May 21, 2020

Dr. Brittani Smit is the Resident Director for our South Africa programs. She shares her experience navigating the new world of online learning.

When I moved to South Africa nearly ten years ago, I did so because I was drawn to its jaw-dropping beauty and confounding complexity. South Africa is not the kind of place that does anything halfway – just about everything is in extremes. Awe-inspiring beauty and overwhelming hospitality, coupled with extreme inequality and bountiful cultural diversity. South Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has followed this pattern, with the recent national lockdown gaining international recognition for being one of the strictest on earth. Starting on March 27th, a curfew was implemented between 8 pm and 5 am, the sale of “non-essential items” (including alcohol and cigarettes) were prohibited, and everyone was instructed not to leave their homes except for medical emergencies or to purchase essential items.

When the lockdown went into effect, the typically vibrant and bustling city of Cape Town went quiet. In such a beautiful city, it's sad knowing that my favorite places are off-limits, and though working from home is usually a welcome luxury, its allure has been tainted by the fact that it’s no longer a privilege but a necessity. This combined with the unfortunate fact that we had to bid farewell to our study abroad students who all returned to their homes shortly before the lockdown began made the early days a bit melancholy. Our farewells were sad and, in some cases, tearful, especially because we’d all had such a great start to the semester learning and exploring the city for our academic and co-curricular excursions. 

To help beat the lockdown blues, I have been finding creative ways to stay active and learn new recipes, and have also thrown myself into the challenge of online teaching. In person, the course I taught was built on dynamic, experiential learning opportunities including guest speakers, group projects, class discussions, presentations and site visits. After the disappointment of having to return home earlier than expected, it’s been even more important to keep the students’ connection to their study abroad context and the sense of community alive. Considering the feelings of unease and disconnection we’ve all been facing, I also wanted to make online learning like an oasis – an “escape” into a virtual community that was not only educational, but also encouraging and exciting.

Because of our different time zones, most of the course has been facilitated asynchronously, which presents its own challenges and opportunities. Vibrant and dynamic weekly online discussion boards have taken the place of in-class discussions. Technology like Flipgrid has allowed us to still see each other’s faces and have class presentations, and recordings of guest lecturers have further enriched the course with the insertion of their unique perspectives. Music, film and other online resources have kept the experiential nature of the class alive. We’ve kept the subject matter relevant by integrating the current public health crisis into the course materials, discussing the impact of COVID-19, and the lockdown on some of South Africa’s most pressing issues. Virtual consultation hours and drop-in sessions, as well as casual check-ins, have allowed me to provide support and reach out, even from thousands of miles away.

For those of us who are new to the world of online learning, it has been a challenge adapting to  different ways of teaching and learning alongside the countless other “new normals” in our personal lives. Many of my students have noted that online learning requires more discipline and self-motivation than face-to-face classes, and my suggestions to them have been to develop routines and to create a system to keep track of deadlines. It will undoubtedly take us all some time to get used to this new world we’ve been catapulted into, so it's also important to maintain a work-life balance by keeping work and personal time separate and to extend ourselves a bit of grace as well. Despite the unfavorable circumstances, the experience of online learning has thus far proven to be an exciting journey of exploration, and it has been a pleasure watching my students progress along their own personal learning journeys as well.

Because of the variations in access to technology around the world, many international universities have also developed thoughtful, inclusive strategies to accommodate their diverse student bodies. In South Africa, this has included door-to-door delivery of laptops to students in need and negotiating with local internet providers for free access to university websites. Teaching styles have also been adapted. In some cases this has meant transforming longer lectures into short, audio-only files for students with limited access to the internet, mailing hard copies of course material to students with no internet access at all, and even accepting assignments via Whatsapp. It has been heartening to see that for study abroad students, even though they are back at home and their classes at international universities have moved online, this exposure to the innovative solutions developed around the world continues to expand their global awareness from a distance. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of our shared humanity, it also continues to teach us about our global interdependence in ways that keep the spirit of international education alive.