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Pandemic forces universities to evolve

2021-08-31  Albertina Nakale

Pandemic forces universities to evolve

Albertina Nakale

The Covid-19 pandemic that has caused immeasurable damage and disruption economically and socially has not spared universities since the index case was registered in March 2020. The disruption caused by social distancing and other regulations took students and staff out of classrooms and laboratories, limiting the quality of interaction. 

The University of Namibia (Unam) said although they adapted swiftly, they too were undoubtedly negatively affected. Unam spokesperson John Haufiku explained that the university had a working online system long before Covid-19. 

“However, the system was not optimised for 30 000 students. It was meant for a fraction of that number. Nonetheless, staff and students did a remarkable job to adjust. The majority of students and staff were able to successfully attend and conduct classes through our digital platforms. The strength of connectivity remains a general problem in remote areas where internet speed is not optimal for video content,” he noted. 

The university has so far lost 15 staff members and five students to Covid-19. Namibia University of Science and Technology (Nust) public relations officer Nico Smit said the institution was affected when they moved to the online mode of teaching, which has now evolved into a blended mode. 

“This meant that how Nust conducts lectures and assessments was fundamentally changed overnight, which brought with it related challenges. One significant challenge that Covid-19 has exacerbated is the inequality that exists with respect to information and communication technology (ICT) equipment and infrastructure. 

A significant portion of our students do not have access to a stable and reliable internet connection in their homes or places of residence,” he observed. 

Nust, in collaboration with Telecom Namibia and the higher education ministry, provided mobile or pocket WiFi devices, pre-loaded with data, to each registered student to enable them to access the online platforms where lectures are conducted and where courses are hosted.

On academic performance, Haufiku said it is too early to tell. However, despite the challenges students face, Unam believes that they are working hard to pass the 2021 academic year.

Meanwhile, Smit said it would be difficult to state or expect that the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic would not be seen or felt in the academic results of students at all levels of the education system across the world. 

ity has put in place systems and processes to ensure that students continue to receive high-quality teaching and instruction.

Nust feels a suspension of teaching and learning during the level one lockdown had the negative effect that there was simply not enough time to conclude lecturing and assessments by the end of 2020. 

“The result was that we had to continue with the 2020 academic year into 2021. This means that by the start of 2021, we still had numerous academic matters dating back to 2020 that needed to be resolved and concluded before we could start with the 2021 academic year,” Smit added.

To date, Nust has lost five staff members and students to Covid-19. 

Although Unam has allowed the most deserving students access to internet facilities and allocated internet devices to assist with connectivity, Haufiku said some challenges still exist in this area, and solutions are being explored.

Asked how they have been able to assist the government in terms of scientific research and other assistance towards Covid-19, he stated that Unam has been able to complement government efforts through its molecular diagnostic laboratory established to conduct Covid-19 tests. 

Unam managed to implement the Covid-19 variant sequencing platform, which is a first for Namibia. 

Other initiatives included training dogs for Covid-19 testing, expanding the capacity of the laboratory to sustain diagnostic for SARS CoV2 and other infectious disease pathogens towards improving public health in Namibia, as well as developing prototypes from natural products that have the potential to fortify immune responses against Covid-19.

“Additionally, we have conducted various investigations to understand the impact of the pandemic on our society. This research focused on Namibians’ behaviour, attitude and coping mechanisms to build on epidemiology studies for future pandemics,” Haufiku continued. 

Unam has also been supporting the health ministry in their aim to reach herd immunity through its own vaccination campaign. 

Similarly, Nust is currently in consultation with the health ministry on the establishment of a Covid-19 vaccination centre on campus. 

“Our hope is that this initiative will be up and running by the end of the month (August 2021). We are also working with the ministry of health to provide assistance in the fight against Covid-19 in numerous other ways, which includes allowing access to officials from the ministry to our facilities for data capturing and data processing,” Smit said. 

Other contributions he mentioned include the mathematical modelling of Covid-19, which is an area of research that Nust is exploring with the ministry, as well as research to review the national Covid-19 response. 

Nust plans to work with the ministry on the issue of vaccine hesitancy to gain an understanding of the underlying causes thereof, and to assist in developing strategies to improve vaccine uptake amongst the Namibian

2021-08-31  Albertina Nakale

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