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Virtual Summer School draws new audiences

1 Mar 2021 - 14:45

The immersive experience that the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) annual Summer School offers took an expected turn by going virtual this year. Despite numbers being down, the online environment has attracted new audiences, said Summer School director, Dr Medeé Rall, who spoke with UCT News about the experience.

Helen Swingler (HS): What do you count as highlights and lowlights of the first virtual outing for UCT’s Summer School?

Medeé Rall (MR): Highlights included some outstanding courses on contemporary issues, flawlessly delivered by world-class academics and scholars that could be enjoyed literally across the world. I was also touched by the number of lecturers who thanked us for the opportunity to participate in the programme. Another is that we attracted participants from many other countries, but especially from the African continent: Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. There were also participants from South Korea, India, Mauritius and Saudi Arabia. The lowlight was that we had to cancel courses that were not financially viable, given that our numbers were down. 

HS: The drop in numbers was unexpected. Was there a reluctance by regular participants to embrace Summer School online?

Medee Rall (MR): We did not expect the drop in numbers. But many people phoned and emailed to say that they would not be participating online as they attend the university to have contact with fellow participants and to talk about lectures over coffee and to browse at the bookshops. The upside is that we’ve gained a new audience in an online environment. That’s exciting.

HS: How did the virtual interface affect course delivery and audience participation?

MR: What was also significant is that the technology worked. We were able to offer courses at scheduled times as we would at a normal Summer School, but we also offered courses that people could watch in their own time. We were able to send the links to participants after courses were presented so that they could watch what they’d missed or if they wanted to listen to it again.

HS: And the practical classes?

MR: Our practical courses were very successful, which demonstrates that one can offer these online. Our Xhosa class was full, we had almost full Portuguese and Italian classes and a very diverse French class. The writing classes worked very well, as did the art courses – with the one course being very technologically advanced, with pre-recorded videos that participants could watch as well as online interactions with lecturers and contact via WhatsApp. WhatsApp was also used in the French class to listen to words and practise pronunciation.

The technology also worked well for question time at the end of lectures and enhanced the experience. This is not always possible in big lecture theatres. And in spite of the online environment, there was an intimacy with both the lecturers and the audiences.

We could also offer the film programme by sending the links to the downloaded films. What is important is that the online environment meant we did not have to miss the 71st year of Summer School.

HS: Which courses drew the biggest interest?

MR: The arts and humanities courses and those that dealt with travel to other countries, such as Waterways of France, were very popular. Also courses on the Economic Freedom Front, the African National Congress, elite schools, and Professor Marc Mendelson’s course on COVID-19. It shows that people were both keen to escape the reality in which we’re living and travel in their armchairs – in the absence of being able to travel in real life. And, as always, they were keen to engage with current affairs. These topics always attract good numbers and good discussions.

HS: Feedback indicates that in the early booking phase almost half the participants were new and not on the Summer School mailing list.

MR: As we’re now based in the Development and Alumni Department (DAD), we can access the alumni mailing list. Many would have come from there. Last year we ran 20 webinars, which saw hundreds of new people added to our mailing list – many of them more diverse than our previous audiences have been. We always see a younger and more diverse group of participants signing up for courses on issues of consequence and political interest.

We also opened places to 40 learners from a range of schools to attend the course on gravity as it’s covered in their science curriculum. I am hoping that the high school learners and UCT students who attended this year become the new generation of lifelong learners who attend Summer School.

HS: How will this new audience shape future Summer Schools? More virtual offerings? Dual live/virtual offerings, if developments in the COVID-19 arena allow?

MR: We plan to offer online courses and lectures throughout the year. And when we return to an in-person Summer School again, we will offer a shorter online Summer School beforehand to accommodate alumni and others spread across the world, giving them access to the knowledge and learning generated by the university. We also aim to have a Winter School once we can, repeating some Summer School courses for Cape Town audiences who did not attend the online versions.

HS: What other new ideas emerged for the organisers for Summer School 2022?

MR: It’s likely we’ll inhabit a dual/hybrid learning space in future – online and in person. This dual presentation has enlarged the footprint of the university’s lifelong learning and we hope to continue growing using this hybrid model.

HS: Will you host a virtual mini Summer School for the 100-UP scholars?

MR: Because connectivity in the areas from which the 100-UP learners come is so problematic we can’t offer it online, but we are hoping to offer in-person mini Summer Schools again later in the year once things open up and the learners can visit campus.

HS: How did your team manage this very different Summer School format?

MR: We had the most excellent Summer School student assistants, who worked with lecturers to train them on Teams and who managed the technical aspects of the programme. Two worked in the front office dealing with hundreds of queries. Without them we would not have had the smooth running of the programme, bar the odd small hitch at the beginning. The Summer School permanent staff were fantastic, all very dedicated and working long hours. It was wonderful that we could work together remotely, with one student assistant even working from Bloemfontein but dealing with the logistics and technical issues involved in running an online programme. 

HS: Have you had good feedback?

MR: Here are some of the 189 responses: “Please put me on your mailing list.” “Please repeat Italian for Beginners – it is amazing!” “Although I much prefer being able to attend live lectures on the UCT campus, I appreciated the opportunity of being able to learn new things in the current circumstances. Thanks for all the efforts behind the scenes to make Summer School happen this year.” “I would love to have Summer School on webinar again in the future.” “The remote school was great for overseas students like me, so I hope it continues.” “Many thanks for putting together a most interesting programme under extremely testing conditions.” 

And a message from our vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng: “Well done to the Summer School team in DAD on the successful completion of UCT’s first virtual Summer School. Circumstances have shown our community’s resilience and agility to respond to the pandemic in new ways, and you have achieved something that will no doubt expand the vision and reach of the Summer School in the future.”

Dr Russell Ally, the executive director of DAD, said, “I’m very excited to see how our 2021 virtual Summer School has reached more diverse audiences and expanded our alumni participation rate. As a key project in DAD, Summer School opens up the space for friends and family of the university to engage in and contribute to the community connectedness, excellence and innovation of UCT.”

HS: Last words?

MR: I’m thrilled that we could continue with the Summer School tradition, albeit not in person, and that we could bring learning to people in spite of the pandemic, that it went as smoothly as it did, and that Summer School staff are so wonderful. It’s also wonderful being part of DAD as we could offer the programme to alumni across the world.

A very special highlight was the annual UCT Legacy Society Virtual Annual Summer School Lecture with Professor Phakeng in conversation with futurist Abbas Jamie, who is working with the university on Vision 2030. We will put the programme on our YouTube channel by the end of February, which will increase the footprint of this programme enormously. Last year we had just under 90 000 views of our virtual lectures, courses and webinars. We’re hoping for similar numbers!