UPOnline is scoring with digital qualifications ideal for full-time employees and international students

Posted on October 12, 2022

Graduation is always special, but for Bella Jacobs, her most recent one was extra special. She did her qualification via the University of Pretoria’s (UP) UPOnline initiative, run by UP’s Directorate of Comprehensive Online Education Services (COES), and only got to know some of her classmates online.

“It was so nice to actually see them. With some we didn’t have Zoom meetings; we were chatting on WhatsApp. So to see their faces, to put the names to the faces, was wonderful,” said Jacobs.

Jacobs graduated in September with a Postgraduate Diploma in Public Health. The programme, which is not a correspondence course, is entirely online and all digital. This meant her studies did not intervene with her full-time day job as a professional nurse with an HIV/Aids NGO, BroadReach Healthcare, in Mpumalanga. How different to the days when she did her nursing science degree. It still makes her shudder to think of how she used to leave home in eMalahleni at 05:00 to drive to lectures in Johannesburg, finish at 17:00 and get home at 20:00.

This time she was able to study in her own time. Aside from biostats, which she initially battled with and then cracked a final mark of over 80%, and having to work hard “to excel at Excel”, she said she found all aspects of the course ran smoothly: from the day she spotted the ad on Facebook, responded, and “a very friendly lady called me the following day, and helped with the application”. “The rest was history,” she said.

“We used to have meetings, or online classes, every Tuesday where the professor would explain extensively. Even if you missed it, there were recordings, and you could go back and listen.

“The tutors on the site were so friendly. If you didn't understand whatever was discussed, you could write them an email, ask when you could call them, and then they would explain whatever you did not understand.

“For me as a full-time employee, this online course was like a godsend.

“I was so inspired by all the ladies that graduated,” said Jacobs. So much so that she began the process of applying to do a Master’s in Public Health just days after the graduation ceremony.

“Then after that, I'll be going for my PhD. That's my dream,” said Jacobs, whose work experience includes being a prison warden, as well as a nurse at Correctional Services.

Professor Linda van Ryneveld, Director of COES, said the postgraduate diplomas in Public Health and Public Management are just the start of the COES’ digital offerings. Pending all the necessary external approvals, there is a plan to start offering a Higher Certificate in Sports Sciences in March. This will be the online version of a programme already offered in the Faculty of Education. COES has plans for about 20 other programmes, some to be offered in collaboration with Higher Ed Partners SA (HEPSA).

Prof Van Ryneveld said the success of UPOnline programmes includes the fact that payment is per module, rather than a lump sum in advance.

“So there are at least two salary cheques before you have to pay for your next module,” she said. The option of six starting times in the year also means that when someone decides to register, they don’t have to wait longer than two months to start.

Prof Van Ryneveld said there is a huge demand for top-end, online education.

“Even international students don't have to leave their jobs and families in their home countries and get visas to come here. They can study with this brand they want, the University of Pretoria, without any such hassle,” she said. The programmes have attracted students from as far afield as Cuba and India.

UPOnline programmes fit in with the University’s mandate to increase its number of postgraduate students. Although the initial outlay is expensive in terms of human resources and time – they don’t just annotate a PowerPoint and put it online – it is immensely scalable.

“Whether you do it for one student, or 10 000 students, it's the same amount of input. So obviously, the higher the student numbers, the more cost efficient the model becomes for the University,” Prof Van Ryneveld explained.

The programmes have a strong focus on student interaction.

“We create chat rooms in every class, like a virtual café, where we say ‘This is your space where you can chat to your peers’,” said Prof Van Ryneveld. Some videos stop halfway to pose a multiple-choice question, and the answers are then evaluated to determine the students’ grasp of the content.  And the badges students acquire for completing tasks such as group work have been a hit.

“We structure the learning experience for success. We don't want to ever get to the point where we say we've dumbed it down so that people can pass. We keep high standards but we build in interactive feedback – group support, peer support, and even online call centre support – specifically to help student success. If a student hasn’t logged in for a few days, it is flagged, and the contact centre will call them to ask ‘How are things going?’” she said.

“These programmes are successful because of the very detailed care we give to the students. For every decision we make, we think: “How does this affect the online student who doesn't have the support network of fellow students around them in class?” Prof Van Ryneveld said.

Find out more about UPOnline

Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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