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Belgium Campus COVID-19 Communication (10)

15/04/2020

Dear: Students, Parents, Staff and Friends of the Belgium Campus iTversity Community,


We may have addressed some of you on occasions such as the academic opening, graduation, or any other event; however, we do not often reach out to the entire Belgium Campus community directly. But the current situation calls for such a communication. The COVID-19 pandemic has had such an impact that we feel we must reach out to you now.

The global and disastrous impact of the virus has necessitated the implementation of several political measures in our country, which have a great impact on our higher education institution. Sadly enough, we all witness how this sinister virus is impacting our families, our friends, our communities, our very own way of life. None of us are left untouched, and it hurts to see how our prosperous campus life has come to a complete standstill.

It is not the first time that we highlight the importance of your trust, your contribution and your support and we are thankful for that. During these difficult times we ask for your help to cope with the uncertainties of the current situation. We are facing a daunting task to tackle the problems and prepare for the emergence of an entirely new global system, while we remain optimistic that our world will thrive once again.

We would therefore like to inform you that for a start we have adopted a policy of full compliance with the government’s directives. Although we find ourselves in times of emergency, we shall continue to stick to our values of academic integrity, inclusiveness, equal treatment, truthfulness, character building and self-reliance through transparency, factual dialogue and fact-driven decisions. It’s time for facts, not fear. CNN started the ‘Facts First’ campaign and defined it well: “In a time of uncertainty, facts provide clarity; in a time of anxiety, facts comfort; in a time of misinformation, facts correct; in a time of division, facts unite; in a time of crisis, facts matter most.”

Some countries are advocating the so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy, whereby group-immunity is built up through a policy of the ‘survival of the fittest’. In addition to the fact that it is opposed by the WHO and many reputable epidemiologists, this strategy goes against the Belgium Campus’s values of inclusiveness and solidarity with the disadvantaged.

We have had no choice but to close our campuses as part of the lockdown measures set out by the government to contain the virus. Consequently, we decided to optimize the use of information and communication technology (ICT) and deliver our programmes online. However, the process of shifting to virtual teaching and learning is easier said than done. The shift clearly exposes the digital divide within our country, its education institutions, and the students at these institutions. Some are far better equipped than others, and internet access remains a problem.

Like most other higher education institutions, we were fast to respond to this disruptive crisis. For many institutions, this situation will further complicate the existing challenges, including budgetary inadequacies, systemic inefficiencies, low adoption of technology, and low capacity to generate funds internally. Public institutions may eventually receive assistance from the state to overcome the consequences of COVID-19. We as a private not-for-profit institution, have to operate with a business model that is heavily dependent on tuition fees and corporate funding for survival.

As an ICT institution we have risen to the occasion and promptly have taken the opportunity to improve and maximize our ICT operation by investing heavily in new infrastructure to keep up with the rapidly changing global educational landscape in a successful way. We consider this threat, as well as the approaches to overcome it, as the catalyst for long-lasting changes which should enable us to successfully complete our mission and vision as one of the private key players in the South African educational landscape.

Let us unite, open our mind and touch hearts

As we have entered a lockdown period of several weeks, we would like to take this time to reflect and thank all members of the Belgium Campus community for their continued cooperation and support during these difficult times. It is only as a result of this dedication and commitment that we are able to cope and prepare for the future.

Thank you to our students and their parents for understanding the severity of the situation and for allowing us to comply with the government’s order to close our campus, including vacating our residential facilities. We realize that this was not a simple issue, particularly for residence students whose parents or relatives had to travel a great distance on such short notice. Your cooperation does not go unnoticed; it is greatly appreciated.

Thank you to our support, admin and academic staff who continue to go above and beyond their duty in preparing for the lockdown. We are grateful for your continued hard work and dedication to provide our students with the quality education they deserve. Without your efforts, we would not be able to make the necessary provisions to save the academic year by providing online classes.

To all our staff who must stay home out of necessity, thank you for your understanding. We still count on all of you when the situation gets back to normal.

Lastly, we would like to thank our security team who have continued to keep our campuses safe. Your task is extremely important, especially during this time of increased risk.

Let us, in hardship, prepare for an extraordinary destiny

What we are facing is, simply put, daunting. The disruption of our lives is unprecedented, proven by the fact that we receive many heart-breaking messages of growing worries. It takes time and patience to respond and finetune everything for each of our individual community members. We see some students struggling financially, with parents becoming temporarily unemployed and students losing their student jobs, all having trouble making ends meet.

While we do not always know the full extent of these problems, we are pushing our boundaries and doing everything we can to help. As difficult as it has been and still is for all of us, we stand together. Our organisation is built on strong foundations and traditions of service. At its heart is our staff who care passionately about Belgium Campus, our stakeholders, and the nation we serve. If you are in doubt, or experience a growing sense of frustration, contact us via email or our website https://www.belgiumcampus.ac.za/Contact-Us-Main.html.

Let us be informed rather than opinionated

At Belgium Campus, we value the principle that sharing factual information makes one feel valued. In times of crisis, the transparency, quality of information, and how well informed our community members are, is of paramount importance.

Our on-going COVID-19 communication makes sure that many of you will have certain knowledge about the measures that Belgium Campus has had to take to comply with the government’s directives. However, you may be looking for more confirmation. You might want to know more about the why, the what, and the how. For this purpose we have created a specific information platform on our website at https://www.belgiumcampus.ac.za/News/Main/COVID-19.html. You can read about the operational impact of the closure, how we are investing hugely for the future, how we will continue with online teaching and learning, how we will organise assessments and exams, and how we will guide and coach you through these disrupting times. Additionally, there you can find information on how to take care of your health and mental well-being in isolation, and how to study and learn remotely.

We had to reorganise the academic year under the assumption that the exams in June can still be organised on our campuses. However, we need to prepare for online exams as a worst-case-scenario. If we are allowed to organise exams on campus, we will still need to adhere to the rules of good hygiene practice and social distancing, which will complicate things. In order to fit everything in an achievable calendar, we have to extend the June examination period with one week, reduce winter recess by one week, and add an additional week to the final quarter, with study leave and examinations starting one week later. More information is available on our website, which will regularly be updated.

Class schedules & online platforms

As we entered the 21-day lockdown, politicians shared a message of unity to all South Africans, but what does this mean for a country riven with inequalities? With the country in lockdown for several weeks, the need for virtual learning was boosted. Unfortunately, this boost was confronted by the concerns of a widening digital divide. Further, Equal Education’s General Secretary, Ms Noncedo Madubedube, cautioned that online education is not the sole answer to ensuring that teaching and learning continue in a scenario where institutions’ closures are prolonged.

Consequently, the Belgium Campus community has been left with the uneasiness of not knowing when educational institutions will be allowed to reopen and what the educational landscape will look like after the COVID-19 crisis. All of this calls for alternative forms of guidance and support.

We are impressed on how our staff was able to implement the digital move of our campuses by building the necessary infrastructure and the development of online teaching materials. Everyone involved - lecturers, supporting staff and students – deserves utmost praise, respect and admiration. However, as mentioned before, this kind of unpredicted and hurried transition can never be perfect. Online teaching and learning are not as easy as the simple posting of a lecture’s notes online or by making available a video recording of the lecture. Although this may be, for the time being, the only solution, we are currently investing in the pedagogical training of our lecturers for delivering online programmes. We are also investing in the immediate updating of our learning material, according to the methodologies of professional online instructional design. This, in turn, will allow for our students to be equally exposed to the pedagogy of online learning.

Additionally, in agreement with Ms Noncedo Madubedube, not all knowledge and skills, particularly ‘soft skills’, can be taught over the internet, e.g. communication skills, personal initiative, ability to work in teams, etc. As soon as the lockdown is lifted, we plan to adopt a blended or hybrid teaching and learning approach, and this together with our current extensive network of businesses. For now, we will continue to test the resilience of the various tools and technologies used for virtual education, and provide our students with the needed skills and attitudes. In the midterm, we will solve the challenges in delivering online programmes which require practical experimentation. In the long term, we should have further diversified our virtual content and invested in additional infrastructure to create an augmented virtual learning environment. At the end, face-to-face education is here to stay at Belgium Campus.

Finally, we would like to emphasise our intention of keeping education inclusive. Building a virtual classroom for everybody requires the availability of a laptop (not smartphone) for each student, as well as constant power supply and the availability of broadband internet services at a cheaper rate. While some students will have the capacity to move to virtual education, there are concerns that many might be left behind. It is true that this generation was born seeing the world through the lens of a cell phone, but not every student has a device adequate for learning or indeed access to the internet – a harsh reality. Solving this problem will need an all-inclusive approach that involves all stakeholders, government, private sector and educational institutions, working in partnership to ensure that each student has a laptop or tablet and internet services for uninterrupted teaching and learning, and scholarly work. We have reached out to the government, network providers and business to zero-rate our online platform and to provide students in need with devices. But we cannot wait, and will, for those who are not connected, provide the opportunity to catch up after the lockdown, including extending the academic calendar, thereby adding extra tuition hours for learners and lecturers.

At Belgium Campus iTversity, it is our belief that education is a lot more than online learning only. We try to preserve Belgium Campus as a ‘living community’, the way it was before, so that nobody has to miss out on the quality of our offers and services. Notwithstanding the supportive network of family and friends, which is of vital importance, we encourage our students to stay actively connected socially as much as possible in trying to escape from the isolation or looming loneliness. We encourage them to make active use of discussion forums or chat sessions to assimilate what they have learned together with their classmates, to use the guidance offered by faculty, and contact their counsellors in case of doubt. On our website, students can find guidance on different essential issues, such as how to manage their health and safety when they work at home.

Additionally, as we have said above, we also provide guidance on different essential issues in overcoming this crisis, such as strategies on safeguarding health and mental well-being when working at home, on efficient working and remote learning, on organising a daily schedule, and on working securely online when off campus.

We are dedicated to keeping our Belgium Campus community connected and alive. Our community is one that assures that nobody has to miss out on the opportunity to finish his academic year successfully.

Dear students and parents, the challenges ahead of us are enormous, and please realise that we are embarking on a long journey. You can count on our commitment and dedication to increase access to high-quality education, and we are even re-imagining both the possibilities and the opportunities of online learning for our learners. In return we rely on your motivation to get started and your commitment to keep us going in our search for solutions. We are inspired by the words of Mr Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa:

“We will continue to count on your unwavering support and commitment … in bringing about the desired renaissance of Africa.”

Commitment is the glue that bonds us to our goals in overcoming this COVID-19 crisis. We don’t know when it will be, but when life returns to normal it will be in a new world. Nevertheless, once cleared for take-off again, it will be exciting. Families will be reunited, students will return, and our campuses will become vibrant once more. And when they do, we will be ready, to teach and serve.

Please continue to visit our website https://www.belgiumcampus.ac.za/ for the most up-to-date information including a full breakdown of frequently asked questions.

Stay safe, and follow the precautionary measures outlined by the World Health Organization and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases to mitigate the spread of the virus

Warm regards,

Enrico M. Jacobs

CEO