The shift to Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning (RTL) during the COVID 19 pandemic has forced lecturers to use online platforms such as Blackboard, Teams and other Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as WhatsApp. The rapid change has been unsettling as lecturers anxiously tried to reach their students online. Lecturers had to revisit their teaching methods and focus on creating an online social presence through various activities such as short videos, podcasts, synchronous and asynchronous discussions, and peer and collaborative learning opportunities. Feedback from students shows that they adapted their learning and had to apply different learning strategies. In the process, challenges and questions arose about the ethics of teaching online.
Mutual engagement and interaction
Supportive engagement and interaction were essential to lecturers’ online teaching. They paid attention to establishing relations of care and trust with their students. Feedback from students shows that most lecturers tried to create a caring and nurturing learning environment online. According to the students, lecturers played a supportive role in setting the proper tone and atmosphere during RTL. They displayed the capacity to show their social presence via controlled, yet ubiquitous online communication. The students explained that they were aware of the lecturers’ presence in the online environment. Lecturers went on to create a nurturing and supportive environment during RTL by using a variety of strategies to engage students in learning activities, such as including synchronous and asynchronous forms of engagement, WhatsApp messaging and Blackboard.
Generating student-centred learning activities
Our engagement with lecturers shows that student-centred learning activities online is a critical aspect of RTL. A student-centred approach to learning relies on constant dialogue and interaction between lecturers and students and ensures that student learning is at the heart of RTL. Lecturers focused on developing learning activities that cultivate understanding and autonomous learning opportunities. Rather than giving loads of notes and PowerPoints, a strategy of students-centred learning was developing activities that generate independent and critical thinking. Lecturers constructed activities that assist students in asking why and encouraged high order thinking. Too often, lecturers only rely on rote-learning questions and do not ask students to apply the concepts.
Providing peer support opportunities such as tutors and mentors
Remote teaching and learning can lead to students feeling alone in the learning process. What has to be accounted for is that learning is also a social activity and that lecturers have to develop opportunities for students to engage with one another in the learning process. A key feature of RTL is, therefore, providing access to peer learning and support. Some lecturers changed their pedagogical approaches by including peers, tutors and mentors and as part of the learning process. Online tutors and mentors played a crucial role in RTL so that students felt like they were part of a community of learners. Having regular online tutor sessions allowed students to learn from their peers and to engage in the affective dimensions of RTL. Peer learning was encouraged through pedagogical strategies such as group work and paired learning activities in the online environment.
Extending the resources available to students
While we rely on texts in the traditional classroom, a vital element of RTL is to provide a range of resources for students to learn from such as audio, visual, print and online library resources. RTL forces lecturers to use audio and video as part of their pedagogical strategies. Ironically, print material is essential for students as lecturers fear that not all students would have access to the internet. The various pedagogical approaches resulted in lecturers attending to a broader range of students’ learning styles.
Responsiveness during assessments and ensuring that feedback is prompt
Assessments and feedback is a critical part of the RTL. Assessments always evoke anxiety and stress, and within the RTL context, anxieties about assessments are heightened. Responsiveness during assessments and ensuring that feedback is prompt was central to RTL. The feedback from students showed that students appreciated lecturers who communicated clearly about what to expect from assessments and those lecturers who responded to questions about assessments. For students to learn effectively, feedback after assessments must be prompt and must enable students to improve their work. Lecturers used various platforms to give feedback to students such as Blackboard and WhatsApp.
Utilising ICTs: To WhatsApp or not to WhatsApp?
Lecturers utilised ICTs tools extensively during RTL, and the most widely used tool was WhatsApp. The challenges were related to the style, and the manner of engagement as students would use a casual tone and would sometimes use expletives as part of their interaction with lecturers. Some lecturers did not want to impose themselves on the WhatsApp space and decided that a student representative should be part of the WhatsApp group and would in turn report to the lecturer.
Students studying at home
Factors such as as a noisy learning environment, an unsuitable place to study and learn and living with a large family impacted on RTL. Students also had to deal with psycho-social problems such as the anxiety and fear of not completing the academic year, the fear of COVID-19 and feeling alone while studying and not having the normal support of peers