Student success initiative extends its reach with ‘Network 2.0’
Meneesha Govender (University World News) 03 September 2020

Student success initiative Siyaphumelela recently launched the Siyaphumelela Network 2.0 which carries forward the work, achievements and learning from the first phase of the initiative focused on using data analytics to improve student experiences and success.

Since its inception in 2014, the Siyaphumelela initiative, coordinated by the South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE), has helped partner institutions foster a culture of student success, identify data and tools to improve student success, strengthen institutional capacity, and develop practices for long-term student success.

After achieving many of its original goals, the programme has now increased its scope with the Siyaphumelela Network 2.0, launched at a webinar on 26 August 2020. The initiative is funded by the US-based Kresge Foundation and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Partners in the initiative are Achieving the Dream (ATD), a non-profit leader in championing evidence-based institutional improvement, and the University Innovation Alliance in the US, as well as the Council on Higher Education, Universities South Africa and the University of Cape Town’s Siyaphambili Project.

Siyaphumelela 2.0 is working actively with 14 universities. Seven partner universities (Durban University of Technology, Nelson Mandela University, University of Cape Town, University of the Free State, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of the Western Cape and University of the Witwatersrand) and one associate university (University of Pretoria) will serve as regional student success hubs, and will share insights with participant institutions (Cape Peninsula University of Technology, North West University, Sol Plaatje University, University of Venda, University of Zululand and Walter Sisulu University).

The network will help to implement student success strategies including campus-based holistic student support, student tracking, academic advising and ethical data use.

Social justice agenda

SAIDE’s Jennifer Glennie said: “Siyaphumelela 2.0 draws on the expertise, tools and insights developed over the past five years (Siyaphumelela 1.0). It is informed by a social justice agenda of access, inclusion and success. It operates on the notion that student success is defined in a holistic manner to include graduate attributes and employability.”

Siyaphumelela 2.0 is “committed to sharing experience and expertise across the system”, and aims to have a system in place that will eventually provide support to all South African higher education institutions through regional and national networks and integrated services.

Speaking at the virtual launch, the DHET’s Whitfield Green said the department “appreciates the South African university system’s appetite for working together and collaborating to ensure student success”.

He said DHET has committed to a three-year funding initiative through its University Capacity Development Grant programme which will fund student advising services at participating campuses and create a national student data system to track educational outcomes.

Student success – An apex priority

Green said student success remains an apex priority. And the Siyaphumelela network is “on a positive trajectory as we are seeing improvements across all the indicators, which the data clearly shows”.

William Moses, managing director of Kresge’s Education Program, said: “Since 1994, South Africa has sought to open the doors of learning to all, but not all students have been able to succeed. Siyaphumelela aims to ensure that all students can fulfil their university dreams.”

Kresge funding will also support the creation of a wider learning network among South Africa’s universities to help strengthen their capacity to enhance student success programmes through coaching, as well as regional, national and international learning opportunities.

Each participating university will receive a three-year grant of US$300,000 from the Kresge Foundation. SAIDE has also been awarded US$1.5 million to administer the Siyaphumelela learning network.

ATD will partner with institutions to increase the number of trained South African data analytics professionals who are equipped to grow student success reforms on their campuses. Glennie said six newly-trained South African coaches, supported by three ATD coaches, are ready to share their knowledge and expertise.

Stakeholders at the launch were especially proud of the fact that Siyaphumelela’s innovative approach was recently recognised as a global emerging technology trendsetter in the 2020 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report. EDUCAUSE, an American association of education technology professionals, examined innovations around the world and lauded Siyaphumelela’s strong alignment across multiple institutions.

New projects

The seven partner universities in Siyaphumelela Network 2.0 will embark on different projects with results being shared across the network.

  • The University of Cape Town will develop an institution-wide, integrated, data analytics system with faculty-specific dashboards to provide data for the development of interventions to support student success and improve quality of teaching and learning.
  • The University of the Western Cape will concentrate on strengthening its data analytics capacity, including enhancing the understanding of academic and support staff in the role of data analytics in driving student success.
  •  At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a three-year research study into the impact of various institutional policy interventions on student access and progression will be implemented.
  • The Durban University of Technology will be strengthening its data analytics capacity to build and encourage an evidence-led culture of decision-making and planning.
  • Nelson Mandela University is seeking to enhance training for student success coaches and academic advisors, as well as develop an integrative student success monitoring, tracking, and evaluation system.
  • The University of the Free State will evaluate the implementation of advising strategies to determine the impact of these interventions on students’ development and success.
  • The University of the Witwatersrand will research the prevalence and risk factors of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation among students, and develop targeted interventions aimed at improving student quality of life.
  • The University of Pretoria, which was part of the original group in Siyaphumelela 1.0, will remain part of the network but will self-fund its work.

A blended learning environment

While Green lauded the many successes of Siyaphumelela 1.0, he noted there is still room for improvement: “We’re seeing differential success rates in terms of the nature of programmes and students being more successful in some programmes than others. Success patterns differ enormously between contact programmes and distance programmes which is a high concern,” he said.

“This is particularly important because it relates to the move to blended modalities. The need to support success in a blended environment has become key.”

Touching on the COVID-19 pandemic, Green said this has also presented unprecedented challenges and higher education institutions have been forced to rethink how teaching and learning can happen remotely. Most universities have been able to adapt in implementing emergency remote and multi-modal teaching and learning strategies.

“Universities are drawing on the analytics capacity they’ve been able to develop to track student participation during these crisis times and to respond effectively, creating multiple pathways for students,” said Green.

The result is that the majority of universities in South Africa are on track to complete the current academic year successfully “in a manner that does not compromise the safety of students and staff, in a manner that provides a fair opportunity for success for all students, and in a manner that does not impact too negatively on the start of the 2021 academic year”, he said.

However, COVID-19 has also thrown the spotlight on inequality. He expressed concern that some higher education institutions have struggled to implement viable multi-modal teaching and learning strategies. Intensive catch-up programmes, supplemented by online learning, are crucial for student success at these universities and a lot of work still needs to be done, said Green.

However, universities involved in Siyaphumelela 1.0 look to be on track to complete the academic year. “Participation in the programme has contributed to the universities’ abilities to respond more effectively to the crisis,” said Green.