. Video conferencing was the executive response to going online overnight, but it didn’t factor in unequal digital access and relative affordability of data. We generally recommended more asynchronous communication and less bandwidth-intensive solutions.

In general, the technical advice was to use existing systems, use what students have, and keep it simple. We also learned more and at first hand how our current technology offerings were experienced by academics and students in terms of ease of use and usability allowing us to reflect and plan for future needs.

This was an opportunity to leverage relations with technology companies. Cell phone companies agreed to zero rate data for educational purposes and certain URLs such as including our learning management system were whitelisted. This is a time when technology and #edtech companies are all proffering their services. Periods of uncertainty provide opportunities for companies to insert themselves where they previously did not have space. There will be seductive promises made and it is essential to maintain academic control of the relationship.


We realised after the first year, that we ought to be researching what was happening, and together with three other South African universities raised a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to talk to academics and students about their experiences, and how they made sense of what was happening. It was not easy to find people who could find time to be interviewed as people were so overwhelmed and stressed. We hope that it was helpful for them to talk and be listened to. We spoke to students, teaching and learning professionals and academics; a paper about some academics’ perspectives has recently been published.

There are many research questions that need attention, and if it is possible to find funding and researchers, even in the midst of a crisis it is valuable to do. There is so much to understand, about what was happening then, and what is happening now. We need to wear all our hats: maker, developer, supporter and researcher.

There are many issues and questions to consider including:

  • The role of private companies – discourses of #edtech companies, terms and conditions as new relationships get set up, how these relationships come into being

  • Inequality implications (social and digital) for students, academics and institutional types

  • Datafication issues. The role, ownership and use of data, the use of big data and algorithms etc

  • Surveillance in teaching and learning

  • Designing “online” experiences in a crisis

  • The role and experiences of edtech professionals, academic developers etc

  • The impact of “going online” on contract staff and contract relationships

  • Academics’ experiences, challenges, opportunities etc

  • Students experiences, challenges, opportunities etc

  • The language and discourses of university and media communications

  • The role of open education / open education resources

Threaded through these, always questions of power and whose interests are being served.


In short…

It will be political. Change will be appropriated for different ends and tell different stories for different people. Technology is never neutral. Keep it simple and as complex as is essential. Keep issues of inequality upfront. Plan for your own context. There are serious data implications: for inequality, costs, privacy and surveillance. It is not just academics and students who are under pressure, remember all the other people involved. Be careful not to get stuck in the long term with technology choices made in the short term. Keep academic control of vendor relationships. Be kind and take care.

1 Learning designers, educational and academic developers, educational technology staff, professional and staff developers and so on