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Unisa at the forefront of technological solutions in response to Covid-19 regulations

Unisa has always embraced the fact that universities need to adapt quickly to the fast-paced higher education environment of the 21st century. To respond to the national lockdown regulations, the Directorate of Operations and Facilities made a request to the School of Computing to develop an app that could

  • limit access to Unisa campus buildings to the required number by law.
  • limit access to buildings according to the maximum number a venue is authorised to take.
  • allow departments to monitor activity in buildings.
  • allow students to make a booking for a date to a building.

The current app was developed by Prof Mac van der Merwe from the Department of Information Systems in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET). Explaining the process and its challenges, Van der Merwe says that the primary goal was to offer, in the shortest time possible, an inexpensive app that firstly ticks all the required boxes as required by Covid-19 regulations, and, secondly, would not require high data usage. Using a web-based app fits the bill by eliminating the need for platform-specific development, updates and recurrent downloads, as well as lengthy app store approval procedures.

Given the development timeline available, an agile and feature-driven approach had to be followed. Van der Merwe explains that no structure and documentation were available upfront. "With many other stakeholders involved, requirements were bound to change daily and finding one’s way and time as a full-time academic through all of this to ensure the best end-user experience without losing any functionality did not come easy," he says.

In addition, mobile scanners to scan student cards, confirm bookings and capture body temperatures at campus entrance gates and buildings had to be tested, procured, configured and distributed. Various other departments were involved, and the role they played in the realisation of the app was key. At the time of writing, close to 73 000 students have registered with over 90 000 bookings made.

An innovation-driven college

CSET is a college that has often driven innovation, design and the development of bespoke solutions for the university. Prof Bhekie Mamba, Executive Dean of CSET, says: "We as a college lead Unisa into the forefront of technological possibilities. The college management has always encouraged CSET academics to think outside the box, not only in terms of their tuition, but also in terms of their research, academic citizenship and community engagement. As college management, we are always looking for opportunities to support the university at any given opportunity."

Mamba explains that the School of Computing in the college has a long history of designing and developing custom-made solutions for the university. Some of these include the postgraduate online examination system, their internal RIMS management system to process and manage the school’s research outputs, a system to automate and manage the school’s internal CRC processes, and the Osprey system, which has been used by the school for many years as an information system to inform fellow staff and students about staff whereabouts.

Asked how he, on behalf of the School of Computing, sees the school being fundamental in the development of other technological solutions to address challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic, Van der Merwe says: "Internally and recently, staff in the school have assisted ICT in the design and creation of back-up portals during the May/June 2020 exams. Such involvement is important for us as a school because it demonstrates that we are not only theoretical practitioners but can apply our knowledge in practical and useful ways in support of the larger university community. Going forward, we certainly see ourselves playing a bigger role in addressing the many challenges that exist internally and externally," he affirms.

Mamba adds that CSET is committed to support Unisa on various fronts. "We, through the School of Computing, have played a key role in assisting students and staff to mitigate challenges experienced during last academic year’s sudden fully online exam. CSET provided solutions that made a success of a first-of-kind-exam in the world. I’m proud to say that CSET rose to meet and resolve challenges imposed on the university due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We will continue to advise, assist, and help resolve issues of the larger university community," he concludes.

How the app works

* By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

* Lead and teaser graphics adapted from image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Publish date: 2021/03/26