Forever in Touch: Central University of Technology and ConnectYard Case Study
Approximately 20,000 students are enrolled in the Central University of Technology (CUT) in Bloemfontein, Free State. Including teaching and support staff, there are around 23,000 people attached to the university. That’s a lot of people who need to stay in touch and co-ordinate the day-to-day business of academia.
Even under the best of circumstances, that scale of information sharing poses a challenge: keeping the student body informed of courses, grades, events, etc. Now factor in a global pandemic and the need for students to isolate and study from home, and you have the recipe for a complete communications breakdown.
The university needed an urgent solution to bridge the communications gap between lecturers and students, who were no longer on campus due to COVID-19 restrictions. The need for reliable two-way communication that could be tracked and monitored was crucial to CUT’s operations – missed messages could be damaging to academic careers!
The university’s existing learning management system (LMS) functioned through student email accounts, but these are not always the most reliable channel: emails can go unread for days, be drowned out by clutter, or be inadvertently consigned to spam, never to be seen again.
This can make it difficult to share critical information with students. Additionally, it was impossible to track whether messages had been read/received, leaving lecturers in the dark regarding their communications.
What was needed was an instant messaging service that could track and record communications between lecturers and students across multiple platforms and could be seamlessly integrated into the university’s existing LMS, BlackBoard.
ConnectYard is a student engagement and analytics platform that allows all an academic institution’s faculty and staff to easily message students through the most widely used communications platforms, such as WhatsApp, SMS, or personal email. ConnectYard fully integrates and functions within an institution’s existing LMS.
TTRO thus facilitated the implementation of ConnectYard into BlackBoard, expanding the LMS’s potential without limiting its capabilities, turning the system into a two-way instant messaging platform.
Lecturers can send messages through the LMS, but CUT students receive it on their preferred platform (overwhelmingly WhatsApp). Students are then able to reply directly via WhatsApp rather than email. ConnectYard tracks and records these interactions so lecturers can view all communications through the LMS; as well as see reports/analytics on who has read which messages.
Privacy is of prime importance to ConnectYard and is always maintained as there is no sharing of personal information such as cellphone numbers.
This multi-platform instant messaging integration into BlackBoard helped keep the university functioning at peak efficiency despite COVID-19 restrictions and has continued to add value even as CUT adopts a hybrid model of on-campus and at-home learning.
According to an on-campus survey among staff members regarding ConnectYard, The majority of staff (63.3%) reported using the platform “always” or “most of the time”, while 75.7% found the platform “easy” or “very easy” to use.
“Staff find that communication is much easier, and ConnectYard gives them a real peace of mind when it comes to knowing whether students have received critical messages or not. The instant feedback provides a sense of comfort and relief,” said CUT learning designer Leanri van Heerden.
The survey showed a fairly even split between what features staff found most valuable: 28.17% appreciated have all their messages in one place; 26.76% found WhatsApp integration to be the most useful feature; 25.35% were glad to be able to see who had read their messages; and 19.72% favoured email integration.
One survey respondent said that ConnectYard helped with the transparency of their communications between students, allowing everyone to see when a question has been asked and answered. Another said ConnectYard had proven invaluable given the lack of face-to-face lessons during COVID-19 restrictions, especially knowing who has received and read messages.
By integrating ConnectYard into BlackBoard to provide a broader communications platform, TTRO solved for the problem posed by COVID-19 restrictions: creating a constant link between CUT and students studying at home and allowing the university to continue its operations without interruption.
“We’ve had an incredibly positive experience working with TTRO. The background support has been invaluable and constant and of a very high quality,” said Johan Badenhorst, deputy director for e-learning and educational technology at CUT. ”TTRO has acted as a critical link between CUT and ConnectYard, with no problem too small to be tackled quickly and efficiently.”
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