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Academic IT: when IT has to become your best friend

In these unprecedented times, many staff and students are rightfully concerned about how they will teach and learn online. Everywhere we look online, the world has been talking about online learning. While we are, understandably encouraged by the interest that these discussions and social media posts have generated, we need to recognise that Online Learning is not the first choice for many, and in some cases shouldn’t be. We note that the emergency measures in place necessitate a new relationship with IT, and because of this, would like to make this as easy a transition as possible. The Stellenbosch University Learning Technology Systems are managed as an ecosystem with the Learning Management System, SUNLearn, as the hub for facilitating teaching, learning and assessment.

Consultation with partners, Faculties and the Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement have been on-going since Friday, 13 March 2020, and will continue to ensure the stability of the service we offer. SUNLearn, through integration with the student information systems, includes all registered academic modules.  This allows Lecturers to have access to all students online, and supports an ongoing effort to assist students in having access to their lecturers even when they are not physically able to attend classes or tutorials.

We have been receiving daily questions from Faculty management across the University, staff and students regarding the availability of the LMS and its’ role during this time. Some of our frequently asked questions are shared below, and we encourage all to use the service desk for additional queries: https://learnhelp.sun.ac.za

Frequently asked questions:

  1. What if I don’t have reliable access to an internet connection, how would I be able to access the content my lecturer is uploading?

The SUNLearn Mobile app is available for download for both Android and iOS devices. Installing the application will allow you to download most content that a lecturer has uploaded to your device when you are connected to the internet. You will be able to read and study your content without an internet connection once you have downloaded the content. If your lecturer uses interactive, self-guided lessons, these can also be completed offline and synced to SUNLearn once you are connected again.

  1. I want to create content for my students, but am not sure where to start? Can IT provide me with a license to stream my lectures?

Right now, we encourage the academic community to limit the amount of content that is live-streamed to students. By doing so, we limit the cost for data from both staff and students. For short “face-to-face” sessions, Adobe Connect sessions can be scheduled in a SUNLearn Module. Adobe Connect is the preferred streaming software for lectures and is fully integrated into SU systems. Should you opt to utilise another 3rd party streaming platform like Zoom, we are unable to assist in support for this product.

  1. I don’t have my own laptop or computer at home, how can I teach/learn online without it?

If you have a mobile phone or tablet device with Internet access, SUNLearn Mobile allows for a range of interactive strategies like text-based chats, audio feedback on assignments, and audio/video uploads directly into a discussion forum. Lecturers can create and share instructions and activities via the Mobile app for their students.

  1. Won’t SUNLearn crash with everyone being online at the same time and uploading a lot of extra videos?

We have strongly recommended that the Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement advise and train lecturers in strategies to keep modules as “data light” as possible by structuring modules for asynchronous learning first, while adhering to our SU regulations which require academic content to be accessed via SUNLearn. This includes storing videos and other multimedia on SharePoint and linking this to a module instead of embedding it directly into SUNLearn. We have seen software giants such as Microsoft, Zoom and Moodle Online all struggle to keep up with the higher demand over the past week. SUNLearn is hosted on-site, this means that we are able to limit the influence of the global demand on our LMS. However, as with any other system, user cooperation in best practice approaches will be key to ensuring the stability and access for all.

  1. I have never used SUNLearn to teach, how can I make sure that my students are supported with no experience of how to do it?

The Centre for Learning Technologies, our partner in providing a robust Learning Technologies Ecosystem, are responsible for supporting lecturers during this time. Please contact them directly via https://learnhelp.sun.ac.za . The end-user support team will redirect any queries for pedagogical support to the Advisor and Blended Learning coordinators tasked with this support. The end-user support team also have a range of guides available for those who wish to make use of a self-help approach.

SUNStream, our established and integrated streaming solution, has been in use for a number of years at SU. This solution, utilising Adobe Connect, is currently being upgraded and migrated to a new on-premises server. This maintenance will ensure that the higher usage of streaming services will be supported once the expected requirement for streaming resumes after 30 March 2020.

There have been a number of requests for IT to support a recommendation for the use of Microsoft Teams as a streaming solution for the academic environment. While MS Teams has virtual meeting, recording and storage capabilities, there are a number of security, integration and access considerations that need to be taken into account for users who wish to use this software for teaching purposes.

With our relatively small team, the cooperation and hard work of both IT and Academic partners, we are focused on ensuring the success of all maintenance work currently underway to provide the necessary system stability for the new term. This means that other IT-projects are, regrettably, unable to receive priority attention at this stage. We thank the University community for understanding this and supporting our efforts during this time.

We acknowledge and thank the staff working to provide this support during these stressful times, and their commitment to ensuring that a stable and functional system remains available to all.

 

[Article by Lianne Keiller – Manager: Learning Technology Systems]

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